The Treaty of Lisbon: implementing the institutional innovations

29 November 2007

The phrase uttered most often at an event held to launch a joint study by the EPC, the Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS) and EGMONT (Royal Institute for International Relations) on The Treaty of Lisbon: implementing the institutional innovations was: “It all depends.”

Onno Ruding, Chairman of the CEPS Board, said the study had been a rare joint venture between three think-tanks determined to try to clarify and analyse the Lisbon Treaty and, in particular, its practical consequences if and when it is implemented. The study identified seven policy “hotspots”, covering the main EU institutions, voting arrangements, foreign policy, enhanced cooperation and the role of national parliaments.

EPC Director of Studies Antonio Missiroli, one of the authors of the report, outlined the foreign policy changes contained in the new Treaty, and highlighted the role of new President of the European Council in chairing EU Summits and, potentially, convening groups of national ministers in the event of a crisis.

Mr Missiroli said it was important to remember that the European Commission President would continue to play a strong role, and would remain a “considerable player” alongside the double-hatted “High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy”.

The new Treaty does not set clear dividing lines in terms of powers between these three figures. In fact, those lines are so blurred that the demarcation would come down to personalities - the first person in the Council Presidency role would effectively create the template for what that job should entail.

Foreign policy decision-making remains predominantly unanimous under the Lisbon Treaty, but the new ‘Double Majority’ system is different from that set out in the original Constitution. One of its criteria is population size, but how will that be determined? Different countries have different counting methods, raising a number of questions: is the migrant population included? Is the yardstick just the resident population? These procedural decisions are crucial.

Other key questions posed by the Lisbon Treaty are the future role of enhanced cooperation and the scope of the European Parliament’s co-decision powers.

Mr Missiroli said there were long-term implications which the Treaty text did not resolve, and the question was whether the entirety of the voting system would make it more attractive for EU ministers to do deals between themselves outside the new framework. He believed that only time would tell.

Fellow author Philippe de Schoutheete, European Affairs Programme Director, EGMONT, described the proposed new EU Presidency system as a “hybrid”, combining elements of rotation and “semi-permanence” at Summits and meetings of Foreign Affairs Ministers.

He warned that the effect might be to destroy the “unity of direction” of the Presidency system, risk a “dilution of responsibility” and spark new tensions: the idea, for example, of the President of France playing second fiddle to a new President of the European Council raised questions of how that could possibly work.

The Lisbon Treaty not only gives MEPs more powers through co-decision, but also, strengthens the role of national parliaments in vetting EU proposals - one of the new Treaty’s main innovations and a move which was likely to be very significant in institutional terms. It could even lead to a rapprochement between national and European political debates, which would be useful in developing a “European public space”.

Another author, Sebastian Kurpas, Research Fellow at CEPS, said the major institutional changes in the new Treaty relating to the European Commission were the reduction by one-third of the number of Commissioners and the election of the Commission President by a majority of the European Parliament. This posed a risk that any new Commission President may find it difficult to be seen as a neutral defender of the ‘Community interest’, having been in effect picked by a political majority of MEPs.

The smaller Commission College is a trade-off between efficiency and the need to have close direct links with national governments. While Commissioners are technically independent of their country of origin, the reality is a little different.

Mr Kurpas said there would also have to be a good institutional balance between the strengthened Commission President and the new President of the Council. What happened in relation to political independence remained to be seen, but objective expertise remained central to EU policy implementation.

One thing is sure - there will be very little appetite for Member States to hold another Convention on Europe’s future once the Lisbon Treaty has been ratified.