Belgium bids to ease Lisbon Treaty tensions

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As a founding member of the European Union and the host of its institutions, the Belgian EU Presidency is in a good position to help solve inter-institutional tensions linked to the implementation of the Lisbon Treaty, Olivier Chastel, state secretary for European affairs, told the European Parliament yesterday (13 July).

Speaking to the Parliament's constitutional Affairs committee, Chastel said there were serious problems regarding the 'Framework Agreement', a legal document governing relations between the European Parliament and the European Commission.

The framework agreement, the third of its kind, will govern relations between the Parliament and the Commission for the period 2010-2015.

Adopted in February (EURACTIV 29/01/10), it is the first inter-institutional agreement adopted under the rules of the EU's new Lisbon Treaty, which confers new powers to the Strasbourg assembly.

But the EU Council of Ministers, representing the EU's 27 member states, finds that parts of the agreement are out of line with the spirit of the EU treaties, Chastel said.

Member states have asked the Belgian EU Presidency to continue informal contact with the Parliament to address those "legitimate concerns" which they believe affects the EU's institutional balance.

Too much power to Parliament?

Parliament sources told EURACTIV that the Council's concerns focused mainly on the "full involvement of the Parliament in international negotiations".

The EU assembly has recently asserted itself as an emerging player on the international stage after it won concessions to a draft EU-US agreement on sharing private banking data related to anti-terror investigations (EURACTIV 09/07/10).

Under the Framework Agreement, the Commission is committed to fully informing the assembly at every stage of negotiations on international agreements and in particular those related to trade matters, which need the Parliament's approval.

But the Council is opposed to sharing that power with the Parliament and reads the Lisbon Treaty (Chapter 2) differently in this regard, EURACTIV was told.

Legislative planning

In addition, Chastel said the Belgian Presidency will try to bridge differences related to planning the EU's legislative activity.

The Belgian state secretary for European affairs presented differences of opinion in the following terms: the Commission defends its right of initiative, the Council insists that it doesn't need to submit its programme to the Parliament, while the latter would prefer to see unified planning.

As long as its right of initiative is preserved, the Commission is open to an inter-institutional dialogue based on its legislative programme, Chastel noted. As a solution, he proposes an informal but regular dialogue between the presidency trio and a delegation of the European Parliament.

When he tabled his proposals last week in Strasbourg, Parliament President Jerzy Buzek suggested holding an additional two meetings in the second half of 2010 to evaluate the legislative programme, Chastel said. One of these should involve Buzek and the Belgian prime minister, he indicated.

Money talks

Beyond inter-institutional squabbling, planning the EU's legislative activity is of broader interest as it directly impacts upon the approval of the EU's next multi-annual budget for 2013-2021.

The adoption of the budget for 2011 will set a precedent in this context, Chastel argued, as it will be the first to involve the Parliament as a full co-legislator, on an equal footing with the Council. It is therefore in the interests of both the Parliament and the Council to introduce good practices as soon as possible, he said.

"We know that during this semester, on the occasion of the adoption of the 2011 budget, there will be attempts to discuss the 'trillion' budget," Chastel said, referring to discussions on the EU's next multi-annual budget.

The chairman of the European Parliament's budget committee, Alain Lamassoure (European People's Party; France), told Chastel that he wanted "to enrich" the 2011 budget discussion during the Belgian Presidency with the Commission's proposals on the EU's financial perspectives (2013-2021), which are due in September.

Croatia's accession treaty 'looking like a Facebook page'

In addition, Chastel alluded to a possible solution regarding the legal arrangement for incorporating the 18 new MEPs who are due to join the European Parliament following the entry into force of the Lisbon Treaty.

The Belgian secretary of state hinted that an arrangement could be found by incorporating a text into Croatia's upcoming accession treaty, on which negotiations will start during the Hungarian EU Presidency in the first half of 2011.

But the numerous additions to Croatia's accession treaty have already made the text look like a Facebook page to which different countries keep adding texts, a diplomatic source told EURACTIV.

Indeed, the Croatian accession treaty already needs to incorporate the opt-outs granted to Ireland in 2009 in exchange for holding a second referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, which the Irish people had rejected the year before. The opt-outs relate to taxation policy, social issues, abortion and the Common Security and Defence Policy (CFSP) (EURACTIV 12/12/08).

Similarly, guarantees offered to the Czech Republic in order to protect citizens from potential property claims by Germans expelled from Czechoslovakia after World War Two (under the Benes Decrees) are also to be included there (EURACTIV 30/10/09).

Asked by MEPs if the Belgian Presidency would pay the price of "treaty change fatigue," Chastel replied that Belgium was open to treaty change. But he said this should happen only after all other options had been explored.

"We don't refuse the discussion, but it is a premature one," Chastel said.

"I'm not a jurist, I'm only a pharmacist," he added, referring to his university diploma, obtained in 1987.

Belgium took on the six-month rotating presidency of the European Union on 1 July with a caretaker government in charge, following national elections which saw Flemish separatist leader Bart De Wever top the polls.

In a recent interview with EURACTIV, Chastel said the Belgian Presidency will take a back-seat role to EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and EU President Herman Van Rompuy during its six-month stint at the EU's helm.

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