The European Parliament and the December European Council

6 December 2007

Hans-Gert Pöttering, President of the European Parliament, said it was almost unbelievable how far the European Union had progressed during the last year to get EU reform back on track and the Lisbon Treaty agreed.

When the Nice Treaty was agreed in 2000, Mr Pöttering and his German colleagues had been disappointed by the results, and were in two minds about whether to support it. However, it proved its value by laying the groundwork for the Lisbon Treaty.

The ‘No’ votes to the Constitutional Treaty in France and the Netherlands had been “disastrous”, said Mr Pöttering, and had prompted some people to declare that the Constitutional Treaty was “dead”. At the time, he felt this was both untrue and a dangerous description, as it would have ruled out using it as the basis for any subsequent Treaty.

Even last year, he had doubted that the negotiations on a successor to the Constitution could be concluded successfully, but it was a “good coincidence” that Germany held the EU Presidency during the period when negotiations on a new Treaty got underway.

Mr Pöttering said German Chancellor Angela Merkel was a “strong European”, who prepared the groundwork well before the June Council to bring the differing sides together.

One example of this was how she shepherded through the Berlin Declaration that celebrated 50 years of the EU in March this year. Mr Pöttering pointed out that this was the first EU document to be signed by the Presidents of all three main EU institutions: the European Council, the European Commission and the European Parliament, and said he was optimistic that this was a sign that the Parliament was now seen as an equal partner. He also expressed the hope that when a full-time European Council President is appointed, the European Parliament will continue to be seen on a par with the other institutions.

The President described the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty as “the priority of priorities”. The aim is for all 27 EU Member States to ratify it by the beginning of 2009 so that it enters into force before the European Parliamentary elections later that year.

Another important step in the process is the Proclamation and signing of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights by the Presidents of the three EU institutions, which will take place at the European Parliament in Strasbourg on 12 December 2007. This Proclamation expresses the EU’s commitment to European citizens’ rights, and the President hoped it would receive the media coverage “it deserves”.

On the question of ratification, Mr Pöttering said he trusted in the “wisdom” of the Irish people to vote in favour of the new Treaty when the referendum is held in 2008. As for other countries where the Treaty will be subject to ratification by parliament alone, he said that as a firm believer in parliamentarianism, he believed that this was as strong as a referendum, as national parliaments represented the people.

Looking to the future, Mr Pöttering said many MEPs wanted EU Heads of State and Government to wait until after the June 2009 Euro elections to propose a candidate for the new post of High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy/Commission Vice-President. However, if they decide to press ahead with this appointment before the elections, the Parliament will insist on being properly consulted.

Turning to the 14 December European Council, Mr Pöttering highlighted the key issues to be discussed at the Summit.

On immigration, the President spoke of the need to prevent future “tragedies” in the Mediterranean and underlined the EU’s plans to cooperate with the largest countries of emigration, particularly in Africa, including giving them economic and political support on their path to development and democracy.

On climate change, he stressed the need to agree concrete action. The March 2007 European Council agreed ambitious targets, including a 20% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2020. This showed the EU was able to act and take the lead on fighting climate change. Its first opportunity to do this on the international stage is at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Bali, which is due to agree on a roadmap for the negotiations for a post-Kyoto protocol. Here, the EU is working to persuade both Russia and the US to support the process.

Turning to the Middle East process, Mr Pöttering said there would only be peace in the region when is there is a workable agreement. He said that before the Annapolis meeting, the European Parliament brought together the leaders of its political groups, High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy Javier Solana and External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrro-Waldner to ensure that the EU “spoke with one voice” at the meeting.

The French government is hosting a donors’ conference for the Palestinian Territories in Paris on 17 December, and Mr Pöttering has asked that European Parliament representatives be invited, insisting that as the Parliament has a key role in funding decisions, MEPs should be present as the representatives of EU citizens.

The President also pointed out that 2008 is the European Year of Intercultural Dialogue, and stressed the importance of this issue. He believed strongly that Europe had a political and moral duty to foster partnership and build an intellectual and cultural bridge with people of other cultures, across the Mediterranean, in the Middle East and with the Muslim world.

Turning to the Parliament itself, the President said that as its work increases, it needs to adapt its working methods to changing circumstances. The first directly-elected Parliament in 1979 lacked legislative powers but now that it is co-legislator with the Council on most issues, it needs to change its style of working.

Mr Pöttering said he was very optimistic about the EU’s future. It has chalked up great successes, he said, citing the new Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk’s commitment to European unification as an example. In 1979, it would have seemed impossible that a Prime Minister of a free Poland would ever say such things at the European Parliament.