A system that must reconcile 27 states’ demands


ANALYSIS:  Part II: If ratified, the Lisbon Treaty will change the European Union's voting system and the way Ireland is represented in EU institutions. It will also involve changes to the rotating presidency of the EU and establish a new position of president

IN 1939, WINSTON Churchill described Russia as "a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma". The description could just as easily be applied to today's European Union, and in particular its institutions and decision-making system. The EU, to say the very least, is hardly a model of simplicity in the way it orders its business, although it can be argued that it could only be thus - given that the often diverging interests of 27 separate countries and almost half a billion citizens have to be taken into account.

The result has been a complex system of checks and balances between institutions representing national governments (known as the Council of Ministers), a directly elected assembly (the European Parliament), an independent body that drafts new proposals and ensures adopted laws are being implemented (the European Commission), a European court that interprets EU legislation, and a range of other bodies.

This article sets out some of the institutional changes provided for in the Lisbon Treaty, including how Ireland is represented in the EU institutions. Essentially, most European legislation, such as directives, is based on the agreement of a large proportion of EU states (represented by national Ministers in the Council) and a majority of MEPs in the European Parliament.

The current system of decision-making between EU states is in most cases based on vote weightings, designed to take some account of bigger or smaller populations in different EU countries - at present Ireland has seven votes out of a total 345 under this system, ie just over 2 per cent of the total. However, it should be noted that the reality of EU decision-making is that an emphasis is always placed on securing unanimous agreement whenever this is possible.

The Lisbon Treaty, if ratified, would replace this vote weighting system with what is sometimes known as a double majority system by 2014 (with transitional arrangements in place until 2017). Under the new system, proposals would have to fulfil two requirements or thresholds, receiving the support of:

• 55 per cent of states, ie at least 15 states out of 27; and

• States representing 65 per cent of the EU's population.

Under the first threshold, Ireland would effectively have one vote of 27, ie almost 4 per cent of the total. Under the second threshold which is based on population, Ireland has a population of 4.2 million people out of 493 million across the EU as a whole, ie almost 1 per cent of the total. If the Lisbon Treaty is not ratified, the current vote weighting system would be retained, with Ireland having 2 per cent of the total number of votes.

There are a small number of areas where the unanimous agreement of all EU states is a legal requirement - this veto for all EU countries still applies to decisions concerning taxation, defence and social security.

While the Lisbon Treaty would maintain the veto for these areas, the system of majority voting would be extended to a limited number of areas, such as decisions on energy policy, funding initiatives for culture and sport, negotiation of agreements on the trade of cultural and audiovisual services with non-EU countries, and emergency aid for developing countries.

A general clause is also introduced whereby EU leaders can decide to change the decision-making system for a certain area from unanimity to majority voting, and also to increase the role of the European Parliament - however, all countries must agree to such a change, and this provision cannot be used for defence and military issues. In addition, a safeguard is included whereby any single national parliament can block such a change before it takes effect.

In the interests of greater transparency, the Lisbon Treaty provides that when taking decisions on new EU legislation, national Ministers will meet in public - some sessions are already made public and can be viewed as podcasts at www.consilium.europa.eu

The Lisbon Treaty would also reform the format of the EU presidency, which is currently rotated between different countries every six months. The new treaty would establish a new position of president of the European Council, who would be elected by EU leaders to chair meetings of EU summits and act in a representative role for the EU, but would have no executive powers. A number of possible names have been touted for this post - including Bertie Ahern - although for the moment this remains pure speculation.

Under the new treaty EU leaders would also elect a high representative of the union for foreign affairs and security policy to chair meetings of national foreign ministers. The high representative would also hold office as a vice-president of the European Commission. The treaty also provides for team presidencies, whereby three countries would together share the duties of chairing most other EU meetings over an 18 month period.

The size of the European Commission would be reduced if the Lisbon Treaty were ratified. Currently, each EU country nominates one of the 27 commissioners. The existing treaties provide for a reduction in the number of commissioners, so that even if Lisbon were rejected, there would from 2009 be less than 27 commissioners.

