What Lisbon means for Europe

openDemocracy asked five of our authors for their takes on the passage of the Lisbon Treaty. Here are their comments
Dennis Nottebaum Simon Zadek Jerome di Costanzo Timothy Garton Ash
9 November 2009

A European foreign policy at last, T Garton Ash

Yes, but what about the bureaucratic centralisation, S Zadek

Glimmers of a European public sphere, D Nottebaum

The slow and steady abandonment of democracy, V Curzon Price

Vandalism against nations, Jerome di Costanzo



Timothy Garton Ash

Timothy Garton Ash is Professor of European Studies in the University of Oxford

I am delighted that the Lisbon treaty has finally come into force. It is not a great leap forward. It is not a constitution. It certainly does not create the federal superstate of Eurosceptic nightmare. But it does give us the institutional means to make a European foreign policy, if we want to. And that is what Europe needs to defend the interests of all its citizens in an increasingly interdependent, globalised world - and a world where emerging non-Western giants, above all China will increasingly call the shots.

Now we must develop the strategic culture and the political will to make it a reality. That can't be done just in Brussels or only by elites. It needs popular support and participation as well. I write from Madrid, where I'm attending a meeting of the European Council on Foreign Relations, which is dedicated to this purpose. I hope oD readers will look at that website, and perhaps come up with suggestions for more 'open democracy' in the debate about European foreign policy.

Simon Zadek

Simon Zadek is Director of AccountAbility and a Senior Fellow at John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University

The most depressing comments I have heard about the Lisbon Treaty is that it will make life easier in Brussels, a managerialist perspective that lacks insight as to the need, and what it takes to catalyze energetic and wise leadership across our sprawling continent of communities. The Lisbon Treaty can be a major step forward in creating continental coherence and forging a role for Europe in global affairs, and an equally huge step backward in strengthening centralised Europe’s bureaucratic politics. It is a deal we need because Europe cannot be internationally absent or inarticulate, but a deal we will regret if it reinforces such bureaucratisation rather than unlocking true leadership. Whilst Mr Blair should not be a serious contender for the role, it is not because of his charisma and drive, but because of his underlying uninterest in and neglect of Europe during his tenure as prime minister. The failure to leverage the hard-fought-for treaty by consciously selecting a lesser leader that will signal Europe’s continued immaturity as a community of nations that does not believe in itself and its role in the coming century.

Dennis Nottebaum

Dennis Nottebaum is researching the link between international trade and democratization processes, as well as issues of European integration and transatlantic relations, at the University of Münster and Seton Hall University

Identity is the ground on which any political system relies. Identifying and strengthening common norms and values is a central prerequisite for the functioning of a democratic system and its normative legitimacy. Such a system can only be stable under the support of the citizenry. This presupposes the sharing of common aims and values on which the society and the institutions ground. But on which common norms and values does the EU rest? The debate on European identity has been around for years, but up to the very day most Europeans are not able to identify a convincing common denominator. 

Judging from the historical exceptionality of the project of European integration, this is not surprising. National identity in Europe is largely linked to the nation state. A similar development on the European level is due to the cultural, religious and political diversity of the Union hardly feasible. European politics and society therefore face the unique challenge of fostering a process of identity formation which is largely beyond any direct influence. However, there are certainly ways to steer the future development and set incentives in order to promote common European identity. 

To the very day there have not evolved any truly European parties, notable mass media or other types of communicative means of a European scope. The main focus of the people lies within their home country or region. The EU remains largely independent from the steering power of communicative discourse and thus insufficiently legitimized. But it is precisely this interaction within the citizenry and between citizens and state bodies within the public sphere that enables members of society to identify with the state. Here lies, I believe, the great deficit of the European Union.

Then, now that the Lisbon Treaty becomes European law, are there any positive impacts on the development of a European public sphere to be expected? Influencing the way people deal with their political surrounding and perceive their identity is arguably one of the most challenging and formidable undertakings in politics. However, history does give us many examples that it can happen. The Westphalian nation state was beyond imagination before 1648, and so was a peaceful Europe in 1945. In both cases it was collective political decision-making that paved the way for a successful transition and the development of a corresponding identity that seems only too natural from today’s perspective. Thus, I believe that the Lisbon Treaty is apt to shape a European public sphere; not alone, and not entirely, but still significantly. An EU president and foreign minister (in all but the name) will increase visibility and facilitate identification with the European idea. Improved institutional mechanisms (both in terms of efficiency and legitimacy) won’t go unnoticed. It will become harder for EU skeptics to point at Brussels in search of the root of all evil, and for national politicians to blame Brussels for unpopular decisions that they themselves agreed upon in the Council.

Political capital will continue to generate larger returns when invested in Madrid, Warsaw, or Rome rather than in Brussels, but the gap will get smaller. I would therefore expect an attention shift towards the EU. This will be fueled by pictures of the new president - albeit weak in the beginning - shaking hands with Barack Obama or Vladimir Putin in Brussels.

