Democratic gains of new treaty got lost last time

Tue, Sep 8, 2009, 01:00

THE ROAD TO LISBON II:In the second part of our series, European Correspondent JAMIE SMYTHexplains how the treaty creates a more democratic voting system and enhances  the role of MEPs as well  as those of national  parliaments

IN THE final days of the Irish presidency of the EU in 2004, Austrian chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel came to see taoiseach Bertie Ahern with a request. Austria, Finland and many of the new states that had just joined the union had argued passionately for months that they all should be allowed to retain their commissioners under a new EU constitution.

Ahern, who was negotiating the final compromise text, told Schüssel that this simply wouldn’t wash with the two biggest EU states, France and Germany. But he agreed to Schüssel’s request to propose a seemingly innocuous clause to the treaty, which said that if all EU leaders agreed unanimously, then the proposal in the draft constitution (and the existing Nice treaty) to reduce the size of the European Commission could be overturned.

At the time, no one realised this clause would come into play given the reluctance of Germany and France to countenance a commission with 27 members, which they argued would be grossly inefficient. But when last June Irish voters rejected the Lisbon Treaty, the daughter of the EU constitution, the clause suddenly offered EU diplomats their best chance of saving a set of reforms that had been the best part of eight years in the making.

At last December’s EU summit in Brussels all 27 EU leaders signed up to conclusions promising that every member state can keep their commissioner if the Lisbon Treaty is implemented. This enabled Taoiseach Brian Cowen to pledge for the first time to hold a second Lisbon referendum if Irish concerns on other aspects of the treaty were also met.

The Lisbon Treaty would put in place a whole series of institutional reforms such as revamping the voting system at the Council of Ministers, extending the powers of the European Parliament, and creating a new president of the European Council.

It was the proposal in the treaty to reduce the size of the commission by a third from 2014 that really struck a chord with Irish voters. Under Lisbon, every EU state would only be able to nominate a commissioner twice out of every three commissions from 2014 on a rotating basis, unless all EU leaders agreed to invoke the clause proposed by Schüssel.

No campaigners argued successfully last June that the loss of an Irish commissioner would reduce the country’s influence and undermine the democratic legitimacy of the commission, which proposes all key EU legislation. What Yes campaigners failed to communicate effectively to Irish voters was that under the existing EU rules, introduced via the Nice treaty in 2003, the size of the commission must be reduced in 2009.

There is no “Schüssel clause” embedded in the Nice treaty, which means that the only way to change the rules on the size of the commission is for all 27 states to ratify a new treaty.

Nice, unlike Lisbon, failed to spell out exactly how the commission should be reduced in size, but it clearly states that the number of commissioners must be less than the number of states when the next EU executive is appointed. “It is obvious, it is law. It is the treaty and cannot change. If we don’t have a positive vote on Lisbon, some countries will not have a commissioner,” says European Commission president José Manuel Barroso, who plans to deliver this stark message to Irish voters on a visit here later this month.

Another important reform proposed by Lisbon is the introduction of a new voting system for the EU’s main legislative and co-ordinating body, the Council of Ministers, which represents all EU 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 attractions of the double majority system, apart from its simplicity, is that by better reflecting the EU population, it is designed to be more democratic. It should also give the public a better understanding of what is going on when votes are taken on issues.

No campaigners criticise the system because it reduces Ireland’s relative voting weight against big states. This is true, but by better reflecting the overall EU population, it is more democratic. Smaller states are also protected by the requirement that 55 per cent of states (17 out of 27) must back a proposal for it to pass under the new voting system.

The European Parliament is often cited as the big winner from Lisbon.

MEPs get 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.

Lisbon 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.

Lisbon also introduces a potentially powerful new EU post of president of the European Council. He/She will take on a lot of the responsibilities currently overseen by the six-month rotating EU presidency, such as co-ordinating the day-to-day working of the council and representing the EU at overseas meetings.

This should introduce more continuity to the council’s international representation by providing a single point of contact for other world leaders. For example, former Russian president Vladimir Putin met 16 different EU council presidents at summits – hardly a recipe for continuity.

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 chair of the council has yet to be decided, and this may depend on the personality appointed by EU leaders.

Lisbon also beefs up the existing role of the union’s foreign policy supremo, currently Javier Solana, the “high representative of the union for foreign affairs and security policy”, by giving the incumbent a seat on the commission on top of his existing role in the council of ministers.

By “wearing two hats”, the high representative will be better able to co-ordinate the EU’s international policies by drawing on the civilian capabilities under the control of the commission and the military and crisis management forces under the jurisdiction of the council, say Lisbon advocates.

The amendments to the EU institutions proposed in Lisbon are by no means a perfect solution but, when compared with existing practices, they represent a step forward in terms of democratic accountability, and should create a more efficient union.


Under the existing Nice treaty the number of commissioners appointed to the next EU executive must be less than the number of member states. No decision has yet been taken on how to reduce the size of the commission in the event of a second Irish no vote.

Lisbon proposes that from 2014 member states will only be allowed to nominate a commissioner for two out three terms (for 10 years out of 15). However, EU leaders agreed in December to invoke a clause enabling all states to nominate a commissioner indefinitely. This can only be changed through a unanimous vote of all 27 EU leaders.

The European Parliament acquires new co-decision powers in over 60 areas of policy (in the areas in which ministers relinquish their veto). These new policy areas include extra powers in agriculture, asylum, immigration, judicial co-operation and measures relating to the internal market. MEPs are also get equal say with Council over the EU budget.

The Council of Ministers takes decisions either by consensus (unanimity) or on many issues under a system known as qualified majority voting (QMV) — under QMV each member state is allocated a number of votes that reflects its size (currently Ireland — 7, UK — 29). To be enacted, a measure must be passed by almost three quarters of the votes.

In 2014 the QMV system will be overhauled. To be approved legislation will have to achieve a “double majority” — 55 per cent of member-states must back it (with 27 member-states, a majority will require the support of 15), and they must represent 65 per cent of the EU’s population.

While the six-month presidency of the EU will continue to pass from member-state to member-state, a new president of the European Council will be elected for terms of two and a half years. His/her function will be to chair meetings, co-ordinate work, and represent the EU internationally.

The council will share with the commission the job of High Representative for Common Foreign and Security Policy, to provide greater coherence and continuity in the Union’s external actions.

Under Lisbon when passing legislation the council will conduct its business in public.