Toward the Supra-National

“It is symbolic politics, defining the identity of this European beast, wanting to be seen as carrying the torch of human rights.”

Photo: EPoSS

With Ireland’s recent ratification of the Lisbon Treaty via referendum, and the Czech Republic’s subsequent approval, the document designed to reorder some of the core structures of the European Union comes into effect on Dec. 1.

The new document makes some significant changes that most feel will strengthen the ability of the EU to operate effectively. Two features are considered most important: 1) An enhancement of the role of the European Parliament, granting it equal voting rights vis-à-vis the EU Council; and 2) the creation of two new positions – President of the European Council and High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. In addition, the treaty provides a Citizens’ Initiative for new proposals in the Commission, and an unprecedented EU-wide Energy Policy to be included in the EU Primary Law, the equivalent of a constitution.

These changes amend a system which is remarkably simple given that it coordinates policy-making between 27 sovereign states that subject themselves to binding decisions and accept the primacy of EU law. Decision-making starts with a bill proposed by the European Commission, which has the sole right to initiate legislation. Such a bill is then discussed, deliberated upon, and amended by the Council of the European Union (also called the Council of Ministers) and the European Parliament. Both institutions then decide for or against according to their own rules, as stipulated in the Treaties or the Primary Law.

Once both have made up their minds, their decisions need to be made congruent. This is done with the co-decision-making procedure, which with the Lisbon Treaty is renamed the “normal decision-making process.” This procedure guarantees that in the policy areas stipulated by the Treaties, the European Parliament is, for the first time, on an equal footing with the Council. Thus the EP is no longer the weak institution it was said to be for a long time, because Lisbon extends the policy areas to which this procedure will be applied.

“These changes enhance the effectiveness of the Union, uphold its democratic principles and should help improve the coherence of its activities,” says Dr. Johannes Pollak, Senior Research Professor at Webster University Vienna and European integration expert.

“The European Parliament is the only body directly elected by the peoples of Europe,” Pollak said, “and, as such, represents them .”

One of the effects of the change in status will be that the Parliament will be included in deliberations on a range of issue areas – e.g. Common Agricultural Policy and foreign affairs – that had previously only been under the jurisdiction of the EU Council. Pollak considers this an important step in the democratization process.

“Extending the policy areas to which the co-decision-making procedure is applied gives the EP a stronger position in the legislative process, especially vis-a-vis the Council of the EU.” This means, in effect, that in the areas where co-decision-making applies, the European Parliament has the equal say in the adoption of bills.

Another important change concerns the way the EU decides how and where to spend its money. “Abolishing the oblique differentiation between obligatory and non-obligatory spending has been a central demand of the European Parliament for a long time,” Pollak said. “The Lisbon Treaty achieves this, and thereby guarantees that the Parliament is now an equal partner of the Council in budgetary affairs. That means the EP will now start to press for reforms in areas it had so far hardly had a say in, e.g. the Common Agricultural Policy.”

But while some modifications may only be symbolic in nature – such as the increased participation of national parliaments and an EU human rights charter – the introduction of a EU-wide energy policy is extremely significant for being unprecedented.

“Setting the energy policy into European Primary Law is of crucial importance, because it is the first time that such a proposal has been recognized as a high priority,” Pollak said. This sets the EU a major obligation to act together on controlling and securing energy supplies, while simultaneously making collaborative decisions concerning its proper consumption.

On Nov. 18, EU leaders appointed British parliamentarian Catherine Ashton as High Representative and Belgian Prime Minister Herman Van Rompuy as Council President.

“The innovation of a High Representative who is also Vice-President of the Commission increases the coherence and visibility of the EU’s external actions,” Pollak says. The High Representative will be the most authoritative figure in the newly-formed European External Action Service, a unique institution that will serve as a foreign ministry for the EU.

Most important here is whether these two leaders, and thus their positions, are able to earn the respect of other world leaders. “The cooperation between the two will have a major influence on the formation of an effective team, especially since the Treaty is quite vague on their roles,” Pollak advised.

Ultimately, the success of these efforts toward greater openness and democratization in the minds of Europeans will depend on whether the EU can continue on its quest to provide better security, a higher standard of living, and the protection of civil liberties within an ever expanding European Union.

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