The European Union again looks to the future

Dr Javier I. García González. Professor. IE University

6 February 2008

The recently signed Lisbon Treaty has brought new lifeblood to the EU after the failed Constitution, and now looks set to play a greater role in international politics.

We probably will not hear it referred to as the failed "European Constitution", but the Lisbon Treaty aims to form part of our lives over the coming years. On 19 October, 2007, European leaders managed to finish a job they more or less completed in June, thanks to a successful German presidency. The reward for the current Portuguese presidency will be that the new document that will govern the life and workings of the European Union will bear the name of the country´s capital, where it was signed by the heads of government on 13 December, 2007. From that moment, a process for the ratification of the treaty by each member state began which, if all goes according to plan, will lead to the re-written text coming into effect at the beginning of 2009 (except for certain provisions that have been postponed until 2014), replacing the current Nice Treaty.

Hence we see the beginning of the end of a crisis that has not been the first and will not be the last, and one that has set the members of the European Union against each other on matters that are fundamental for defining its very nature, modus operandi and future. The now discarded "Constitutional Treaty" addressed many of these issues by shaping a European Union with a high level of integration, not only in economic terms, but also on a political, social and even symbolic level; however, the idea proved to be too ambitious. The history of European integration shows us that the Union has progressed better in short steps (albeit quickly at times) than in leaps and bounds and the misnamed Constitution was seen by many citizens as a large leap, beginning with its very denomination. In hindsight, the halt in the process for the building of Europe during these two years may even have helped a Europe that is growing in both size and complexity put its feet back on the ground, immersed in a world that is becoming increasingly small and interconnected.

However, we cannot consider the Lisbon Treaty as the disappointing by-product of the failure of the Constitutional Treaty. It is open to much criticism, but it is the document that was adopted a few days ago and is set to maintain the essential part of the new ideas laid down in the rejected Constitution. It will not only streamline the management of a complex organisation with 27 members, but also enable progress in integration, in line with European tradition. Lisbon is therefore not good news for those who prefer a Union that is satisfied with being a large market and a mere instrument for the economic progress of its member states. Decision-taking by a qualified majority (eliminating the possibility of veto by one country in many areas), the strengthening of the European Parliament´s prerogatives with the strengthening of the co-decision mechanism and the inclusion in the Union´s Affairs of issues like immigration, the fight against drug trafficking and terrorism all represent progress in terms of political integration. At the very least they translate into a "deepening" that must not be underestimated by any means, even if many may consider that only a meagre amount of progress is being made.

Special mention must be made of two new features of the Lisbon Treaty that will make a decisive contribution to increasing the "visibility" and effectiveness of the European Union as an international heavyweight. This has been one of the main faults of the European project to date, but it is becoming more and more difficult to uphold the fact that an economic bloc as powerful as the Union has such little presence and influence on the international political scenario as a whole. Challenges such as poverty and underdevelopment, immigration, local or regional armed conflicts, terrorism, international crime, the risk of nuclear proliferation, the climate change and the lack of freedom, among many others, are global problems to which the Union of the 21st century cannot remain indifferent as an organisation. The reform adopted in Lisbon includes a number of steps forward in this respect.

On the one hand, it establishes a stable, long-term presidency of the European Council (up to 5 years), which will represent the Union abroad, and become a kind of "President of Europe" as far as public opinion is concerned. On the other, the Treaty creates the figure of the High Representative of the Union for Foreign and Security Policy, into which the two posts currently holding competency in the Union´s foreign affairs have been merged (the High Representative for Foreign Policy and Common Safety (currently Javier Solana) and the Commissioner for External Relations. This area is thus strengthened and the overlaps and lack of coordination that have often led to differences between institutions are avoided.

The new treaty also avoids the denomination of "Minister of Foreign Affairs" that was laid down in the Constitution; however, the functions of this High Representative will be similar to those assigned to said minister and there will also be a European Union external relations service (also newly created) to support his/her work. With these two figures, the European Union will have the capacity to contact other players that was previously much more limited and, although foreign policy, security and defence remain national competencies (and will do so for many years), the instruments for the Union to intervene in these areas in a coherent, more coordinated way, applying its influence, with the obvious political permission of the corresponding states, have been improved significantly.

In short, the Lisbon Treaty is not the Constitutional Treaty, although it has inherited much of its more important content, although concessions have been made to the governments that were more reticent with regard to political integration and everything that smacked of the Union becoming a large State in itself has been discarded. Perhaps the most important aspect is that it has enabled a return to the construction of Europe that was so sorely damaged by the results of the referendums held in France and Holland. It seems that no one wants to go through that torment again and the ratifications will be made fundamentally by the popular representatives in the parliaments (except where the referendum is constitutionally imperative, as is the case of Ireland). The road appears clearer than when the failed process of ratification of the Constitution began, but the different national problems will not allow the waters to remain calm until the end. Once it has come into effect, there will still be many matters pending, from the decisions on future extensions to how to define a citizen´s role in the construction of Europe (there is still talk of democratic deficit).

Furthermore, the debates between those who prefer a Europe that is fundamentally a market and those in favour of greater political and social integration are nowhere near closed. However, all these discussions have formed part of the European Union´s history almost since it began and they have been held and dealt with over time. Setting off again, albeit at a slow pace and taking short steps, is the way forward, and Lisbon is taking us in that direction.

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