However, if ratified, the Lisbon Treaty would set the number of commissioners at two-thirds the number of member states by 2014, with a guarantee that the right to nominate a commissioner would be rotated between countries on the basis of equality between states, regardless of size. This means that in an EU of 27, there would be 18 commissioners. With each commission serving a term of five years, in practice this would mean that each country, large or small, would be entitled to nominate a commissioner to serve for 10 years out of every 15.

There would also be some changes in the composition of the European Parliament, although this will not affect Irish representation. The Lisbon Treaty would set the maximum number of members of the European Parliament at 750, plus a non-voting president. Under the Lisbon Treaty, Ireland would elect 12 MEPs to the European Parliament, the same number that is foreseen in the existing treaties.

The Lisbon Treaty also gives additional powers to the directly-elected European Parliament. An increased number of decisions will require co-decision - that is agreement of a large proportion of EU states, plus the agreement of a majority of MEPs. For example, the Lisbon Treaty extends co-decision to areas such as agriculture, climate change, and arrangements relating to the single currency, the euro.

The Lisbon Treaty also contains a number of provisions on the role of national parliaments - in particular, a third of national parliaments will be able to issue a "reasoned opinion" against a proposal to legislate at EU level, on the basis that it may be better dealt with at national or local level. This is in line with the principle of subsidiarity. This would require the Commission to review the proposal, or if necessary justify why a proposal complies with the principle of subsidiarity.

A national parliament may also refer proposals to the European Court of Justice to assess whether a proposal should be decided at EU level at all, or whether it is better dealt with at national or local level. The court would adjudicate such a matter, and if necessary strike out the legislation if it exceeded the mandate of the EU under the treaties.

The Lisbon Treaty would also introduce a number of general democratic principles at EU level, including provisions on representative democracy, participation and the role of civil society in EU decisions, and the need for EU institutions to consult the public and those affected by EU decisions, and to take account of the financial and administrative burdens EU proposals might impose.

Another provision that would be introduced if the Lisbon Treaty was ratified is known as the Citizens' Initiative. Under this provision, a million signatures could be collected as a means of inviting the Commission to submit a new proposal for EU legislation on a particular topic that citizens feel might be necessary.

Although it is not made compulsory for the Commission to respond, and while of course there is no guarantee that such a proposal would gather sufficient support from national governments and MEPs to pass into law, it is reasonable to assume that such an initiative would carry considerable weight, given that it would be based on the support of a considerable number of people.

The Lisbon Treaty also provides for two different approaches in making future revisions to the EU treaties.

The first method would involve the summoning of a convention representing national governments, national parliaments, and the EU institutions to draft changes to the treaties. Any proposed changes would then require unanimous agreement of all EU countries, and ratification in accordance with each country's constitutional requirements.

A second option would be available specifically for revisions to the treaties' provisions on certain EU policy areas, such as the single market, justice, transport, employment, consumer protection, etc. Again, this change would have to be ratified by each country in accordance with their constitutional requirements, eg by referendum. Such a change could not increase the competences of the EU.

For the first time, the Lisbon Treaty would also establish a procedure for a state to voluntarily withdraw from the EU and negotiate a separate agreement with the EU, if it chooses to do so.

As pointed out in Saturday's Irish Times( Lisbon Treaty aims to update European Union's rulebook, Opinion and Analysis), the idea behind these two articles has been to set out in a factual way the key provisions of the treaty. Because of the complexity of the text, a selective approach has been necessary in dealing with some of its main provisions.

However, there are a range of information sources where more detailed information can be accessed. For example the National Forum on Europe, set up as an arena where different views on Ireland's place within Europe can be discussed, has published a more detailed guide which is available on www.forumoneurope.ie. A consolidated version of the treaties, including the proposed amendments under Lisbon, has been drawn up by the Institute of European Affairs and is available at www.iiea.com. The Referendum Commission's precis of what the treaty would means is on www.lisbontreaty2008.ie/ index.html

Dr Mark Callanan lectures in European Studies at the Institute of Public Administration in Dublin.