The Road after Lisbon

, by Jofre M. Rocabert

The Road after Lisbon

Less than a year after the ratification of the latest EU treaty, the never-ending story of the European ‘constitutionalisation’ seems to have entered a new chapter. Scholars and national governments have started to analyse the implementation of the Lisbon Treaty, but yet without much result. The new structure closes the debate for the upcoming years, but the question of Europe’s final destination is still waiting at the end of the road.

A New Treaty for a New Decade

Whether we like it or not, the Lisbon Treaty is here to stay. As observers, we should admit that these new rules will decide the forms and actions of the EU policies for the coming decade. Therefore, we should concentrate our efforts on monitoring the implementation process and examine the consequences. First of all, we should look at how the institutions have dealt with the major changes that have been put in place by the reform treaty. Herman van Rompuy as President of the European Council is probably the most noticeable example of these changes concerning the institutional architecture of the Union. The press has depicted the new president more as a facilitator than a leader, which many interpret as a strategy of the member states to have a guardian of their interests. Having a visible head and a permanent conciliatory figure might actually help the Council improve its relationship with the Commission. For example, when emergencies like the Eurozone crisis occurred last May, fast and complex negotiations took place in order to arrange a whole new set of policies. Analysts of the European Policy Institutes Network (EPIN) noted that, generally speaking, the relevance of this change is the “element of collective thinking” that the permanent president gives to the Council.

The New ‘European executive’

Equally important is the change that has come to the external branch of the Union. Before December, the implementation of the treaty of Lisbon started off with a fast and harshly criticised election of Baroness Ashton as the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. The expectations were high and she failed to meet them on the Haiti earthquake crisis. Even more, her main task, the European External Action Service, which is being established under the Lisbon Treaty, has not yet started. Thus, it is difficult to judge how Ashton’s actions will coordinate, conflict or synergise with the national diplomatic services, which will ultimately decide the success of the new agency.

The circumstances are not only (and not usually) ruled by formal arrangements and constitutional settings, but also by political action and entrepreneurship of the people who lead them or act within its framework.

These changes create new powerful positions with very wide-ranging mandates and much-politicised profiles, even if they are difficult to see in the immediate present. They also have a high degree of flexibility, which means that depending on the leadership and characteristics of the person in charge, the outcome of the Lisbon Treaty will dramatically depend on these circumstances. Institutional theory states that the circumstances are not only (and not usually) ruled by formal arrangements and constitutional settings, but also by political action and entrepreneurship of the people who lead them or act within its framework. The expected role of the President of the Council, for example, depends on how his predecessor developed his task and carried out his own political will.

The Parliaments

The European Parliament has undoubtedly started a new chapter along with the other institutions, even if it started off quite unhealthy because of the astonishing increase of Europhobic seats after the last election in June 2009. The most relevant output of this new stage was the refusal of the first draft of the important strategic agreement ‘SWIFT’ with the United States. It is desirable that these new powers will bring a change in the relationship between the Members of Parliament and their constituencies, which is now almost exclusively done through their national parties.

Finally, the Lisbon Treaty brings in a new tool for the democratic governance of the EU. The national parliaments, which had previously been marginalised actors trying to influence European political processes by scrutinising their governments, now have a control mechanism in the legislative process. The Commission sends project proposals to the national legislatives, which enables national governments to check the subsidiary principle and propose objections. These complaints will not be binding, but the commission will have to adapt its proposal or justify its refusal in order to carry this out.

There is an intense debate about whether or not the empowerment of national parliaments is a solution to the perceived democratic deficit of the union. Some argue that it brings the decisions closer to the main representatives of the citizens. Yet others see the parliaments as just another instrument to the government in office, which then gives even more power to the later, making the structure more intergovernmental and therefore closer to national interests. In this case, any government could use this mechanism to oppose EU policies. Since every parliament functions differently, this might be easier for strongly dominated legislatures, yet it is not likely to be the case for countries with balanced relations between government and parliament, such as Sweden or Denmark.

All in all, we know that changes in the EU are not immediate. Given that it took seven years for Lisbon to come to fruition, we should wait some more time to judge, analyse and improve our perspective on new changes. At the same time, the European society should support new tools, like the Citizens’ Initiative, which might be a good start to get the ball rolling.

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