COURTESY OF STANLEY CROSSICK
After years of debate, disagreements and false starts, the European Union (EU) gave birth to the Lisbon Treaty, at long last, on December 1. First conceived on December 15, 2001 under the Laeken Declaration, it was followed by the European Convention between February 2002 and July 2003, an Intergovernmental Conference from October 2003 to June 2004 and the signing of the European Constitution in April 2004. Its subsequent rejection by French and Dutch referendums in May and June 2005 further set back the legislation. In the end, the treaty was signed on December 13, 2007 after a second Intergovernmental Conference between July and October 2007.
Not surprisingly, the past problems in achieving a proper consensus have been as every bit as complex as the very nature of the treaty itself.
BEAMING WITH JOY: Irish political leaders and supporters celebrate the adoption of the Lisbon Treaty in Ireland on October 3
But they will be very beneficial. Take the main changes. These will include enhanced EU efficiency and effectiveness and increased powers of the European Parliament, while making the Charter of Fundamental Rights legally binding.
Of course, there are other vital components, too: the treaty, for instance, will facilitate the EU's accession to the European Convention on Human Rights, while establishing the right of 1 million citizens to ask the European Commission to take a special initiative.
Further, the treaty sets out a delineation of EU competencies. Thus, the EU's three core categories will be exclusive, shared and complementary. The main examples of exclusive competence will include a customs union, competition rules necessary for the single market and a common commercial policy.
The EU will also share with member states competence in such areas as internal markets; social policies; economic, social and territorial cohesion; agriculture and fisheries; environment; consumer policy; transport; energy; freedom, security and justice; and public health.
According to the Lisbon Treaty, the EU will support, supplement or coordinate—but will not legislate—areas such as industry, culture, tourism and education.
This treaty recognizes the regional and local dimensions of the principle of subsidiary, and gives member states the right to secede from the EU.
Beyond that, it substantially extends the co-decision procedure—one that requires legislative approval by both the Council of Ministers and the member states.
But the Lisbon Treaty goes one step further: It also gives the European Parliament equal rights with the Council of Ministers to approve the EU budget.
This ensures that the European Parliament has full parity with the Council of Ministers on approving the entire annual budget—obviously a very important increase in power.
In addition, the treaty makes qualified majority voting the general rule. Qualified majority voting will now be defined as a double majority of 55 percent of the member states representing 65 percent of the population. A minimum of four member states is now required for a blocking minority, according to the treaty.
Under the Lisbon Treaty, 40 significant items have now been moved from unanimity in the Council of Ministers to qualified majority voting including the whole of justice and home affairs. Only the most sensitive policy areas will remain subject to unanimity—i.e. tax, social security, citizens' rights, languages, seats of the institutions and the main lines of common foreign, security and defense policies. But the new system will not come into force until 2014.
Enhanced cooperation will also be made easier. The Lisbon Treaty permits nine or more member states to introduce, among themselves, a core group to apply for qualified majority voting in a policy area still requiring unanimity among the 27 member states.
In addition, a structured cooperation in defense is established. This means militarily capable and politically willing member states may progress to permanent cooperation in defense.
A solidarity clause, meanwhile, has now been introduced in the context of armed aggression. Under the treaty that is, the European Council—or the council of European heads of state and government—is now officially an EU institution under the supervision of the European Court.
Another critical dimension of the treaty is the fact that the European Council now has a permanent president. Appointed for rotating terms of two and a half years (renewable once), the president will prepare, chair and drive forward the work of the European Council. This involves coordination, helping to reach consensus and reporting to the European Parliament.
Under the Lisbon Treaty, the post of high representative for foreign affairs and security policy (FP chief) will be substantially strengthened.