After all, the Lisbon Treaty is another step towards a better-functioning, more visible European Union. It is not and cannot be the last step, but after all, peaceful political progress does not work in quantum leaps, but gradually. It is remarkable how ‘European’ my generation already is while the generation of our fathers was still divided in a cold war on the verge of turning hot only some 20 years ago. Common norms are developing, and so is a truly European identity.

Victoria Curzon Price

Professor Emerita, Geneva University

It is well known that Brussels suffers from a “democratic deficit”.  There is no separation of powers between the legislative and the executive branches of government (the Council of Ministers does both), no proper separation of powers between different levels of government (especially between EU and member states), and no democratic representation in the main decision-making bodies of the European Union.  The European Parliament (a consultative assembly rather than a proper parliament) is kept quite intentionally in a subsidiary position, and even if this were to change, its huge constituencies would be enough to keep voter interest to a minimum.

The avowed purpose of the Lisbon Treaty is to expand the powers of EU institutions and “streamline” EU decision-making procedures.  It does this by limiting member states’ veto powers and adding new policy areas to its already not inconsiderable portfolio. It adds some 40 new areas to “qualified majority voting” (QMV) procedures. It relaxes QMV requirements.  In addition to existing “exclusive competences”, several new “shared competences” are added. In the areas of personal liberty, security and justice, social and public health policies, research and technology, space policy and energy. The use of the word “competence” for “policy area” is just involuntary humour on the part of the EU bureaucracy., not a real claim to be competent. As well as this, a new category of “complementary competences” is created. This includes the areas of health policy, industrial policy, cultural policy, tourism, education, youth and sport policy, civil protection and administrative cooperation.  This last looks harmless enough, but arguably provides the legal basis for Euro Big Brother to keep a watchful eye on things. In the few areas where unanimity is still the rule (taxation, national defence), “passerelle” clauses  allow the Council of Ministers to decide (unanimously) to move to QMV if need be, while a new catch-all “enabling clause” covers all future contingencies.  This potentially enlarges the future scope of the EU to almost anything.  As one inside observer puts it “With the new treaty, the Union will not need, and will not seek, the transfer of new competences from member states” .

The old Treaty of Rome contained the possibility, in Article 235, for the Council of Ministers to decide to enter any new policy area which the Treaty had failed to provide for, if needed for the proper operation of the common market:

“If action by the Community should prove necessary to attain, in the course of the operation of the common market, one of the objectives of the Community and this Treaty has not provided the necessary powers, the Council shall, acting unanimously on a proposal from the Commission and after consulting the Assembly, take the appropriate measures”

Treaty of Rome, Article 235

This clause remained unchanged throughout successive Treaties, with the exception of “Assembly” being replaced by “European Parliament”.  It was used regularly to expand the scope of EU action into new areas as and when needed, expansions which were duly incorporated into successive versions of the original Treaty of Rome as the EU progressed (EU action in the environment, research, technology and labour market policy are all examples of such additions).

In the Lisbon Treaty the “enabling clause” became known as the “flexibility clause” for reasons which should be immediately apparent.  Article 352 of the Treaty of Lisbon amending EC and EU Treaties reads as follows:

“If action by the Union should prove necessary, within the framework of the policies defined in the Treaties, to attain one of the objectives set out in the Treaties, and the Treaties have not provided the necessary powers, the Council, acting unanimously on a proposal from the Commission and after obtaining the consent of the European Parliament, shall adopt the appropriate measures…”

The operative phrase here is “within the framework” of all the Treaties, which is much broader than the old “in the course of the operation of the common market”.  The various policy-areas, some new, some old, in which the EU is now involved include monetary policy, police and judicial cooperation, common foreign and security policy, the fundamental rights of citizens (including civil, political, social and economic rights such as the right to education, housing, fair working conditions etc.), as well as public policies regarding employment, social and health policy, sport, research and technology, space, energy, tourism and civil defence.  In all of these areas the Council may adopt “appropriate measures” to attain any one of these objectives. 

Past experience suggests that unanimity in the Council of Ministers is not an insuperable barrier to expanding the EU’s “areas of competence”. 

Roland Vaubel points out in an IEA pamphlet that decision-making in the Council of Ministers is heavily biased because the Council is a legislative body made up of ministers wielding executive power back home.  This means that they have an incentive to transfer legislative powers to the EU at the expense of their national parliaments.  Vaubel also points out that if broad support gathers in the Council of Ministers for a particular measure, log-rolling can often be relied upon to supply unanimity for even controversial decisions.  Unpopular measures can be passed off as bowing to an overwhelming EU mandate and national parliaments are thus increasingly bypassed.  I have argued (see the forthcoming Handbook on European Integration by Jovanovic)  that if inter-EU institutional competition (for example, in fiscal matters) becomes unbearable, Ministers will be tempted to expand EU powers in this direction, even if taxation lies at the heart of any democracy. 

The Lisbon Treaty is simply the latest in a long line of decisions all tending in the same centralising direction.  This time around, very few voters have been asked their opinion, and those few have finally swung into line.  In a generation or two people will wonder why and when they gave up their democratic rights so easily.


