A few thoughts on the Lisbon Treaty


On 29 January 2008, Gordon Brown entertained German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, French President, Nicolas Sarkozy and Italian Prime Minister, Romano Prodi, in Downing Street.  This was Gordon Brown’s first big EU initiative, his spin doctors told the world.  After complaints by other EU states, Jose Manuel Barroso, EU Commission President, was invited – to represent the “small countries” of the EU, it was said.


Was this the way that the EU was going to be run in future, I wondered, with the big EU states agreeing positions in advance, as the five veto-wielding members of the Security Council do these days, having given up any pretence that the views of the ten temporary members of the Council matter?  If so, there would have to be a seat at the table in future for the permanent President of the Council of Ministers, a post which will be created by the Lisbon Treaty.


A permanent president

This proposition in the Treaty has been presented as a kind of tidying up exercise, made necessary by the fact that the EU has 27 members.  It is inefficient to have the presidency rotating around 27 states every six months, it is said.  In fact, the rotation is no more or less efficient with 27 states than it was with 6.  However, the drawback for big states is that they get to hold the presidency every thirteen and half years instead of every three years – and so do Luxembourg and Malta.


Now there is to be a permanent President, initially for two and a half years and renewable for a further two and a half years.  Significantly, individual states will not have a veto over who becomes President, who will be elected by qualified majority voting.


Gordon Brown could have Tony Blair imposed upon him by other states.  Blair seems to be angling for the job.  He went to the UMP conference in January at the invitation of Nicolas Sarkozy and described himself as a “socialist”, which is a sure sign that something is afoot.


The rotating presidency was a symbol that the EU, in its current and earlier forms, was an association of states with each state taking a turn at running it, while the permanent European Commission was the unifying mechanism acting for the Union as a whole.  With the appointment of a permanent President, this balance will shift away from individual states and towards the Union.


This shift will be more pronounced if the roles of President of the Council of Ministers and the President of the Commission are merged.  This is permitted under the Lisbon Treaty, which merely forbids the President of the Council from holding “a national office”, that is, a governmental position in one of the EU states.  Earlier drafts of the Constitution forbad the President of the Council from being “a member of another European institution” as well, but that bar was later removed and the President of the Commission can now be elected President of the Council.


A foreign minister

There are other ways in which the Lisbon Treaty will enhance the role of the Union at the expense of member states, notably in the area of foreign affairs.  The Constitution provided for the creation of Minister of Foreign Affairs, formed by merging the functions of the High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) and the External Relations Commissioner, the posts currently held by Javier Solana of Spain and Benita Ferrero-Waldner of Austria, respectively.  The Treaty creates a post with the same role, but is to be named the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy (HRUFASP) – which will, of course, be known as the EU foreign minister.  It’s likely that the new permanent President will also spend most of his time representing the EU in the world.  You can see why Tony Blair is angling for the Presidency.


Like the permanent President, the EU foreign minister will be appointed by qualified majority voting, and individual states won’t have a veto.  The foreign minister will be a member of the Commission and will chair meetings of EU foreign ministers in the EU General Affairs and External Relations Council.  Furthermore, when the EU has a defined policy on a subject on the agenda of the Security Council, EU states who are members of the Security Council will be obliged to request that the EU foreign minister be allowed to attend and speak for the EU.  (From this, it follows logically that there should be a single EU veto in the Security Council, instead of the UK and France having one each, but it can be guaranteed that the neither the UK nor France will agree to give up its veto).


For the first time, there is to be an EU diplomatic service – its official title is the European External Action Service – bringing together the External Relations Commissioner’s staff working in Brussels (less than 1,000) with the 5,000 or so staff in the Commission’s “delegations” around the world.


The British Government keeps saying that each state will retain a veto on foreign affairs, but that is not the whole truth.  Qualified majority voting will apply in a number of areas in foreign affairs.  For example, when the EU General Affairs and External Relations Council asks the EU foreign minister for a proposal on a particular subject, once s/he has made a proposal the Council will accept or reject the proposal by qualified majority voting.  Furthermore, all decisions with regard to the diplomatic service will be taken by qualified majority voting.


The balance between the Union and individual states has shifted in other ways as well.  The states’ right of veto has been abolished in some 60 areas.  Qualified majority voting is to be made officially the norm – the “ordinary legislative procedure”.  And the system of qualified majority voting is to be altered so that it will be more difficult for individual states to block legislation.  In future, to pass legislation at least 55% of EU states (that is, at least 15 out of the present 27) must vote for it and the states that vote for it must have at least 65% of the EU population.  The net result will be that the ability of individual states to block legislation will diminish, and the smaller the state the more it will diminish.  Other thing being equal, the influence of the larger states within the EU will rise at the expense of the smaller states.


Why has the UK retreated?

Early in the negotiations on the Constitution (which began in 2002), the UK resisted much of this ceding of states’ sovereignty to the Union.  It was particularly vociferous in defending states’ rights to an independent foreign policy, for example, it initially opposed the EU foreign minister (a) taking over the role of the External Relations Commissioner, (b) being a member of the Commission, (c) chairing the General Affairs and External Relations Council, and (d) speaking for the EU at the Security Council.  It also opposed the creation of an EU diplomatic service.  But, during the negotiation of the Constitution, the UK has retreated from all these positions.


My guess is that this retreat is a product of the fact that in recent years the EU has generally been persuaded to support US/UK foreign policy, for example, on Iran and Palestine.  In the light of this, the UK’s reluctance to cede sovereignty to the Union on foreign affairs has diminished and it has accepted that the establishment of what amounts to an EU foreign ministry and diplomatic service is necessary if the EU is to be effective in support of US/UK foreign policy.


The Lisbon Treaty is currently before the House of Commons.  Given its history of opposition to ceding sovereignty to the EU, one might have thought that the Conservative Party would be manning the barricades to resist the measures mentioned above.  But it is not.  Yes, it is opposing the Treaty, but not with the fervour one would expect given the significance of what is being proposed.  It appears that the penny has also dropped with the Conservatives that it is advantageous to Britain to have an EU foreign ministry, when there’s a good chance of Britain being in a position to drive it.


(The Conservative Party’s main attack on the Government is that the Labour Party promised, in its 2005 election manifesto, to hold a referendum on the Constitution and it is now refusing to hold a referendum on the functionally equivalent Treaty.  Since the Liberal Democrats, who also promised a referendum in their election manifesto, have also reneged on their promise, there won’t be a referendum and the Treaty will be approved by Parliament, perhaps after a hiccup or two in the House of Lords.)


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I haven’t said anything about the possible social and economic impact of the Lisbon Treaty, because I don’t know enough about those aspects of the Treaty to judge.  I cannot say whether there was real substance to the proposition advanced by the French left that the Constitution would have set the EU unequivocally on a neo-liberal economic path, which was a major reason why the French referendum on the Constitution was lost.  Certainly, Britain has no longer any reason to fear that its neo-liberal economic system is going to be subjected to regulation from Brussels.


Britain has therefore nothing to fear in domestic affairs from a more integrated EU – and it reckons it can make use of a more integrated EU in foreign affairs.  Unfortunately, small states are unlikely to stand up against Britain’s designs for the EU in foreign affairs, since their populations are unlikely to object, as they may to do to the prospect of directives from Brussels affecting their everyday life.


David Morrison

26 February 2008

Irish Political Review