PA director: National parliaments must ‘work hard’ under Lisbon

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National parliaments will need to work hard to get to grips with EU legislative proposals quickly and join forces with their counterparts elsewhere in the EU if they are to make the most of the additional scrutiny powers granted to them under the Lisbon Treaty, Caroline Wunnerlich, managing director of Fleishman-Hillard Europe, told EURACTIV in an interview. 

Caroline Wunnerlich is managing director of Fleishman-Hillard Europe. 

She was speaking to Andrew Williams.

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

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

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

From an institutional perspective, the immediate focus under Lisbon will be on the parliamentary hearings of candidate commissioners, the formation of a new and functioning European Commission in early 2010 and the creation of the European External Action Service. 

A longer term challenge for the Barroso II administration will be the design and successful application of a horizontal approach to the Commission’s vertical structure of portfolios, as called for under the EU 2020 strategy. In that respect Barroso has indicated he is reorganising his College around clusters of policy including climate change, foreign policy, competitiveness, justice and home affairs, innovation and knowledge. 

The Lisbon Treaty will bring about fundamental changes to the EU’s inter-institutional make-up and procedures and will reinforce the Union’s capacity to act through strengthened external coherence and a broadened range of internal policies. Many of these changes will be process-focused and immediate. However, other long-term changes will be determined more by forces of personality, interpretation and political will. The role and profile of the Council president is perhaps the prime example of this. 

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? 

The social element to the treaty has been reinforced with the Charter of Fundamental Rights (e.g. workers’ right to strike, workers’ right to information and consultation) becoming legally binding. Furthermore, national and European laws must, under the treaty, guarantee that social considerations are taken into account in new proposals. 

In general terms, one could argue that this emphasis could impede moves towards a more competitive internal market in the EU. However, at the same time, it could arguably create a more level-playing field in Europe for countries looking to attract business and investment. 

Whilst more policy areas under the treaty are moved to ‘first pillar’ status, key competences that matter to business (social security, taxation etc.) remain a member-state prerogative. However, important powers will move to Brussels (e.g. measures relating to the creation of uniform intellectual property rights in Europe will be taken through qualified majority voting). 

This naturally brings the European Parliament much more into play as the ‘co-decider’ with the Council of Ministers on a whole range of issues. For instance, greater parliamentary control over agricultural expenditure may have major longer-term implications for farm policy, while fisheries, transport and regional policy will all be subject to a bigger parliamentary say. 

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 as part of the Council? What are the implications for interest representation? 

Much of the popular press has been quick to label Catherine Ashton as the new “foreign minister of the European Union”. She will of course both chair the Foreign Affairs Council and also sit as vice-president in Commission meetings, thus giving her a dual role within both institutions. Moreover, Ashton is tasked with creating and leading a European diplomatic service (the EEAS; European External Action Service) bringing together up to 6,000 officials from the Commission, Council and member states. 

This certainly sounds like a foreign minister with far more resources at her disposal than Solana. For the first time, the Commission’s capabilities will be integrated with the foreign affairs decisions of the Council, so the trade, aid and substantial budget resources of the Commission can be used to leverage the Council’s foreign policy ambitions. 

Interest groups will be acutely aware of this and it will fundamentally distinguish Ashton from her predecessors. Moreover, the creation of the EEAS will constitute a separate entity to handle the EU’s relations with the outside world and a new entity for lobbyists to come to terms with. 

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 appointment of Herman Van Rompuy as EU Council president reflected a majority view among member states that a newly-elected president should foremost facilitate Council discussions, at a time when the EU’s agenda for the next decade will be set. 

The EU is in a period of consolidation and the European Council was clearly looking for a president who could provide continuity in the management of its business, escape from the six-monthly presidential rotation (although that will still apply for the specialist councils) and build longer-term relationships on the international stage. 

As has been widely reported, Van Rompuy seems well suited to this chairmanship role, a role that could ultimately be mainly internally focused. The rejection of Tony Blair as candidate for the presidency suggests that this is exactly how France and Germany see the role. In this respect, Van Rompuy’s relationship in the short term with Spanish Prime Minister Zapatero during the Spanish Presidency might be more critical than his relationship with Ashton in determining the scope of his role. Ashton’s immediate – and formidable – task will be to establish the European foreign service. 

Whilst there is a huge amount for Rompuy and Ashton to do, the bottom line must remain that they will only make progress if the member states accept the need for a concerted EU approach to the external problems which the Union faces and are willing to toughen up policy vis-a-vis the rest of the world. 

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

A single legal personality for the EU across its whole competence will primarily have consequences of both a judicial and symbolic nature. From a judicial perspective, member states may only sign international agreements that are compatible with EU law. The EU’s signature of international agreements, such as at the forthcoming Copenhagen summit, will enhance the EU’s visibility on the global stage while allowing it to speak with a ‘common voice’. 

The effectiveness of a common voice largely rests on the contents of a common message, which however remains pre-determined by member states as a whole. 

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? 

The increase in powers of the Parliament is one of breadth rather than depth. Interest groups already recognise the importance of the Parliament as a co-legislator across many of the areas that affect them. The expansion of co-decision, or the normal legislative procedure, to areas like agriculture is likely to mean an increase in advocacy towards the Parliament on these areas. 

It may also provoke challenges for established actors, who may have benefited from Council unanimity and the Parliament’s limited role in the past. Such actors may have to seek out new coalitions and may face challenges from new entrants who were previously somewhat locked out of the debate. 

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? 

The use of the ‘yellow card’ facility will very much depend on two factors. Firstly, the capacity of national parliaments to get under the skin of Commission proposals at an early stage. Secondly, the ability of national parliaments to coordinate their response when a problem is uncovered. 

On the whole, the experience thus far suggests that national parliaments will face a challenge in both regards. With some exceptions, national parliaments have generally struggled to reign in their executives despite setting up scrutiny processes and having more time in the co-decision process to apply pressure. 

National parliaments will need to work hard to get to the bottom of a dossier quickly and find another friendly eight national parliaments if they are to have an impact. The most likely way in which the yellow card will happen is if interest groups seek to motivate and coordinate national lobbies across member states. 

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