Do small states and democracy lose out?


Lisbon explained: part 3:The amendments to the EU institutions proposed in Lisbon are by no means a perfect solution but, when compared with existing practices, represent a step forward in terms of democratic accountability, writes Jamie SmythEuropean Correspondent

WHEN EU leaders met in the Belgian town of Laeken in 2001 to discuss the future of the Union, they declared the project a "success story" but identified a democratic challenge.

Noting that citizens supported the EU's broad aims, they also acknowledged that the public does not always connect these goals with the Union's everyday actions.

In the Laeken declaration, they called for reform to bring the EU closer to citizens and to improve efficiency and scrutiny of its institutions. After the rejection of the EU constitution by voters in 2005, EU leaders designed the Lisbon Treaty to introduce institutional changes to try to meet the Laeken challenges.

Supporters of Lisbon cite key proposed changes to enhance democratic accountability, such as giving national parliaments a scrutiny role over EU legislation, and expanding the scope of MEPs' right to share in decision-making with ministers (co-decision) to at least 60 new areas.

They claim that changes to the Council of Ministers' voting system and the membership of the European Commission will make the EU function more efficiently while ensuring Irish sovereignty is not diluted.

"No" campaigners claim Lisbon undermines accountability by: giving the EU institutions the right to legislate in new areas (competences), in the process reducing the Oireachtas's power to scrutinise ministerial actions; reducing the Republic's voting power at the Council of Ministers; and removing the State's right to a permanent commissioner.

Lisbon introduces a new voting system for the EU's main legislative and co-ordinating body, the Council of Ministers, which represents all member states.

Decisions at the council are generally taken by qualified majority voting, under a system weighted to reflect, loosely, member states' relative sizes.

Currently, 255 votes are required out of 345 votes to pass a law. The Republic (population four million) gets seven votes, while Germany (population 80 million) gets 29 votes.

Lisbon introduces a new "double majority" voting system that rebalances voting weights to bring them closer to population size. Under this system, to pass a decision by qualified majority will normally require the double hurdle of at least 55 per cent of member states while representing at least 65 per cent of the population of the EU.

One of the key attractions of the double majority system, apart from its simplicity, is that by better reflecting the population of Europe, it is designed to be more democratic. It should also give the public a better understanding of what is going on.

"No" campaigners, such as MEP Kathy Sinnott, criticise the system because it reduces the Republic's relative voting weight. This is true, but by better reflecting the overall EU population, it is more democratic.

Smaller states are protected by the requirement that 55 per cent of states (ie 17 out of 27) must back a proposal for it to pass.

The European Parliament is often cited as the big winner from Lisbon. The directly elected body gets the right to share in legislative decision-making (co-decision) with ministers in at least 60 new areas, including the sensitive fields of justice and home affairs.

The parliament also gets enhanced powers over the EU budget, including, for the first time, over agricultural spending, and the right to elect the president of the European Commission.

"No" campaigners claim that removing member states' veto at the council in the 60 or so new areas undermines Irish sovereignty. Lisbon supporters say this is not a loss of sovereignty but a sharing of it in areas where the EU is often better able than member states to respond to challenges emerging from globalisation.

There can be little doubt though that the extension of co-decision to directly elected MEPs should enhance the scrutiny of draft laws, particularly in the field of justice, until now solely the preserve of ministers at the council.

Lisbon also engages national parliaments more in decision- making by requiring the commission to send new legislative proposals to all 27 parliaments for pre-screening.

The agendas and outcomes of all councils must also be provided to TDs.

Under a new "yellow card" system, a third of national parliaments can club together to force the commission to reconsider a proposal, while a simple majority of parliaments can ask the council and European Parliament to vote on whether a proposal should be thrown out.

Other Lisbon initiatives enhance accountability. A new citizens' initiative means that a petition signed by one million voters will require the commission to propose legislation in an area under its jurisdiction. Council of Ministers' meetings, meanwhile, will be televised when legislation is being debated and voted on.

"No" campaigners have criticised the creation of a new post of president of the European Council because he or she will not be elected but will be nominated by EU leaders. But whether the post carries significant power or serves merely as a chairman of the council has yet to be decided.

A more far-reaching change that could have real relevance for small states is the proposal in Lisbon to reduce the size of the commission.

This means that from 2014, every EU state would only be able to nominate a commissioner twice out of every three commissions.

The Republic fought hard in the talks on the draft EU constitution to ensure that the nomination of commissioners was made on the basis of equal rotation, and a mechanism to this effect was included in Lisbon.

The Government can also point to the fact that until 2004 big EU states had two commissioners. Viewed from this perspective, the compromise in Lisbon seems a fair deal for smaller states.

However critics of Lisbon can rightly point to the importance traditionally attached by small countries to having a national commissioner at the table.

While commissioners pledge to represent the EU as a whole and not their home state, in practice - whether it's Charlie McCreevy defending the State's corporate tax policy or Günter

Verheugen defending the German car industry - national politics can become an important factor.

Overall, Lisbon introduces important changes to the European institutions, which should make decision-making more efficient and transparent. It is a compromise, by no means a perfect solution, and in areas such as double majority voting the political concessions needed to get a deal among all 27

EU states resulted in additional complexity.

But when the amendments proposed in Lisbon are compared to existing practices under the current EU treaties, the treaty represents a step forward in terms of democratic accountability.

TOMORROW: A new voice on the world stage?