Europe and BrexitPoliticsReform

After Lisbon: our place in Europe

Brussels Extraordinary European Council 19-11-2009 Peter Cheney assesses the Lisbon Treaty’s final implications for Ireland in Europe.

The anniversary of one celebrated uniting moment in Europe’s history roughly coincided in November with another, more debated one. The Berlin Wall fell on 9 November 1989 while the Czech President added his signature to the Lisbon Treaty on 3 November 2009.

While the swift end of the Iron Curtain was almost universally welcomed, Lisbon has followed a convoluted route and sparked controversy since its signature in the Portuguese capital nearly two years ago. Its consequences at a European level are still complex to analyse even after the event. However, some of these are clear to see.

The Council of the European Union, which brings its governments together, now has its own president. Until now, presidencies rotated every six months between member states with a senior Minister nominally holding the presidential job. Sweden was the incumbent from July to December 2009. President Anna Cecilia Malmström, the country’s Europe Minister, is hardly a household name. The European Commission and the European Parliament already have presidents, respectively José Manuel Barroso, from Portugal, and Jerzy Buzek, of Poland.

In addition, there is now a High Representative for Foreign Affairs, effectively an EU Foreign Minister, who works for both the Council and the European Commission. This official is to be supported by the European External Action Service, effectively an EU diplomatic corps. The European Union has already agreed common foreign policies in many areas and it runs over 130 delegations – similar to embassies – around the world.

On the Council, member states have lost national vetoes in 50 policy areas (including energy, tourism and transport) and this will make collective decision-making easier. Ireland keeps its opt-out on justice and home affairs. Unanimous voting is still necessary on tax, foreign policy, defence and social security which means any country can still veto decisions in those fields. On other issues, Ireland will have to work with other small countries to form a ‘blocking minority’ in order to stop policies it opposes.

Like all other states, Ireland also keeps its ‘own’ Commissioner, for the time being at least. Commissioners are technically independent but are nominated by member states. It is up to the Irish Permanent Representative to the EU, effectively an ambassador, to represent Ireland’s interests, not the Commissioner.

The current size of the Commission is 27 but enlarging the union – e.g. to take in Iceland and the rest of the Balkans – would mean more commissioners, making the Commission unwieldy. It is therefore likely that a reduction will happen in future.

A citizens’ initiative allows one million citizens from across several states to formally petition the Commission. This number would represent roughly one in 500 EU citizens. Exact details of this process are still to be worked out.

National parliaments, such as the Oireachtas, will also receive proposals for new EU legislation directly. If several parliaments object, they can force a rethink or withdrawal. One third of parliaments protesting – nine on current numbers – means that the Commission will have to review the proposal. A majority of objecting parliaments – 14 at present – can strike down the law. This is the first time that national parliaments have had a say in EU law-making and it arguably makes the union more democratic. TDs, for example, are closer to the people than MEPs.

One of the more complicated changes is increased ‘co-decision’. This refers to the process by which the Council and Parliament jointly make laws.

Co-decision will now be extended to cover a number of new areas, including agriculture, fisheries, immigration, funding and the EU’s overseas aid. MEPs will therefore have more influence over these areas. Ireland has 12 MEPs, who all can extend their influence as they sit within the Parliament’s groups.

In summary, Ireland’s influence in the Council will be reduced while its MEPs will have more power to influence laws. TDs will also have the chance to challenge and, along with other European parliamentarians, strike down EU proposals. And Irish citizens can be among citizens’ initiative petitioners, although again only with other EU citizens.

The recession clearly had a strong bearing on voters’ minds in October and they would also have been reassured by the Government’s guarantees on neutrality, tax and family values.

How it happened

To recap, October’s vote saw a 20.5 per cent swing to ‘yes’ due to 351,853 extra people voting that way than in June 2008. The number of ‘no’ votes dropped by 267,809. Turnout was higher with 187,837 more voters overall, representing a 5.9 percentage point rise.

The ‘yes’ camp almost corresponds to the European poll total for the three main pro-Lisbon parties: 1,228,120 for Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Labour combined. While much reduced, the ‘no’ camp was still substantially larger than the combined European votes for anti-Lisbon parties: 355,832 for Libertas, Sinn Féin and the Socialists. It would appear that around 250,000 ‘no’ voters were not natural supporters of those parties.

It is fair to say that the Lisbon Treaty has only gone ahead because Irish voters backed it. After Ireland’s approval, the other objectors – namely the Polish and Czech presidents – soon yielded. David Cameron, who leads Britain’s Conservatives and is widely tipped to be its next prime minister, has dropped a pledge for a British referendum; this would probably have rejected the treaty as British public opinion tends to be Euro-sceptic.

Lisbon’s own long journey is now at an end. It started with the 2001 Nice Treaty, to reform the institutions before major enlargement took place in May 2004. The European Constitution, signed that October, was a very similar document to Lisbon but was rejected by French and Dutch voters in 2005. After a period of reflection, negotiations began again and the Lisbon Treaty was signed by heads of governments on 13 December 2007.

With the treaty coming into force on 1 December, Europe has taken a new political shape and Ireland will need to find its place within that. Some powers have moved from Dublin to Brussels but a shift has also taken place in the other direction. It is clear, though, that Irish influence in the union will increasingly depend on how it works with other small member states, their governments and their parliaments.

Lisbon in brief

• President for the Council (of national governments)

• High Representative for agreed foreign policy

• Ireland keeps its Commissioner

• Fewer national vetoes for governments

• More power for MEPs when making laws

• National parliaments can scrutinise EU laws

• One million EU citizens can petition the Commission

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