The Importance of the Lisbon Treaty in the Future Governance of Europe, and the Necessity for Further Revision

By Ainsley Gilbert
Interstate - Journal of International Affairs
2011, Vol. 2011/2012 No. 1 | pg. 1/2 |

The Treaty of Lisbon1 has had effects on the workings of the European Union, and has significant implications both for how it functions through its provisions on governance and decision-making and on how the union develops. Lisbon has political implications for the form of the developing union and these are as significant for discussing possible futures for the functioning of the Union as the institutional changes. Despite these changes, Lisbon does not guarantee a future for the European Union, and leaves many criticisms unresolved.

Lisbon was designed to provide a strong foundation for the future of the European Union and had three major aims: ‘more efficiency in the decision-making process; more democracy through a greater role for the European Parliament and national parliaments; and increased coherence externally’.2 These are the areas most affected by the treaty, and are also the focus of this article’s analysis of the treaty’s provisions.

The lack of democracy in the European Union prior to the Treaty of Lisbon has been criticised by many, and it is fair to say that the EU was ‘closer to a form of enlightened despotism than a genuine democracy’.3 The only directly elected institution, the European Parliament, had little power, and citizens had no way of ”getting involved” in the policy making process of the Union other than through its infrequent elections. Decision-making authority rested with the unelected bureaucracy of the Commission and the Council of Ministers (made up of national politicians) rather than with the people of the Union or their representatives. The Treaty sought to solve this ”democratic deficit” with a series of measures designed to re-connect the EU with its citizens, and - more importantly with regards to ensuring its future - its citizens with the EU.

The most obvious change to the role of citizens in the EU is the introduction of the ”European Citizen’s Initiative” (ECI). This initiative allows citizens to petition the Commission to introduce legislation on a topic that concerns them, so long as it falls within one of the EU’s areas of competence. It also allows the organisers to meet the Commission and present their initiative at a public hearing, a useful tool, allowing access to senior Union figures. This initiative requires a petition signed by at least 1 million EU citizens, with further proportional requirements: one quarter of member states must be represented in the final voting share; a minimum number of signatories from each member state, this being the arbitrary figure of 750 multiplied by the number of MEPs the state is allocated.4 For example, for an ECI to be valid, at least 7 member states must be represented in the final voting share – and if Germany were one of those represented, at least 74,250 German citizens must sign (99 MEPs multiplied by the arbitrary figure of 750).

The procedure of the initiative is relatively complicated, and does not suit action which individuals or small groups of citizens may wish to undertake concerning issues affecting them. This is partly owing to the complicated rules regarding what information needs to be recorded in various member states, and also the sheer administrative capacity needed to collect one million signatures. Excluded from organising a petition are MEPs, which to an extent prevents the initiative from being used as a tool of political parties. It is rather more accessible to established charities and non-governmental organisations, working across borders to solve problems they have identified, and which have a degree of public support. I would posit that when people sign a petition heading for Brussels, it will actually be the interest group which is associated with it, rather than any citizens – undermining the claim that the ECI increases the possibility for citizens’ engagement with the EU institutions.

A successful ECI does not obligate the Commission to introduce new legislation, but it does require a response to it detailing the reasons for its action or inaction. This means that the power of the initiative is checked, however, ‘it is clear that … the political impact of such an initiative will, in practice, force the Commission to engage in serious work’.5 Despite this, if political support from institutions is not found, it is likely that the Commission will respond to the initiative – as required- but that the outcome will be “no change”. The initiative overall then is a blunt instrument, which is complicated for citizens to use, and does not effectively connect citizens to the EU. It can work as another channel to impact upon the centre, but does not allow for change without the approval of the Commission, Council and Parliament - which are rather a lot of hurdles to overcome.

The Lisbon Treaty also provides for increased transparency in the institutions of the Union. Article 15 of the ‘Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union’ (TFEU) states that ‘the European Parliament shall meet in public, as shall the Council when considering and voting on a draft legislative act’.6 The ability to observe allows for scrutiny, criticism, and more effective engagement with those taking legislative decisions. The first paragraph of the same article acknowledges this, stating that ‘to promote good governance and ensure the participation of civil society, the Union’s institutions, bodies, offices and agencies shall conduct their work as openly as possible’.7

The article allows people to see documents produced anywhere in the European Union, subject to a number of restrictions, especially relating to the European Central Bank (ECB), the European Investment Bank (EIB) and the Court of Justice of the European Union (ECJ). Access to documents helps to develop an interest in an organisation, as people can learn what they actually do, and allows the press to report more easily. The aim here is to create interest in a representative democracy. This can help to bring citizens closer to the EU, assuming the right of access is exercised.

