The ‘Treaty of Lisbon’


After eight years of struggle and soul-searching, the European Union's reform treaty came into force on 1 December 2009. EU leaders believe the Lisbon Treaty will rejuvenate the decision-making apparatus of the EU institutions, making the functioning of the 27-member Union more efficient and democratic. 

Following the failed referenda on the draft EU Constitutional Treaty in France and the Netherlands in 2005, a "period of reflection" on the future of Europe was launched to reconnect citizens with the European project and to decide the fate of the constitution (see Constitutional Treaty: The reflection period).

At their summit in June 2007, EU leaders managed to overcome the institutional impasse and agree on the outlines of a new EU treaty put forward by German Chancellor Angela Merkel to replace the EU constitution. Heads of state and government signed up to a detailed mandate for an Intergovernmental Conference (IGC), which found agreement on the text of the Reform Treaty in October 2007. EU leaders signed the new treaty at a special summit in Lisbon on 13 December 2007.

Final ratification of the treaty, which EU leaders hoped would take place in early 2009, was thrown into doubt when Ireland rejected the text by popular referendum in June 2008 (EURACTIV 13/06/08).

To allow Ireland to hold a second referendum, EU leaders in December 2008 agreed on a package of Irish demands, including the retention of one commissioner for each EU member state (EURACTIV 12/12/08).

For months, the fate of the treaty hung in the balance as Europe held its breath ahead of Ireland's second referendum. 

On 2 October 2009, Irish voters approved the Lisbon Treaty by a margin of two to one, lifting the EU out of institutional limbo after years of democratic setbacks and blockage (EURACTIV 03/10/09)

All eyes then turned to Eurosceptic Czech President Václav Klaus, who refused to sign the treaty until the country's Constitutional Court had given the text its green light (EURACTIV 24/08/09 and 03/11/2009)

The treaty re-writes the EU's basic rules, first enshrined in the 1957 Treaty of Rome, in response to some of the criticisms of its member states and their citizens. 

Key institutional innovations:

  • double majority rule for Council decisions (55% of member states and 65% of the EU's population need to support a proposed EU legislation to pass by qualified majority). However, due to fierce Polish opposition, the new voting system will only apply from 2014, with an extra transition period until 2017 when additional provisions making it easier to block a decision will apply (the Ioannina clause);
  • Poland managed to include the so-called Ioannina clause in a protocol. This allows for a minority of member states to delay key decisions taken by qualified majority in the Council "within a reasonable time", even if they do not dispose of a blocking minority. However, the clause is not included in the actual treaty text, which means that member states can alter this provision without having to go through the cumbersome procedure of treaty change;
  • permanent Council president to chair EU summits for a two-and-a-half year renewable term instead of a six-month rotation;
  • the post of a 'double-hatted' High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, replacing current EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs Javier Solana and the external relations commissioner. Due to reservations on the part of the UK, the label 'EU foreign minister' was dropped;
  • reducing the number of MEPs to a maximum of 750 (with a minimum of six and a maximum of 96 per country), but Italy managed to squeeze in an extra MEP, putting it back on equal footing with the UK (73 seats each; 74 for France). The new '750 plus one' formula assumes that the Parliament president will not exercise his right to vote;
  • strengthening national parliaments by giving them the right to raise objections against draft EU legislation (so-called orange card) as a reinforced control mechanism for the principle of subsidiarity;
  • single legal personality for the EU, and;
  • an exit clause making it possible for members to leave the EU.

Important policy changes:

  • Extending qualified majority voting to 40 policy areas, especially those relating to asylum, immigration, police co-operation and judicial co-operation in criminal matters;  
  • references to new challenges, such as climate change and energy solidarity, especially addressing concerns by Lithuania and Poland about heavy energy dependence on Russia,
  • new provisions ensuring that the energy market functions well, in particular with regard to energy supply, making sure that energy efficiency and savings are achieved and ensuring that new and renewable energy sources are developed ;
  • new horizontal social clause  ensuring that, in all its policies and actions, the EU takes into account promoting a high level of employment. The key role of economic services such as public transport, telecommunications, postal services, gas and electricity supply is recognised;
  • new provisions on civil protection, humanitarian aid and public health aim to boost the EU's ability to respond to threats to the security of European citizens, and;
  • applying new opt-in/out provisions for the UK to some new policy provisions, such as policies on border checks, asylum and immigration, judicial co-operation in civil matters, judicial cooperation in criminal matters and police co-operation. 

