22nd Feb 2020

Lisbon Treaty weathers stormy first year

  • The Lisbon Treaty ceremony. Many hoped it would be the last treaty change for many years (Photo:

A year to the day after the Lisbon Treaty came into force, the European Union is wrestling with a set of serious crises, ranging from the threat of a eurozone breakup to an intractable dispute over the bloc's 2011 annual budget.

Broad criticism has been leveled at European Council President Herman Van Rompuy and top EU diplomat Catherine Asthon, two new posts created under the Lisbon Treaty, while eruptions of nationalist sentiment across the Union have alarmed the document's chief architects.

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Europe's basic goal of "ever greater union" appears to be receding into the distance, former French prime minster and head of the convention which drafted the body of the new rulebook, Valery Giscard d'Estaing, said in a speech last week.

Others say it is too early to judge the Lisbon Treaty, adding that many of Europe's current problems are unrelated to the document. "The Lisbon Treaty is not like a new US president, you can't measure its first 100 days," Hugo Brady of the Centre for European Reform, a London-based think-tank, told this website.

Such are the union's current difficulties that member states, driven by Germany, are already contemplating the need for further adjustments to the treaty, with loans to Greece and Ireland stretching the earlier Maastricht Treaty's "no bail-out" clause (inserted into Lisbon) to snapping point. But tweaks in treaty language that result in a transfer of power from national to EU level could prompt unpredictable referendums in Ireland and the UK.

"If you want a permanent crisis mechanism [for future bail-outs], you have no other choice but to have a treaty change," Jean-Luc Dehaene, a former Belgian prime minister and leading member of the convention, said during a conference on Tuesday.

Mr Dehaene said that teething problems related to the document are partly to blame for the current EU budget standoff between member states and the European Parliament. "Sometimes I have the impression that the council [the EU institution representing member states] is discovering the implications of the treaty, now in the implementation," he noted.

Van Rompuy, Ashton

Ms Ashton in early 2010 attracted harsh criticism for skipping top-level EU meetings. But the official launch, in accordance with its original deadline, of the European External Action Service (EEAS) on 1 December, has been heralded as an important success.

"She has been starting from scratch so it takes time," said Mr Brady. "It is quite an achievement to create an institution."

In keeping with the zeitgeist and the fact the EEAS has not yet moved into its new headquarters, there will be no fancy ceremony to mark the launch. Ms Ashton will instead give a speech to her 136 ambassadors, who are in Brussels for training anyway. The EEAS press launch will boil down to an email containing the text of her speech.

Mr Van Rompuy, by contrast, started strongly, immersed up to his eyeballs into a eurozone crisis which suited his training as an economist and former finance minister.

Lambasted for having the charisma of a "damp rag" by British eurosceptic MEP Nigel Farage, others said the mild-mannered Belgian politician showed himself to be a highly skilled behind-the-scenes negotiator.

Mr Van Rompuy was tasked by EU leaders to set up a taskforce on joint economic governance as a reaction to the crisis. But the taskforce produced little of substance, ending his first year on a bit of a whimper. Meanwhile, accusations that Mr Van Rompuy is servile toward French and German leaders, who ultimately sidelined him in a financial deal in the French town of Deauville, damaged his standing still further.

"Van Rompuy acts like a secretary not a president," French Green MEP Daniel Cohn-Bendit said last week.

More democracy?

Tackling the EU's democratic deficit was another goal of the Lisbon Treaty, which increased the European Parliament's powers of co-decision and gave national parliaments a greater say at EU level.

The EU legislature successfully lobbied to have greater security provisions inserted into an agreement on data sharing with the US (Swift) and has made its voice heard strongly in the ongoing EU budget debate.

Most feel that the changes are marginal at best, however.

"The EU is a little bit more democratic," said Mr Brady. Former MEP and Lisbon-treaty critic Jens-Peter Bonde was scathing: "Powers belonging to elected national parliaments have been moved by the Treaty to our common EU institutions, but the EU system is not subject to democratic control ... The non-elected EU leaders ... can now travel to China and Korea to lecture them on democracy until they are asked how many votes they had in the last European elections."

Mr Dahaene also conceded that the convention's failure to go further on co-decision, and member states' insistence on retaining one commissioner per country, bodes badly for the future: "When you have to decide by unanimity [in the council], you are in fact immobilized ... In the commission, the number is much too big to work as a college."

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