Unfortunately, this right is not often exercised and has been seen to be somewhat limited. In 2010, despite the size of the union, only 6,127 applications were made for documents, and, of these, twelve per cent were refused, twenty three per cent were from academics and therefore unlikely to create public interest, and only a meagre three per cent were from journalists. This does exclude the information published by the EU directly, which is substantial, however, the number of applications is not enough to suggest that the press or public are interested.8

The Lisbon Treaty has granted greater powers to the national parliaments, giving them a role in overseeing the implementation of the work of the Commission, and also giving them the Yellow and Orange Card systems, allowing them to have a significant impact on upcoming EU legislation. This aims at bringing the government of the EU closer to its citizens, as national parliaments are, almost by definition, closer to their people than the Brussels based institutions. There is a great deal more media attention focused on national parliaments, and public interest in their work tends to be keener. They also have a greater ability to obtain opinions from interested parties nationally, important in making policy and creating legislation, which could otherwise unnecessarily restrict enterprise.

The Yellow and Orange Card systems allow several member states’ national parliaments, acting together, to challenge legislative proposals on the grounds of noncompliance with the subsidiarity principle, that is, ‘the notion that the EU should govern as close as possible to its citizens’.9 Member state parliaments are each allocated two votes; one each for the individual assemblies of a bicameral parliament, two for a unicameral parliament. If eighteen of the total possible fifty-four member state parliaments (one third) vote to object then the proposal must be reviewed by the Commission. If twenty-seven votes are used to object then the proposal must be reviewed as per the previous procedure, but if left substantively unchanged when reviewed then the proposal must face votes in the Council and European Parliament. National parliaments also have the right to request the annulment of an act through the European Court of Justice.10

There are issues with the role of national parliaments after the Lisbon Treaty, and the way they connect citizens to Europe. They are likely only to act on issues which were already controversial, and so already generate interest. They have no way of stopping a proposal which has built up sufficient support within the union’s political elite (composed of national governments who, by their very nature, command authority in national parliaments), as this could pass through the review process un-amended. It is likely that some amendments would be made, especially if the Council of Ministers -- accountable to national legislatures -- were involved. Parliaments have only eight weeks to get views on, debate and agree a position on any legislative proposal, an extremely tight timeframe, considering the large volume of other work required from them.11 They are also outside of the union loop and cannot benefit from being based close to the institutions, from which they could obtain information and views more easily. Overall therefore, national parliaments are still unable to provide a good link between the citizenry and the Union, owing to a lack of power, practical problems, and also because their role in political culture is being reduced in a national context.

The European Parliament has gained significantly more powers within the EU. It has more of a say in decision-making with the expansion of the Co-decision Procedure (renamed as the ‘Ordinary Legislative Procedure) to new policy areas. It now has control over the budget, even being able to override the Council. The Parliament has a role too in supervising much of what the Commission does, and “elects” that body’s President, as well as the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy (owing to their role as the Commission Vice-President).12 These increased powers for the European Parliament are good news for the role of representative democracy in the EU. However, the European Parliament is currently only just representative of the citizens of the EU, with turnout at elections being just forty three per cent in 2009.13 Constituencies are also very large, with the UK having 72 Seats in the European Parliament, compared to 650 Seats in the House of Commons, for the same 62 million people.14 Ordinary citizens are therefore a long way from their representatives, and are unlikely to feel any real connection to their MEP or the European Parliament, especially as only a limited amount of time can be spent in their constituencies promoting their work.

The Lisbon Treaty generally improves the democratic structures of the EU. It does not, however, go far enough to force a reorientation of political culture towards the citizens. Therefore, the EU continues to have a legitimacy crisis, and must continue to function with this spectre hovering over it. The lack of democratic legitimacy means that innovative and potentially controversial policies will rarely be introduced by the EU, and this is to the disadvantage of all.16 The European Union is by no means the only organisation with a democratic deficit; national, regional and local organisations are also suffering this problem. However, a lack of common European identity between member states’ citizens compounds this problem into one which could, at some point, erupt into something which leads to questions about its future. A new treaty is needed to reform the democratic functioning of Europe in order to create ‘measurable outputs’, rather than just continue to tinker with an existing framework, which has proved itself weak.17

The first aim of the Treaty stated on the European Union’s website was not to increase democracy; rather, it was to increase efficiency, as this had been seen as a key problem in the ability of the union to continue to function, particularly owing to the growth of the union, meaning a system designed for 15, or possibly just 6, members was struggling with 27. 19

The Lisbon Treaty simplified the legislative process significantly, reducing the number of types of acts from fifteen to just five.20 This makes the EU markedly more transparent for its citizens and especially for those to whom the legislation applies. The way in which these acts are created was also improved. The Ordinary Legislative Procedure now applies to almost all legislation, with notable exceptions being the common foreign, security and defence policies. This change means that the EU can now do more, and faster, as more legislation can be adopted, after its first reading, through ‘Triologues’ between the Council Presidency, the Commission, and Parliamentary Rapporteurs.21 However, it still struggles to be efficient when there are more difficult decisions to be made, as there will not be sufficient common ground between the parties of the Triologue to allow for the procedure to be used.

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