PA boss: Lisbon to make EU ‘real entity on global stage’

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Today’s entry into force of the Lisbon Treaty should help the European Union to become “a real entity on the global stage,” Elaine Cruikshanks, CEO of the Brussels arm of public affairs firm Hill & Knowlton, told EURACTIV in an interview.

Elaine Cruikshanks is CEO of the Brussels arm of public affairs firm Hill & Knowlton.

She was speaking to Andrew Williams.

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

To read an article based on this interview dealing with the EU’s ‘top jobs’, please click here.

To read another article dealing with the Lisbon Treaty’s policy impact, please click here.

The Lisbon Treaty enters into force on 1 December 2009. What changes do you expect in the first weeks or months? What other changes can be expected in the longer term? 

The first weeks/months will mainly be dominated by the fact that the new Commission needs to settle in. New commissioners and new cabinet members will have to find their way around the dossiers; get to know the main players inside and outside the EU institutions on those dossiers; etc. 

Also, the recently appointed EU president and EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs will take up their new jobs, put together their staff and get to grips with their dossiers. 

All candidates (with the exception of the president of the Council) will also have to pass hearings in the European Parliament. Therefore, a good deal of their time in the coming weeks/months will be dominated by preparations for this. 

We will also see new European Commission departments or departments with redefined portfolios being created. In the longer run, we can hopefully expect a more streamlined and more active European foreign policy, which will help the EU to be perceived as a real entity on the global stage. 

One third-country ambassador indicated at a lunch I attended that he is looking forward to more continuity and consistency from the EU as a result of the innovation of a Council president. 

What are the policy areas where you expect the most change to occur? By contrast, what are the policy areas where you don’t expect much to happen as a result of the treaty’s entry into force? 

I would expect the EU to become more vocal on the issue of fundamental rights. We understand that the next Commission will put in place a separate directorate for this. 

But one of the most relevant changes is likely to occur in the field of justice and home affairs, to which the Community method will apply (e.g. qualified majority voting in the Council on proposals made by the Commission; enhanced role of the European Parliament). 

The environmental area, including sustainable development and climate change, is the other big sector where in my view the treaty will bring most changes. 

With the Treaty of Lisbon, combating climate change on an international level becomes a specific objective of EU environmental policy. I would therefore expect the EU to act in a more coherent and proactive way to achieve binding environmental targets on the international scene. 

On the other hand, I do not think that the treaty will bring fundamental changes to competition policy, for instance, or for financial services. The EU’s competences in this field are well-established, and it is making good use of these. Changes to the regulatory landscape, in particular in financial services, are happening but not as a result of the Lisbon Treaty. 

The Lisbon Treaty creates the new role of a double-hatted EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs, who is also a vice-president of the European Commission. How different will Catherine Ashton’s role be from that of Javier Solana? Should lobbyists regard this function as part of the European Commission or part of the Council? What are the implications for interest representation? 

The previous High Representative assisted the Council in foreign policy matters, through contributing to the formulation, preparation and implementation of policy decisions. He acted solely on behalf of the Council, representing the EU member states, in conducting political dialogue with third parties. However, the six-monthly rotating presidency remained in charge of chairing the External Relations Council, of representing the Union in CFSP [Common Foreign and Security Policy] matters, of implementing the decisions taken and for expressing the EU position internationally. 

The new EU High Representative will have a much more structured function and take on functions from the rotating presidency. For starters, she will chair the Foreign Relations Council, represent the EU on CFSP matters and express the EU position on the international scene. 

At the same time, she will also take on the duties of the external relations commissioner and be a full member (and even a vice-president) of the European Commission. 

And last but not least, she will head the European External Action Service, the EU’s foreign office. This is a service separate from the Commission and the Council. Its staff will be drawn from the Council, the Commission and national diplomatic services. The current diplomatic representations of the Commission in third countries will fall under Catherine Ashton’s authority. Therefore, she will have much wider competences than Javier Solana ever had. 

As to whether lobbyists should regard this function as part of the European Commission or as part of the Council, I would say: both. This is the novelty. This function is new and distinct from any other function at EU level. Ashton will be a full member of the Commission. At the same time, she will chair meetings of EU foreign ministers. 

For lobbyists, it means that when approaching her, they will have to take into account the Commission’s position on a specific dossier as well as that of the majority of member states. She will not represent the Commission or member states, but both. 

As always, however, the real effectiveness and power of the post will depend on what the incumbent makes of the job. Solana made his position comparatively powerful by the force of his personality and efficacy, rather than on the basis of the title and competences he was given. 

How do you expect roles to be shared between the High Representative and the new permanent president of the European Council? Who will determine the definitions of ‘foreign & security policies’ when nothing is written down in the Lisbon Treaty? 

The new permanent president has a different mandate. He has to coordinate the work of the European Council – that is: the heads of state and government. While this will entail a certain degree of external representation, the exact separation of duties between the two will largely depend on their personalities and the kind of common understanding they will develop of their respective functions. 

I would expect Herman van Rompuy to represent the EU only at international summits attended by heads of state and government. Ashton would probably attend external meetings at ministerial level. 

The treaty gives a legal personality to the EU. Should we be thrilled? What will that change? 

It is true that the Treaty of Lisbon gives the EU a legal personality. This means that the single EU will be able to act under international law, mainly by concluding international agreements and through action in international organisations: something it was not allowed to do until now. 

However, there is a substantial caveat to that: the CFSP, which remains subject to a separate set of provisions and essentially retains its ‘pillar’ status. As I understand it, it remains unclear whether the EU will be able to conclude international agreements that contain elements of the CFSP. 

The treaty gives the European Parliament extra decision-making powers under co-decision, resulting in a more even distribution of influence between the Commission, the Parliament and the Council. How will this affect interest groups? Will re-balancing the influence of the main EU institutions require more iteration of policy positions? 

Possibly yes. As the Parliament gains more influence under Lisbon, this institution also becomes increasingly important for interest groups. As it gains more power to block or drive certain policy initiatives, it also becomes a force that interest groups have to reckon with even more than before. 

This means that they will have to adapt their messaging to the Parliament in fields they were perhaps not used to before (e.g. agriculture). Reaching out and discussing policy matters with MEPs is very different to speaking to Commission officials. You have to adapt to your audience. While your messages and position might not change, you will have to ensure that institutional, committee, political, national and local agendas are taken into consideration. 

Having said that, the Parliament is already a key actor on most policy measures and most interest groups have already interacted with MEPs. It’s just that more policy areas are now subject to this co-decision procedure and therefore [lobbyists] need to be even more active with the Parliament than before. 

Subsidiarity moves from being a principle to become a procedure under Lisbon, in that national parliaments will in theory gain a ‘yellow card’ facility to halt or query Commission initiatives that seem too intrusive. How do you expect this potential blocking power to be exercised by national parliaments? 

Rather restrictively. I would expect the Commission to work in close cooperation with member-state governments when defining new policy measures or proposing new legislation. 

In most member states, the political colours of the governments reflect the political majorities in the parliaments. It is likely to remain the exception that a national parliament would try to block a Commission initiative unless the government is in favour of this too. 

However, this will mean that governments will probably have to work with ‘their’ parliaments much more closely than they have done up to now, and keep them informed as to what is happening in Brussels to avoid them trying to block initiatives from the outset. 

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