BY MATTHIAS KETTEMANN
In seven days, the European Union will take a big step forward. After a painful process that overshadowed European policy debates for years, the Lisbon Treaty, intended to overhaul the Union’s institutional infrastructure, will most likely be ratified by Vaclav Klaus, the Czech Republic’s Euroskeptic president, at the EU summit in Brussels. Klaus is the last one to hold out. 26 of the 27 member states have already ratified the treaty, some of them as far back as last year.
Faced with enormous pressure from other EU member states, notably from French President Nicolas Sarkozy, the unpredictable Czech leader indicated his willingness to ratify the Lisbon Treaty, provided that the Czech Republic is allowed to opt out of certain provisions, including the binding Fundamental Rights Charter (Slovakia’s Prime Minister Robert Fico has also taken up this idea). President Klaus expressed his conviction that the treaty was not “a good thing in Europe – for freedom in Europe and for the Czech Republic”. When asked by a Czech newspaper whether political considerations had influenced his behavior, Klaus admitted: “It is true that I have next to me a personal letter written personally by [British Conservative Party leader David] Cameron from July which is suggesting [to hold out], but I cannot wait until the British election and I will not.”
Provided they win, David Cameron’s Conservatives have vowed to hold a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, which would be a sure way of sinking it. But as it stands now, the Lisbon Treaty will enter into force on January 1, 2010, despite a proliferation of myths on its contents. It is time to dispel some of these myths and to clarify its main points.
The Lisbon Treaty amends the current EU and EC treaties, but does not replace them. It aims primarily at providing a more democratic, transparent and effective decision-making framework.
Under the Lisbon treaty, the role of the European Parliament is strengthened. The Parliament receives new powers over EU legislation, including the EU budget and international agreements. The so-called “co-decision procedure” will make the Parliament an equal partner of the Council, representing Member States, for almost all of EU legislation. National parliaments will also play a larger role in EU decision-making trough a new monitoring mechanism to ensure subsidiarity, or the principle that the Union can only act when local action to solve a problem is insufficient. Through the “Citizens’ Initiative”, one million citizens from a certain number of Member States will be able to request the Commission formulate policy proposals. The Lisbon Treaty also recognizes the right of each Member State to withdraw unilaterally from the Union.
Importantly, the Treaty of Lisbon gives binding force to the provisions of the Charter of Fundamental Rights, which includes innovative economic and social rights provisions and covers all EU actions, including member states implementation legislation.
The treaty also provides for more effective and efficient decision-making in EU institutions. What is known as “qualified majority voting” will be extended to cover most policy areas governed by the Council. This will mean that, after 2014, the passage of a legislative act will require a “double majority” of Member States and EU citizens. Thus 55% of the Member States representing at least 65% of the Union’s population will have to unite behind an act to for it to be passed in the Council.
Importantly, the Treaty of Lisbon ensures institutional stability by creating the function of President of the European Council. The President will be elected for two and a half years (Tony Blair is the current front-runner) and will be the one to pick up the proverbial red phone, should President Obama decide to call.
The Treaty also extends the Union’s competences to certain sensitive policy areas including combating terrorism and tackling crime, and, to some extent, energy policy, public health, civil protection, climate change, services of general interest, research, space, territorial cohesion, commercial policy, humanitarian aid, sport, tourism and administrative cooperation.
The Lisbon Treaty will also ensure that the role of the EU as an actor on the global stage is enhanced. A new High Representative for the Union in Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, who is – at the same time – Vice-President of the Commission, will ensure the visibility of EU external action, even though his interaction with the EU President is yet to be defined. The High Representative will be supported by a new European External Action Service, an EU diplomatic corps.
Contrary to some popular myths, especially rampant in Ireland before the its first referendum on the Treaty, and in the United Kingdom, the new Treaty does not impinge on the neutrality of member states, does not put public services at risk, does not weaken the social achievements of member states, does not change Irish or Polish laws on abortion, nor does it take away the British pound, change Czech laws on German-held property after WWII, change tax laws, or create a European super-state, or a European army poised to strike in conflict zones, take away member states’ right to formulate their foreign policy within the framework of prior treaty commitments, or aim to take away Security Council seats of Permanent Members.
Unfortunately, the Lisbon Treaty will also not make the EU treaties easier to read. But, if they were, who would need lawyers?
Matthias C. Kettemann is an LL.M. student from Austria.