New EU treaty enters into force, sparking reform

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The European Union’s Lisbon Treaty comes into force today (1 December), bringing to life the bloc’s plans to overhaul its institutions and gain a greater role on the world stage.

“The Treaty of Lisbon puts citizens at the centre of the European project. I’m delighted that we now have the right institutions to act and a period of stability, so that we can focus all our energy on delivering what matters to our citizens,” European Commission President José Manuel Barroso said in a statement.

The treaty increases the powers of the European Parliament and make EU decision-making less unwieldy. It creates an EU president and enhances the powers of its foreign policy chief, who will oversee a new diplomatic corps. 

Supporters say Lisbon lays the foundations for the EU’s efforts to have influence in the new world order after the rise of emerging powers such as China in the global economic crisis. 

Critics say the EU has already undermined that aim by struggling to win the backing of all 27 member states for the treaty, which took eight years to negotiate and ratify, and by choosing low-key figures as president and foreign affairs chief. All sides agree change will be slow.

Much depends on how the EU’s new leaders define their jobs in the coming years and the willingness of member governments to put European needs above narrow national interests. 

“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.” 

Institutional innovations

The treaty creates the post of president of the Council of EU leaders for a renewable 2.5-year term. EU heads of state and government have chosen Belgian Prime Minister Herman Van Rompuy for the role, which he will take up on 1 January 2010.

The EU’s high representative for foreign affairs gains new powers and will head a new EU foreign service. EU leaders have selected Briton Catherine Ashton for the role, which she starts as the treaty goes into force even though she requires the approval of the European Parliament. The high representative answers to EU governments but is also a vice-president of the European Commission and manages the EU executive’s external aid budget.

The Eurogroup of finance ministers from countries that use the euro currency is formalised for the first time and must elect a chairman for a renewable 2.5-year term. 

The European Court of Justice will be given more power by being allowed to rule on whether national legislation on justice and home affairs is compatible with EU laws, except for Britain and Ireland, which secured opt-outs.

The European Commission, the EU’s executive, will have fewer members from 2014. Each of the EU’s 27 nations now appoints a commissioner but the size will be capped at two thirds of the number of member states. 

The number of seats in the European Parliament will be increased to 751 from 736.

Majority voting kicks in 

EU decision-making will continue to be based on weighted voting as agreed in the 2000 Nice Treaty until 2014.

After that, voting will be based on a “double majority” system requiring 55% of member states representing 65% of the EU population to pass a decision. 

From 2014 to 2017 any country can ask to revert to the old rules in any vote. States just short of a blocking minority may invoke a mechanism to delay EU decisions for several months.

The treaty allows decision-making in more policy areas by majority voting, notably in justice and home affairs. Foreign and defence policy, tax matters and EU budget and revenue decisions will continue to require unanimity. 

Britain and Ireland won the right to opt out of closer police and justice cooperation, but not to stop other member states moving ahead without them. 

National parliaments will be given a say in drafting EU laws. They will review draft proposals, and if a third of them reject one, the European Commission will have to change it. 

More rights and clarity for citizens

The treaty gives binding force to an existing Charter of Fundamental Rights in all member states, except Britain and Poland, which won opt-outs. 

The new provision will require EU institutions to respect citizens’ civil, political economic or social rights.

A new right of Citizens’ Initiative will enable groups who can muster one million signatures to call upon the European Commission to put forward new policy proposals, thus creating citizens’ participation in EU decision-making.

National parliaments  gain an increased role in EU decision-making, with the treaty giving them eight weeks in which to argue their case if they feel a draft law oversteps European Union authority.

More cooperation on policies

The treaty has important provisions in a number of new policy areas, reinforcing the EU’s ability to fight international cross-border crime, illegal immigration, and trafficking of women, children, drugs and arms. 

The treaty introduces as objectives a common energy policy and fighting climate change. Strengthening the EU’s role on climate change will mean that Europe continues to take the lead in combating global warming.

New provisions ensuring that the energy market functions well, in particular with regards to energy supply, and that energy efficiency and savings are achieved, as well as the development of new and renewable energy sources. 

The Lisbon Treaty steps up the EU’s social objectives. It provides that, in all its policies and actions, the EU will take into account the promotion of 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 at boosting the EU’s ability to respond to threats to the security of European citizens.

Member states have a NATO-style mutual defence clause under which EU countries react jointly to any attack or natural disaster.

Last but not least, the treaty introduces a formal possibility for a country to leave the EU under negotiated terms.

(EURACTIV with Reuters.)

"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.


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After eight years of struggle and soul-searching, the European Union's reform treaty comes into force today. 

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.

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. 

The Czech Republic last month became the last of the 27 EU member states to ratify the treaty, which is designed to give the bloc stronger leadership, a more effective foreign policy and a smoother decision-making system (EURACTIV 03/11/09).

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