Items dropped from rejected EU Constitution:

  • The 'constitution' label was discarded. The Lisbon Treaty reverts to the traditional method of treaty change, amending both the EC and EU Treaties;
  • reference to the symbols and anthem of the EU;
  • the full text of the Charter of Fundamental Rights was replaced by a short cross-reference with the same legal value. However, due to strong British opposition, the Charter will not be legally binding in the UK. Poland joined the UK in asking for an opt-out of the Charter, but Ireland backed away from this option, and;
  • a reference to free and undistorted competition as a goal of the EU was taken out at France's request; French President Nicolas Sarkozy argued that competition was not an end in itself. However, this will not raise doubts over the general competition policy competences of the Commission (EURACTIV 27/06/07).


  • The Lisbon Treaty could only come into force once all 27 member states had ratified it: the final green light was given by a resounding 'ye'" in the second Irish referendum, held on 2 October 2009.
  • The Czech Republic last month (October 2009) became the last of the 27 EU member states to ratify the treaty (EURACTIV 03/11/09).

"In the 15th century Portuguese sailors used to set sail from Lisbon to explore the still uncharted waters of the world, said European Parliament President Jerzy Buzek, speaking ahead of a visit to Lisbon today (1 December). "Today we are living in a new globalised world but we Europeans have a new chart to guide us - the Lisbon Treaty."

"The Treaty of Lisbon represents an increase in democracy and efficiency in the European Union. The treaty gives a huge boost to the powers of the directly-elected European Parliament [...] The treaty gives the EU a set of tools to tackle more effectively the key concerns of citizens," Buzek added.

Joseph Daul, chairman of the European People's Party  (EPP)  group, said he wants "the Council to work more closely than in the past with the Parliament, which as of now has an equal legislative role on all subjects, including the budget".

"The Lisbon Treaty marks an important turning point in the evolution of the European institutions and the relations they will now have with each other," he added.

Speaking in Madrid, where he is engaged in two days of talks with the Spanish government - which will take over the rotating presidency of the EU in January - Socialists and Democrats (S&Dleader Martin Schulz said: "The new treaty gives people the power to push for the Europe they want. It also sweeps away Eurosceptic claims that the EU is unaccountable."

"First, elected members of the European Parliament will decide laws for Europe in conjunction with government ministers. The Parliament from today on has a new significance in people's lives," he said.

"Second, national MPs have a defined role in EU affairs and it is now up to them to exercise that responsibility fully," Schulz stressed.

"Third, through a new citizens' initiative, everyone has the opportunity to demand the drafting of legislation by presenting a million signatures in favour of a proposal," he concluded.

"It has been a long and winding road from Laeken to Lisbon but I am very pleased we have finally arrived, albeit somewhat tired and bruised from the journey," said Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe  (ALDE)  group leader Guy Verhofstadt, who started the process of revising the treaties in December 2001 at the Laeken summit as prime minister of Belgium and president-in-office of the European Union.

"The lessons learned along the way have been painful but necessary in preparing the Union for the future challenges ahead and in demonstrating that we can no longer take for granted a positive acceptance, in the minds of the public, of the value of the EU in bringing countries together in closer cooperation," Verhofstadt added.

Andrew Duff MEPALDE group spokesperson on institutional matters, said: "Today the European Union is turning an important page in its history. This is the birth of a truly parliamentary Europe. Not only does the European Parliament itself gain very significant legislative, budgetary and scrutiny powers, but the Council of Ministers gets to behave like a second chamber of the EU legislature. National parliaments, too, have a new and more important role."

"The Lisbon Treaty brings a 10 year long reform process to an end," said Greens/EFA Co-Presidents Rebecca Harms and Daniel Cohn-Bendit. "The Greens welcome this forward step in the process of European integration. The Treaty of Lisbon was the result of a long and often difficult debate on the future of Europe."

"It is groundbreaking and indispensable, even if it represents a great deal of compromise on many points," they stressed.

"The treaty will strengthen the EU at a time when it needs strengthening and at a time when the Europeans are increasingly perceived as has-beens on the world stage," said Hugo Brady of the Centre for European Reform think-tank in London.

Daniel Gros, an analyst at the Brussels-based Centre for European Policy Studies think-tank, said there would be many good organisational changes under the treaty but the bloc would not carry more weight in international diplomacy overnight. 

"It will not be a revolution," he said. "In the first years, at least, the key challenge is not so much to resolve major crises but to make the machinery work and set precedents that are useful for later."

