Professor: EU works well even without Lisbon Treaty


The EU continues to function just as well as before enlargement, according to Professor Anand Menon from the European Research Institute at the University of Birmingham. Speaking to in an interview, he said an important innovation of the Lisbon Treaty is the “yellow card procedure”, which would give national parliaments a say on draft Commission proposals. 

Professor Anand Menon has worked on various aspects of European politics for some 15 years. He is the author of a recently published book entitled ‘Europe: The State of the Union

To read a shortened version of this interview, please click here 

What is the most important innovation of the Lisbon Treaty compared to the current institutional setting? 

There are some important innovations, but we cannot be sure how they’ll work. Nobody knows how the permanent Presidency of the European Council will work. The external service could be an important innovation, if it is professional, recruited on the principle of the merit, without regard to nationality. For me the most interesting innovation is the so-called “yellow card procedure”, whereby national parliaments get a say, however limited, on draft Commission proposals. 

I do not know how the system will work, but I think it is a welcome step in connecting national politicians with what is going on in the EU. This is an idea that could be developed over the years and could provide a much-needed link between the national and the European level. 

You also mean ‘Europeanising’ the national political debates? 

Yes, partly to Europeanise national political debates but also partly to make it clear to the national politicians and their publics that the European Union is something that they are very much involved in shaping, that national politicians are very much involved in the EU decision-making. In other words, there is no centre that imposes things on member states but, rather, the Union is organically linked to national political systems. In an age when people are very skeptical about Europe, this kind of link is very important. 

If you look at the political debate in the EU, often you see that the European institutions are likened to the national ones – sometimes with fears, sometimes with expectations. Don’t you think that this just does not fit? 

I think that a lot of people fundamentally misunderstand the nature of the European Union and fundamentally misunderstand the limits of this sort of co-operation between the nation states. And that I think is dangerous. Ultimately, one of the problems we have is a lack of faith in the supranational institutions. If you listen to political rhetoric in the member states, you find lots of things said about the undemocratic nature of the European Central Bank or the European Commission. 

But the principal thing is that the central institutions of the European Union have to be trusted by all members and seen as impartial by all members. Otherwise the things that the EU had already achieved – notably the market – will be put under threat. It is a unique system – it is not like a nation state and it is not like a traditional international organisation – which blends national interests and the European interest. 

Sometimes we hear that without a Lisbon Treaty, the only alternative is some kind of disintegration to the core and periphery, the creation of a multi-speed Europe or some kind of catastrophe. How would you comment? 

I was one of the people writing and arguing against the enlargement to Central and Eastern Europe because I thought it would lead to gridlock. I was totally wrong. Even under the procedures of the Nice Treaty, the enlarged European Union is functioning fine. Insofar as there have been disputes about specific pieces of legislation, these have been between old member states. There would have been rows about Iraq even without enlargement. The same goes for the Services Directive. These were debates dividing the old member states, not dividing “old” and “new”. 

For me, what the figures about voting in the Council indicate is that the EU has not slowed down at all. It is producing the legislation with the same speed as before. There isn’t an institutional crisis to be addressed. Or at least there isn’t an institutional crisis that is more serious than what existed prior of enlargement. 

Still there are some areas where there is a clear conflict between those who want to integrate more, and those who want to keep power on the national level. Take defence policy, as an example? 

I don’t think that there are many member states that want defence policy to be more supranational. There are several that want ESDP to be more effective and efficient. There is a provision in the Lisbon Treaty that would allow some states to move ahead in the defence policy. As of now we have a situation whereby the EU assembles missions comprising of those nation states that want to participate. So we have that to some degree already. 

I think what has been striking on the ESDP is the extent to which all member states want to contribute something. I think all member states have pledged to contribute something to one of the new battle groups. While there is a potential for a smaller group of member states to take a lead, no member state is particularly keen on being left on the sidelines. 

Certainly, there is a tension in the ESDP between the bigger member states – particularly France and the UK who want to take a lead – and the smaller member states who oppose that kind of leadership. That is a debate that we will have to have. But as the situation stands now, everybody has committed, everybody has a say on whether to take on a mission, and ultimately everybody can decide to participate in a mission. 

But let’s take another example. The other big issue from the British perspective has always been the Eurogroup – to what extent it will develop to some kind of a leadership group in the Union. That has been one fear quite often expressed. The UK is, I would argue, doing quite well in the European Union now in terms of shaping its nature, but that might cease to be the case if non-membership of the Eurozone leads to a loss of influence over key debates. As of yet I see no signs of this happening. And one of the reasons why it is not happening is because the Eurogroup itself is internally divided. As long as that is the case, Britain can rest easy. 

Let’s go back to enlargement. How has it affected the EU? 

Diversity is good, especially if you view the EU in instrumental terms. If you see the EU as some kind of a homogenising project that tries to become some kind of a nation state, then diversity may be bad. And what is the impact of enlargement? Well, take the simple fact that since enlargement EU GDP has become larger than US GDP. That matters in the sense that it increases EU influence in, for example, international trade negotiations. 

In terms of decision-making, there is no evidence that it has slowed down. Interestingly, evidence from systems such as the United States suggests that when a system enlarges, more power tends to migrate to the centre. The central institutions play a greater role – albeit just an informational or coordination role. 

Let me give you one example. British Presidencies have traditionally not relied much on the Brussels institutions for support. During the 2005 Presidency, there was far more contact between London and the Council Secretariat General. The reason? Because in an EU of 25, even large member states struggle with the complexity of the work. It just became too complicated to co-ordinate so many member states, or to anticipate their positions on all dossiers. And the Secretariat General is an important source of such information. 

In this sense, even without Treaty changes you might see that the member states will start to lean more towards the central institutions. Consequently, the system will continue to function. That might be a hopelessly optimistic point of view, but it seems to me that this is the way the system reacts. It might also mean that the long-fought battle over the Lisbon Treaty was not as necessary as we thought. 

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