May 16 2008
I admit it, I confess, I throw my hands up in the air and openly reveal that I do not understand a thing about this Lisbon Treaty vote. In recent days it is a topic that has come up in conversation quite a bit and when asked how I’ll vote, I’ve laughed, shrugged and said I’ll vote whatever way Lottie tells me to vote. I then quickly change the subject.
Funny and silly as it may sound, I realised that unless I made a conscious effort to find out more about this Lisbon thing, then I probably would just blindly follow my better half’s lead.
Little Lisbon Learning Day
So, today is my Little Lisbon Learning Day. I will find out what it’s all about and I will try to write about it in such a way that other complete political Luddites like myself can understand.
Where to begin? The Referendum Commission’s website? Fianna Fáil’s pro-Treaty site? The Libertas NO Site? The Wikipedia? Should I just go have coffee with someone who can explain it to me? Should I get Dick Roche on the phone?
Sarah Carey made a throw-away post a few days ago about not being around to vote on the treaty and I was all set to make a funny retort when I saw the comments ahead of me. Pete had asked what the Treaty was all about and Sarah gave a lengthly, informed and intelligent response, which I found quite helpful (further evidence that when you reply to a comment on your blog, you are not just replying to one person). A debate was sparked in the comments section of the post and I was quickly in over my head.
Here’s the deal: The EU is enlarging, so the old rules about decision making and some of the institutions don’t work so well any more. e.g vetos apply to practically everything; EVERY country is entitled to a commissioner; lots of people want to enable the EU to adopt a common position on criminal matters and foreign policy. There’s also more pressure to make the EU “more democratic” and really just work more efficiently.
SO the Lisbon Treaty is a series of amendments to various treaties and institutions.
Consulting other sources, such as the Treaty’s own website and the handbook that circulated, I found myself understanding the content, I could see what each bit meant and did, but I still found it baffling overall. And I doubt I’m the only one in this position.
It’s clear that the Treaty is about change. If ratified, our constitution will change; the powers that the EU have and can exert will change; the make up of the European Parliament will change; the way decisions are made will change; and there is emphasis on things that will not change. But to understand all these changes, we must first ask WHAT are we changing. I think here is where the problems begin for the layman and the Lisbon Treaty. The majority (I’m guessing) of people do not full understand what the EU is, what it does and what it already has the power to do. So, I’m first going to look at the current situation.
(As I raft through the Amazon river of information, I am already regretting taking this on)
The EU is governed at present by The European Commission, The Council of Ministers, The Parliament and the European council (which is made up of each of the European heads of State, led by a President). Laws are made by a process of co-decision, where the Commission proposes laws and policies, which are discussed by the Council of Ministers and the Parliament, before being decided upon jointly by the Parliament and the Council. The process differs for the Common Foreign and Security Policy, which is decided upon solely by the Council.
So what will change? Firstly, there will be a nifty bureaucratic name change. The standard co-decision process will be called the “Ordinary Legislative Procedure” and the decision made by the Council alone will be made under a “Special Legislative Procedure“. But what’s in a name, right? The important part is in the changes and the extensions to powers proposed to the “Ordinary Legislative Procedure”, which I will come to shortly.
The Treaty will change how each governing body in the EU will operate. At present, each member state appoints a Commissioner to the European Commission (at present ours is Charlie McCreevy). The Treaty proposes to change this to allow just two-thirds of member states to nominate a Commissioner for each term (of 5 years) on a rotating basis. Simply put, this will mean that each member state will have a Commissioner for 10 of every 15 years. I can understand how this apparent reduction in individual state powers could be a point of controversy. A lot can happen in 5 years – think back to five years ago and look at the changes that have occurred both on the Irish stage and on the European and worldwide stages between then and now. In addition, one commissioner will hold the position of High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy.
Council of Ministers
The most significant proposed change to the Council of Ministers is in voting. At the moment, some decisions must be made unanimously while others are made by Qualified Majority Voting. According to QMV, each member state has a fixed number of votes. The number allocated to each country is roughly determined by its population, but progressively weighted in favour of smaller countries. When this voting system is used, no one country has a veto over the issue being debated. QMV is currently used when voting on issues relating to competition rules, consumer protection, environment and judicial co-operation in criminal matters. It is proposed to apply QMV to a number of new areas – these include energy, asylum, immigration, judicial co-operation in civil matters and sport.
At present, for a vote to pass under QMV, 74% of the total weighted votes are required. Under new proposals, this drops to 55%, i.e. 15 of the 27 member states, and those 15 states must represent 65% of the EU population. This may sound like the larger states can band together to overrule the QMV, but there is a provision which requires at least 4 member states to oppose the decision, preventing 3 of the largest states from blocking rulings of the QMV.
The new Treaty will make this system of qualified majority voting the norm when decisions are being taken, except where the EU Treaties require a different procedure (e.g. a unanimous vote). The literature is at pains to point out: Important policy areas for Ireland such as taxation and defense will continue to require a unanimous vote.
