EU will be more democratic and effective if Lisbon is ratified

Mon, Sep 28, 2009, 01:00

OPINION:The Lisbon Treaty is the outcome of a broader negotiation – and is a considerable improvement on Nice and Amsterdam, writes NOEL DORR

IRELAND’S VOTE on Friday will determine for the foreseeable future whether the European Union is to operate under the provisions of the Nice Treaty or those of the Lisbon Treaty. There is no third option at this stage.

I think I know the Nice Treaty reasonably well. I can honestly say that the Lisbon Treaty is much better.

I represented Ireland on the working group of officials which drafted the Nice Treaty over nine months in 2000. The text was finally agreed by the heads of state and government at Nice in December after four days of difficult negotiations. It was the best that could be achieved at that time – essentially a series of compromises on issues “left over” from the Amsterdam negotiations in 1996-97.

I had no role in relation to the Lisbon Treaty or indeed any negotiation subsequent to Nice. But I have read and re-read the “consolidated” text which shows what the EU treaties will look like if the Lisbon amendments come into force. I have no doubt it will be a great improvement on the two previous treaties – Nice and Amsterdam – which determine how the EU operates at present. Consider some examples.

First, Lisbon is the ultimate outcome of a negotiation that was longer, broader and more democratic than that which led to any previous treaty. Much of what it contains was shaped initially through open debate in 2002-2003 in a 104-member convention by representatives of 27 governments and national parliaments (including Opposition members) and of the European Parliament and the European Commission. In contrast, Nice, like all previous EU treaties, began with a closed drafting group of officials of which I was one.

Second, Lisbon will simplify the overall treaty structure. Many of the substantial provisions governing the operations and the policies of the EU will be carried forward unchanged. But they will now be set out clearly in just two basic treaties – the Treaty on European Union and the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union.

Third, Lisbon sets out with a new and admirable clarity the aims and objectives of the union and the principles on which it is based. The most fundamental of these is “the principle of conferral”. Put simply, this means that the EU can act only where the member states, in the treaties, give it authority to do so. Lisbon states clearly for the first time that any “competences” not conferred on the union by the treaties remain with the member states.

Fourth, the Lisbon formulation on human rights is much better than Nice. In preparing a first draft of the Amsterdam Treaty during Ireland’s 1996 presidency, my colleagues and I formulated what is now Article 6 of the EU Treaty. The union, it says “is founded on the principles of liberty, democracy, respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms and the rule of law”.

The Lisbon text amplifies this: it speaks of “respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities” and “a society in which pluralism, non-discrimination, tolerance, justice, solidarity and equality between men and women prevail”. I wish we could have written that. And now the Charter of Rights will have the same legal value as the treaties.

Fifth, Lisbon is clearer about democratic principles. It gives some role to national parliaments; it extends considerably the role of the European Parliament as “co-legislator” with the council and it makes it explicit that the EU functions on the basis of representative democracy. Citizens are directly represented in the European Parliament, and member states are represented in the council by governments democratically accountable to their parliaments or citizens.

Sixth, a particular Lisbon formulation that differs from Nice allows the heads of state/government, by unanimity, to alter the number of EU commissioners. Last June, all 27 agreed that if Lisbon comes into force, they will avail of this new phrasing to change the Nice requirement for a reduced commission and revert instead to one commissioner per member state as Ireland wanted.

Lisbon requires that any further change thereafter must be unanimous.

Seventh, Lisbon adds a provision on climate change.

Eighth, Lisbon, for the first time ever, allows a member state to withdraw from the union. We must hope that this will never happen but the existence of such a provision emphasises the nature of the EU – fundamentally a voluntary partnership of 27 sovereign states.

These are just some of the improvements in Lisbon. Is there a downside? Well, no – but some points cause genuine concern to people who hesitate about the new treaty.

One is that Lisbon gives the EU “legal personality” for the first time – essentially the power to make international agreements. Useful but hardly a reason to worry. After all, the European Communities we joined in 1973 each had legal personality. So too do the UN, the Council of Europe and many other international organisations.

Another is that we will be “citizens of the union”. Again not very alarming. We are that already since the Maastricht Treaty of 1992; and Lisbon states clearly that it is additional to, and does not replace, national citizenship.

Others say we will lose power – less scope for vetoes, more decisions by “qualified majority vote” and the “weighted vote” system of Nice in which Ireland counted for 2 per cent of the total will disappear.

Well yes, but consider three points. First, the “veto” has two sides: where it exists we can block what we don’t like but equally any other state can block proposals we may favour. Second, Lisbon requires council decisions to be supported by 15 member states, representing 65 per cent of the EU population. We count as 0.8 per cent of the total population but our vote as one state out of 27 counts for 3.7 per cent. No loss there. Thirdly, small states influence matters more than voting weight.

The EU is a careful balance – “a union of states and of peoples” – but some call for “more democracy”. Easy to do: if we tip the balance away from national sovereignty towards federalism, we could vote by population alone or elect a European Council president by popular vote. But are we ready for that? I doubt it.

Will Lisbon erode our neutrality? Since Maastricht a treaty provision safeguards the security/defence policy of “certain member states”. In their decision in June which will later be a protocol, 27 heads of government spell it out – Lisbon does not affect “Ireland’s traditional policy of military neutrality”. They also confirm our right to decide our military expenditure for ourselves and whether and how to help other member states under attack. Domestically we have our “triple lock” and our Constitution bars Ireland from taking part in a common European defence. How much more secure could our neutrality be?

There is much more to say. But all in all, as someone who helped negotiate Nice, I feel reasonably assured that a vote for Lisbon on Friday will produce a better treaty and a more effective EU.


Noel Dorr is a former secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs. He is member of The Irish Times Trust.