The Lisbon Treaty: My Take

I promised a post on the Treaty of Lisbon a couple of days ago, so here it is.

What is the Lisbon Treaty? The Treaty is the latest in a series of Treaties re-jigging the EU’s internal arrangements, both how it is organised and what it does. The EU has a sort of perpetual revolution in these matters, with a new major treaty roughly every five years starting in 1992; part of the deal this time is that they think they have nailed down enough in the Lisbon Treaty to keep things going on this basis for a bit longer.

Is it a big deal if it doesn’t get passed? Actually, not really. In my view, one of the mistakes made by both opponents and supporters of the Treaty is to over-sell its urgency. The changes it proposes are indeed mostly improvements, and certainly will make life easier for those who have to operate within European politics. But if it’s not passed, the EU will continue much as it has done since 2004, with one major wrinkle which I’ll mention in a moment. Voting against it doesn’t kill the EU, or globalisation, or anything like that; it just perpetuates the existing machinery.

How do we vote against it? The Treaty has to be ratified by the parliaments of all 27 member states, and by the European Parliament. In Ireland there has to be a popular referendum as well, but it is unlikely that there will be one anywhere else. This is because the Lisbon Treaty is the successor of another Treaty which was rather more ambitious in rhetoric (if not actually in effect) which failed in referenda in France and the Netherlands.

So most of us don’t get to vote on it. Isn’t that a swiz? No, not really; the swiz was the attempt to sell the failed Treaty of a couple of years ago as a grand new project, which would somehow lock in public commitment into the European Union, when in fact it didn’t do much more than rearrange the furniture.

What’s that wrinkle you mentioned? Ah yes. The wrinkle is that the current rules – the Nice Treaty – only set up the EU structures for 27 member states (as there have been since January last year) and until 2009 (which is now next year). Of course, if push comes to shove, and the Lisbon Treaty doesn’t pass, they will find a way of muddling through for the post-2009 institutions and for admitting the 28th and so on member states, but it will probably be a messy and hasty solution to a problem around which they have already negotiated twice.

What about foreign affairs? At present the European Commission (which is a separate body) does some foreign affairs stuff, and the European Council (which is the assembly of member states) also does some foreign affairs stuff; broadly speaking, the Commission has the money, and the Council Secretariat executes policy as agreed by the 27 members. The Lisbon Treaty puts both of these sets of activities under the supervision of the same person, who will also chair the regular meetings of foreign ministers. I was sceptical about this at first, since it seemed to me that if both the people currently doing two jobs are busy people, maybe combining the two workloads to a single job isn’t the best idea. But I’m in favour now – I think it will lead to better joined-up policy, and more visibility for the EU as the EU abroad in areas where it needs to be seen that way.

Doesn’t this mean the EU can over-ride our country’s foreign policy? No, not really; the national vetoes remain, and member states can’t be penalised for disagreeing with the EU; though once the policy decision has been unanimously taken, the implementation of that decision is no longer subject to unanimity (though in practice any sufficiently concerned member state will always find a way to block). On top of that the Lisbon Treaty actually introduces a mechanism where your country can withdraw from the EU if it doesn’t like it any more, which is probably an improvement. (So, by a bizarre flipping of the argument, Europhobes should probably vote in favour of it.)

What about the European army? Doesn’t exist, and won’t exist. The EU has a modest peace-keeping capability, but can’t do anything especially militarily vigorous – can’t even be as militarily aggressive as the UN let alone NATO. The Lisbon Treaty doesn’t make a lot of difference in this area anyway. There’s so much entrenchment of vital interests here – essentially, tension between the three poles of the British, the French and the traditional neutrals – that there is going to be no surprising development.

What’s this business about qualified majorities? In the EU, countries can sometimes find themselves voting on legislation; in some areas, but not all, there is a voting system of insane complexity, thrashed out at 3 am during the Nice negotiations in December 2000, to determine whether the legislation can pass or not. The Lisbon Treaty will replace this with the rule that 55% of the countries representing 65% of the EU’s population have to be in favour (subject to a few extra details), which has the merit of being simple to understand. Of course, most of the important decisions taken this way are also subjected to open debate in the European Parliament.

Is it more or less democratic? Hmm, a difficult one to call, which in the end depends on what you mean by democracy. There will be a new consultation mechanism for national parliaments to have their say on EU legislation, but even the Treaty’s most fervent supporters look rather shifty when asked directly if this will have much practical effect. It does shift a number of policy areas from unanimous agreement to qualified majority voting, which normally also means a more open procedure involving the European Parliament, but not a lot of these are important ones.

What about electing the President of the European Commission? A daft idea, if you ask me, which was rightly dropped at an early stage of deliberations. It’s not at all self-evident that the US presidential election system is a Good Thing, and even less self-evident that it should be imported anywhere else. Electing the Commission President will yet further muddy the waters of to whom he or she is accountable, and will give him or her a spuriously greater legitimacy than the heads of government of the member states, while at the same time creating a mechanism for vast amounts of money to be spent on an election whose outcome doesn’t really matter that much. The EU works so much as a system of grand coalitions that endowing one particular set of policy concerns with a popular mandate won’t actually make any improvement.

Does the Lisbon Treaty make the EU more powerful? Yes, though not a lot. Tax, social policy, defence, foreign policy and revision of the EU treaties themselves all remain with the national veto intact. The biggest area that is shifted from unanimity to qualified majority voting by Lisbon is police and judicial co-operation in criminal matters, though there the UK has an opt-out clause, ie doesn’t have to enforce EU legislation it doesn’t like. The treaty also makes three new policy areas formally shared competences between the member states and the EU: these are territorial cohesion (which is EU-speak for a combination of planning and regional development policy), energy, and space. The Treaty does allow for more policy areas to be shifted to qualified majority voting in the future, but there has to be unanimity to give up unanimity, if you see what I mean. The Treaty also entrenches the existing commitments of member states on climate change and fighting global warming.

What about this new Presidential position that Tony Blair is interested in? Mainly chrome, in my view. There will be a single person who acts as President of the European Council for a two and a half year term, chosen by the member states. This means chairing meetings and managing the agenda, but I am inclined to doubt that the member states will allow this person to become particularly powerful – certain the executive means at his or her disposal are dwarfed by the Commission, which is in turn dwarfed by any medium-size municipal council. I find this one of the least attractive parts of the Treaty, mainly because I think it will inject another personality into the political superstructure without really allowing that person to do much more than sit there and look pretty.

The noted historian Andrew Roberts forecasts Slovakian troops in Buckingham Palace, Gibraltar and the Falklands handed over, good men imprisoned for using Imperial measurements… Yawn. One of the most depressing things I’ve come to realise is how poisonous the EU debate has become in the UK, and how far removed from reality. In the run-up to the negotiations, Tony Blair made much of his determination to prevent the crossing of Britain’s “red lines”, none of which were ever in fact in danger of being crossed, not that you would have known that from the British press. The absurd level of vitriol directed at this Treaty, which as I hope I’ve made clear is a fairly modest bit of institional adaptation, makes me despair for British political culture.

One thought on “The Lisbon Treaty: My Take

  1. 2nd paragraph says Londonderry.

    Seems the person who wrote the headline, didn’t read the actual piece.

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