The Treaty also changes the arrangements for the Presidency of the Council of Ministers. At present the Presidency of the Council changes every six months. In the future, the Presidency will be provided by a team of three Member States working together over an 18-month period, except for the Foreign Affairs Council which will be chaired by the High Representative. This is designed to increase the coherence and efficiency of the Presidency.
At the moment, the European Council is chaired on a rotating basis by the head of Government of the Member State holding the six month Presidency of the EU. The Treaty would allow for a two and a half year EU Presidency, the holder being elected by QMV by the European Council. The President, who can hold the position for a maximum of two terms, would chair and co-ordinate the work of the European Council and will continue to be responsible for major policy decisions. In addition, all legislative meetings of the European Council must be open to public viewing.
Here is where we return to the Ordinary Legislative Procedure. The Treaty proposes to extend the powers of the European Parliament into areas such as agriculture (which seems to be causing some consternation in Ireland), asylum, immigration and judicial co-operation. The number of MEPs would be permanently reduced to 750, in addition to the President of the Parliament. The Parliament also gains greater powers over the entirety of the EU budget, having joint decision with the Council rather than having to present it to the Council for approval.
(Are you still with me? It truly is a huge amount to wade through and I’m beginning to see how people could be frustrated by the lack of transparency in the 294 pages)
Individual National Parliaments
By today’s rules, the national governments have no direct involvement in decision making. Under Lisbon, the Governments will have 8 weeks after the publication of a legislative proposal to vet the proposal and offer an opinion.
Things get a bit foggy when looking for information on the Power to Change Treaties. There is so much divisiveness on the subject that it is hard to find an unbiased explanation other than that of the Referendum Commission’s booklet.
At present the Treaties governing the EU are amended only by the Member States agreeing to an amending treaty which must then be approved by the Member States in accordance with their own constitutional traditions…for example in Ireland, a referendum may be required.
The Lisbon Treaty now proposes to give the European Council (Heads of Government) the power to propose changes to certain parts of the governing Treaties. Any such changes cannot increase the competence of the EU. Any such proposals must be agreed unanimously by the European Council. This means that any national government may veto such a proposal. If the European Council does agree a proposed change, then in order for it to come into effect, it must be ratified by the Member States in accordance with their own constitutional traditions. This may require a referendum in Ireland as happens at present.
The EU has the competence to decide policies and make laws only in those areas which are set out in the treaties. The Lisbon Treaty would specify who has the power to do what by listing the areas in which:
- the EU has exclusive competence – this means that the decisions must be made at EU level and not at national government level;
- the EU and national governments have joint competence;
- the national governments have exclusive competence but the EU may support and help to co-ordinate.
The Lisbon Treaty would give the EU joint competence with Member States in a number of new areas including energy and aspects of the environment and public health. It does not propose to give the EU any new exclusive competence.
This is such a contentious issue that I’m not going to offer my own opinions on it just yet. I want to keep this piece an unbiased as possible, and truth be told, I am still making up my mind on the whole thing. It is, however, worth pointing out that if the Treaty is ratified, there are a number of areas in which Ireland will be able to opt out, such as judicial and policing issues (known as the “Area of Freedom, Security and Justice”) and there are a number of issue that will not be affected by the Treaty at all, such as Ireland’s neutrality.
Charter of Fundamental Rights
The Charter of Fundamental Rights lists citizens’ political, social and economic rights. It is intended to make sure that European Union regulations and directives do not contradict the European Convention on Human Rights which is ratified by all EU Member States (and to which the EU as a whole would accede under the Treaty of Lisbon). In the rejected EU Constitution it was integrated into the text of the treaty and was legally binding. The Lisbon Treaty refers to it and raises it to the same legal standing as the main treaties.
Lisbon and (a very tired) Me
So, there it is, there is the information. There is more in it, but I think I’ve covered the important parts. There are sections which talk about minor changes (e.g the renaming of the Court of First Instance to the General Court, and the declaration that the euro is the official currency of the EU) but the essence is laid out above. I’ve made no arguments in favour nor against the Treaty. I am close to deciding whether to go Yes or No, but am still reading and listening to arguments.
A ‘Yes’ vote will change the Irish Constitution, ratifying the Treaty. Assuming all other EU countries accept the Treaty, it could come into effect early 2009. A ‘No’ vote will keep everything exactly as it is, our constitution will remain unchanged and the EU will be unable to adopt the Treaty, as it required agreement from ALL member states.
I will follow up this post with my own opinions, decisions, questions and ideas on the Treaty and I look forward to hearing what other people have to say.
Thank you for bearing with me throughout.
- Lisbon Treaty on the Wikipedia
- Lisbon Treaty Website
- Referendum Commission
- Fianna Fail
- Sinn Féin
- Fine Gael
- Progressive Democrats