Portuguese Prime Minister José Socrates said: "With this new treaty, Europe has overcome an impasse that lasted for several years. Europe has emerged stronger from this summit, stronger to face global issues, stronger to take its role in the world and also to increase confidence in our economy and in our citizens."

Commission President José Manuel Barroso stated: "We have a treaty that will give us now the capacity to act. Our citizens want results. They want to see in concrete terms what Europe brings them […] I believe we have a treaty that will give us now the capacity to act".

UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown said he was satisfied that his 'red lines' had been respected and that no referendum was needed on the new text: "The British national interest has been protected," he said. 

Speaking to journalists prior to the Lisbon summit, he again rejected calls for a referendum on the new text, saying it was fundamentally different from the defunct EU Constitution: "Because we have a very different document with our protocol, with our opt-ins, with our emergency breaks, with all these protections for the British national interest there is no fundamental change and that is why I believe the proper way of discussing this…is parliamentary debate."

He called on EU leaders to "move from that inward-looking institutional discussion to dealing with the major challenges of jobs, prosperity, environmental security and of course security against terrorism". 

Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi said: "We are now in a situation that recognises Italy's role in Europe. This is the end of a very long period of difficulty in European history. The EU can start again to operate in a concrete way.''

The European Trade Union Confederation  (ETUC) stated: "ETUC regrets the unambitious nature of much of the EU Reform Treaty. There was a real opportunity to revive social Europe by extending qualified majority voting and by extending the competences of the Union to control the dark side of globalisation and rampant financial capitalism. What we have instead is a series of modest adjustments to the EU’s framework of rules, which will have only a limited impact on the process of deepening Europe’s capacity to act decisively in the world."

Secretary General of the European SME employers' organisation UEAPME, Hans-Werner Müller said: "It is now time to look at the bigger picture: the Reform Treaty will increase both the room for and the speed of manoeuvre of the European institutions, and strengthen the European Union’s voice on the global arena." He added: "Europe cannot afford another slow and painful approval. EU leaders have set the ball rolling tonight – it is now up to Europe’s governments and citizens to keep up the positive momentum. This is an opportunity that cannot be missed under any circumstances."

"When you look at the detail of what has been agreed, it is clear that this is just the old EU Constitution in everything but name," Open Europe Director Neil O'Brien said. The head of the Eurosceptic UK think-tank added: "This will fool no-one. This is the same EU Constitution under a different name, and the governments must keep their promise to hold referendums."

  • June 2007: EU summit agrees detailed IGC mandate for institutional reform (EURACTIV 23/06/07).
  • July 2007: Portuguese Presidency opens Intergovernmental Conference (IGC) to draft a new EU 'Reform Treaty' (EURACTIV 24/07/07).
  • 7-8 Sept. 2007: Foreign Ministers hold Treaty talks in Portugal (EURACTIV 10/09/07).
  • 5 Oct. 2007: Legal experts present a new draft of the Treaty (EURACTIV 8/10/07).
  • 15 Oct. 2007: Foreign ministers meet ahead of Lisbon summit (EURACTIV 16/10/07).
  • 18-19 Oct. 2007: Informal EU summit in Lisbon agreed on the new Treaty text.
  • 13 Dec. 2007: EU leaders signed the Treaty in Lisbon (EURACTIV 14/12/07)
  • 17 Dec. 2007: Hungary first country to ratify the Treaty (EURACTIV 18/12/07)
  • 20 Feb. 2008: European Parliament approves treaty with 525-115 majority. 
  • 12 June 2008:  Ireland rejects Lisbon Treaty in a referendum. 
  • 18 June 2008: UK ratifies Lisbon Treaty, signalling that the EU-wide ratification process continues. 
  • 11 Dec. 2008: EU leaders agreed on a package of Irish demands, paving the way for a second referendum (EURACTIV 12/12/08).
  • 24 June 2009: EURACTIV breaks the story that the second Irish referendum will be held on 2 October 2009 (EURACTIV 24/06/09).
  • 8 Sept. 2009: Germany's Bundestag gives the treaty its final seal of approval following approval by the German Constitutional Court (EURACTIV 09/09/09).
  • 2 Oct. 2009: Second Irish referendum (EURACTIV 03/10/09)
  • 11 Nov. 2009: Czech Republic last EU country to sign Lisbon Treaty ratification (EURACTIV 03/11/09).
  • 1 Dec.: Lisbon Treaty enters into force. 

Subscribe to our newsletters