Jerome di Costanzo


The day after the End of the World.

If you were a eurosceptic, a signature on the Lisbon Treaty was certainly the end of the World. On the other hand, if you were a ‘europhoric’ the non-ratification could also be the end of the world. So, in a consensual way, with or without the Treaty it is the end of the world. And in the spirit of seeing things from opposite points of view, you can take this seriously or with humour.

This article won’t attempt to explain the details of the massive document, but to develop the larger points and open a debate. Maybe Tony Curzon Price, our fearless editor – God bless him – thinks that to give this sort of job to a droll Frenchman – a hereditary enemy, a conservative Thug, an exile in North Yorkshire – could save the honorable medium of Opendemocracy from taking a too partial part in this debate.

The first innovation of the Treaty is a European president with a mandate of 2 and a half years. The intention is to give a face to Europe, elected by the Heads of State or Government. However the presidency of the European Council shall continue as before with each State member taking turns. So apparently nothing much has changed – in fact it is just a question of window dressing. The impossibility of finding an agreement between the EU members about the Head of the administration has meant that the strategy now is to demonstrate the usefulness of  “one face and voice”. With the Treaty Eurocrats want to put the principle into practice – still fresh in the European memory is the success the personality and media-savvy talent of Nicolas Sarkozy had during the Georgian crisis. The President of Europe shall be an office of charisma and will need an entertaining talent. This makes Tony Blair the ideal candidate. Along with the president will be a High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security, which before the treaty was called the Minister of Foreign Affairs. If in the text the role doesn’t change, it was stipulated that the States’ members shall delegate a part of their sovereignty to him. This soft change in the organigram of the EU – an elected president and re-titled minister – is the embryonic basis for a real political Head of Europe with a common diplomacy. So by not finding agreement, the big vision shall be imposed in practice.

The second important point of the Treaty is the chapter concerning defence. This is a development for the co-operation between the different armies, but it highlights the sensitive problem of the balance of forces between USA and Russia. With the withdrawal of American weapons from the Polish-Russian border and the delicate appeasement on this between the two ex-great powers, and with France’s return to Nato’s command, the question is how build European defence without entering another diplomatic battle, which could feasibly open negotiations for some States, such as Iran, to claim the right to nuclear power? This is such a delicate question, especially when you have some powerful States who want to see Europe neuturalised like Finland. And with a European independent force, is Nato redundant? An agreement is necessary, and history teaches us that the world would be more peaceful with an agreement including Russia, America and Europe. The Lisbon Treaty opens this can of worms, but as before, it doesn’t give an answer and the fundamental questions are masked by a smoke screen of inter-force co-operation.

My third point is on the justice chapter with the Fundamental Rights Charter. Some countries, such as Poland, UK and the Czech Republic, haven’t signed this part of Treaty. It confirms that the EU members will not be in contradiction with the European Convention on Human Rights’ regulations and directives. If it reaffirms the prohibition of human cloning, it establishes as a fundamental value the dignity, freedom, equality, solidarity, citizens rights, and justice of the people. Good verbal intentions but perhaps just a patchwork of generic words.

The real problem is not Lisbon and the EU, but the European Court of Human Rights. For example it judged that crucifixes in Italian classrooms violate human rights. It gave permission for French gay bachelors, who live as couples, to adopt. The problem isn’t that it enters the debate about secularism and the rights of the sexual minorities, but that it can break or oppose national rules. the ECHR is not constrained by any principle of subsidiarity, which states that a local working authority can’t be made redundant by a global one. It is a betrayal for the benefit of certain ideologies. After 1st December the EU Court of Justice, in agreement with the Treaty, shall be bound by the judicial precedents of the Human Rights court.

The same dynamic is found in the desire to break down the Nation-State – springing from a belief that nations were the origin of the last century’s wars. This is for me a thoughtless condemnation of a political system, which still exists and works, and which has been a refuge for many people in Europe. How could you explain to a Czech that attachment to Nation is a bad thing, when this feeling liberated their country from Communist imperialism? I believe that the debates around Europe about national identity, as in France and UK, are good, if they aren’t a thinly disguised compensation for the abolition of the Nation as prescribed by the Lisbon philosophy.

It is also deplorable to observe the lack of democracy in the European institutions. A president elected by the council isn’t great progress, but make-up on an unattractive face. And it seems that the disinterest in democracy has contaminated the Conservative party in the UK with its slippery wriggle out of the need for a national referendum.

This is a Europe without a great sense of democracy, but with a precarious defence policy, a relativist sense of justice and a denial of the existence of Nation – it rejected, by its absence in the Treaty, any reference to Greek democracy, because of the Greeks’ slavery and misogynistic tendencies and it rejected Europe’s Judeo-Christian roots because of the Inquisition. This Europe seems tasteless or dangerously soulless – like a hyper-structure, a ballroom of relativism, and its only charm is its so attractive, juicy subventions for the newcomer. This End of the World is far from the city of God on Earth. Ah! Old Miss Europe, you shall be the perfect target for an amoral bunch of greedy gigolos!


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