Reform Treaty leaves unions with mixed feelings

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The European Trade Union Confederation and social NGOs have welcomed the new ‘Reform Treaty’ agreed upon by EU leaders in Lisbon last week. At the same time, they expressed disappointment over Poland and the UK’s opt-outs from the Charter of Fundamental Rights.

Institutional reform

SME organisation UEAPME lauded the extension of the number of issues which are subject to qualified majority voting. UEAPME Secretary General Hans-Werner Müller said: "The Reform Treaty will increase both the room for and the speed of manoeuvre of the European institutions, and strengthen the European Union's voice in the global arena." Müller deplored, however, the fact that EU leaders did not include taxation policy on the list: "This vital policy area is all too often subject to minority blockades that are particularly unhelpful for small businesses."

The Executive Committee of the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) took the opposite view on what it labelled "the unambitious nature of much of the EU Reform Treaty," adding: "There was a real opportunity to revive social Europe by extending qualified majority voting and by extending the competences of the Union to control the dark side of globalisation and rampant financial capitalism. What we have instead is a series of modest adjustments to the EU's framework of rules, which will have only a limited impact on the process of deepening Europe's capacity to act decisively in the world."

The Social Platform, which brings together social NGOs from all over Europe, was particularly positive about Title II of Article 8B on democratic principles, which stipulates that: "The institutions shall, by appropriate means, give citizens and representative associations the opportunity to make known and publicly exchange their views in all areas of Union action." 

Moreover, "the institutions shall maintain an open, transparent and regular dialogue with representative associations and civil society". Social Platform President Fintan Farrell added that this new article "should not remain just a void article", calling for its "immediate implementation by the Portuguese presidency". Farrell explained: "Bringing the EU closer to its citizens is not just a matter of adopting the right institutional procedures. Policymakers have to restore people's faith that the EU can respond to their needs and that they can be associated in the decision-making process."

 

Charter of Fundamental Rights

All major NGOs, as well as ETUC, welcomed the adoption of the Charter of Fundamental Rights as a legally enforcable part of the Reform Treaty but condemned the UK and Poland's decisions to opt out of the Charter. The ETUC Executive Committee said that the UK and Polish decisions "and other limitations on the Charter will inevitably adversely affect its value". 

Along similar lines, Bashy Quraishy, President of the European Network Against Racism (ENAR) called the Charter's new legal status "an important step forward for ethnic and religious minorities across Europe in the protection of the fundamental rights to non-discrimination, religious freedoms, social rights, etc".  

However, he added that he was "very disappointed that some countries have circumvented their obligations in terms of the EU's fundamental rights", adding that "the opt-outs of the Charter of Fundamental Rights undermine the very basis of the EU's commitment to fundamental rights and as such hamper the development of a culture of human rights that can contribute to the achievement of peace, democracy, mutual respect and shared responsibility, tolerance and participation, justice and solidarity."  

Social Platform President Farrell stressed that "the Charter is legally binding and should have been an integral part of the Treaty", adding that "an analysis of the implications of these opt-outs should be rapidly undertaken in order to make sure the Union will still remain faithful to its objectives and commitments".

ETUC pointed out that "there may also be some confusion about exactly what 'legally enforceable' means in relation to member states", stating that trade unions "would like a clear confirmation that there is no doubt that the Charter is legally binding on member states when the Treaty is ratified".

 

EU objectives

The Social Platform stressed that "there are a number of very good provisions in the treaty", and added that "the spelled-out values and objectives, the social and equality transversal clauses and the article on participatory development are very positive developments in the opinion of social NGOs". 

ETUC pointed out that "the introduction of full employment as a goal and the concept of social market economy" are "important improvements in the text from a trade union view when compared to the Nice Treaty". 

ETUC expressed concern that "in the new text, there could be lower-profile recognition of the role of social partners than was the case in the former EU constitutional treaty".

 

Services of general interest 

UEAPME welcomed a proposed new protocol to the Reform Treaty which, Müller said, "puts an end to years of incertitude and sterile Eurosceptic polemics over services of general interest, by reconfirming that every public authority is free to decide which services of general interest it wants to provide, and how it wants to do it, provided that it acts within the framework of the acquis communautaire." 

ETUC also welcomed the draft protocol but underlined "the need for a regulatory framework at EU level".

 

The way forward

Across the board, organisations were unequivocal in their criticism of the process that led to the Reform Treaty. UEAPME's Müller stated: "Europe cannot afford another slow and painful approval." Müller went on to say: "EU leaders have set the ball rolling tonight – it is now up to Europe's governments and citizens to keep up the positive momentum. A swift ratification process will ensure the dawning of a new era in 2009, when many of the changes foreseen by the new Treaty will come into force. This is an opportunity that cannot be missed under any circumstances." 

The European Trade Union Confederation also regards the year of the next elections to the European Parliament and the Commission re-shuffle as the next milestone on the EU's path to reform, announcing that it "will be mobilising behind a trade union programme for the next European Parliamentary elections in 2009". ETUC called on the EU to undertake, once the Treaty is signed, "a fundamental review of Europe and globalisation covering economic policy, the operation of financial markets, industry policy, including research and development and innovation, and giving new impetus to social Europe to help workers handle change."

Social Platform President Farrell invited EU leaders "after a rather closed intergovernmental negotiation process, to open up to people and NGOs to discuss the practical implementation of the new treaty provisions." He said that this task should be tackled immediately: "The article of the new treaty on participatory democracy should not remain just a void article and we social NGOs call for its immediate implementation by the Portuguese presidency." 

 

After two years of trying to solve the "institutional impasse", EU leaders agreed, on 18 October 2007, on the new EU Treaty at an informal summit in Lisbon. However, some last-minute requests and red lines had to be catered for before the deal was struck:

  • The UK  and Poland  opted out of the Charter of Fundamental Rights.
  • Poland  managed to include the so-called Ioannina clause in a Protocol. This allows for a minority of member states to delay key decisions taken by qualified majority in the Council "within a reasonable space of time", even if they do not constitute a blocking minority. However, the clause is not included in the actual Treaty text, which means that member states can alter this provision without having to go through the cumbersome procedure of treaty change.
  • Italy obtained an extra seat in the European Parliament, putting it back on an equal footing with the UK, but giving it one seat less than France.
  • The UK defended its "red lines" and received wide-ranging opt-outs on cooperation in justice and home affairs. 

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