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.”
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.)