New pact to make EU more democratic, transparent

Key elements of rejected constitution in Lisbon Treaty to solidify the 27-member bloc, envoy says

by Takashi Kitazume

A landmark treaty to reform decision-making in the European Union stands a good chance of being ratified by all 27 member states by the end of 2008, a top EU diplomat to Japan told a recent seminar in Tokyo.

The Lisbon Treaty, signed by EU leaders Dec. 13, will not likely meet the same fate as the EU Constitution, which was scuppered by French and Dutch referendums in 2005, although the new treaty in substance retains key features of the rejected constitution, said Hugh Richardson, ambassador of the European Commission’s delegation to Japan.

During his speech at the Dec. 14 seminar organized by Keizai Koho Center, Richardson said the new treaty is the fruit of “two years of agonized reflection” among EU members following the 2005 setback in their bid for closer integration.

Its objectives are “to enable the EU to face new challenges, and give it a better institutional and political basis to meet the expectations of its citizens,” and many of the key elements of the rejected constitution are preserved in the new treaty “at least in substance, if not in name,” the ambassador told the audience.

The treaty will introduce more democracy and transparency in the way the EU is run, he said.

The European Parliament — elected by the direct votes of the people of member states — will be given a greater role in decision-making on major issues, and national parliaments will be allowed more active involvement in EU affairs, he said.

The treaty creates the “citizens’ initiative,” under which a petition signed by at least a million people from different member states can trigger action at the EU level, Richardson said.

For greater transparency, the EU Council — comprising representatives from member states — will hold legislative discussions, which have so far been held behind closed doors, in public, he said.

To ensure that the enlarged union will function effectively and quickly, the new treaty introduces more majority voting in the EU’s decision-making procedures, he said. Under the “qualified majority vote” that will be extended to more than 40 new policy areas, all member states will be bound by a decision favored by 55 percent of the member states representing 65 percent of the bloc’s population — even if key members like Germany, France and Britain voted against it, he added.

Under the treaty, the EU Council will have a full-time president who can serve up to five years — a position to replace the current six-month rotating presidency — and a foreign policy “high representative” who will serve as EU foreign minister in all but name, Richardson said.

Externally, the new treaty will give the EU “a legal personality and public international role,” Richardson explained. The EU can now be a full member of international organizations and a contracting party to international treaties, he said.

Such a new status will provide the EU with “greater responsibility and legitimacy” at a time when it needs to play more active roles in global issues, including the fight against terrorism and efforts to deal with climate change, he said.

So what next? The EU has set a target of having the new treaty ratified by member states and come into force in time for the next European Parliament elections in 2009.

“I think there is a good chance that the treaty will be ratified by all 27 member states during 2008,” Richardson said, noting that several member states have indicated that they will seek quick ratification through parliamentary approval.

The envoy said he believes that the treaty will not be put to a referendum in any of the member countries except Ireland, which is constitutionally bound to hold one.

“I have the impression that the strategy of major member states is to quickly generate momentum and to get a lot of member states on board,” he told the audience. “Somebody may say ‘no,’ but once the process gets started, I don’t think that somebody saying ‘no’ would necessarily be fatal to the process the way the French and Dutch referendum results were fatal to the constitution.”

What has changed since the 2005 French and Dutch rejections of the constitution? In the Lisbon Treaty, all references to an EU flag or anthem were deleted, in an apparent move to assuage Euroskeptics’ fears of further moves toward a European statehood or federal Europe.

Richardson said the differences are more than cosmetic. The new treaty is “less grandiose in every way” than the rejected constitution, he said. “It’s a treaty, not a constitution. . . . It’s politically different, (although it is) perhaps legally not so different.”

The envoy also noted that results of the 2005 referendums were not just about the constitution itself. Academic studies, opinion surveys and other research in Europe since the rejection all came to the conclusion that the “no” votes were in fact directed against something else, he said.

“They were about the fear of immigration, fear about loss of jobs due to immigration, fear of (EU’s possible) enlargement to Turkey, hostility to the then-governments in France and Holland,” he said. “When people are asked why did you vote ‘no,’ these are the answers that they gave — not basic hostility to the constitution.”

Another speaker at the seminar, Kenji Hirashima, a professor at the University of Tokyo’s Institute of Social Science, noted that the 2005 rejection of the constitution was an indication that many citizens in member states lacked a correct understanding of the EU’s complicated decision-making mechanism.

“Government leaders tended to promote rosy scenarios (about the constitution) to their electorates while the right-wing forces fueled public fears about immigration, and left-wingers warned that member states’ employment and welfare policies would be threatened by the constitution. The end result was the rejection,” Hirashima said.

“With the Lisbon Treaty up for ratification, EU politicians need more than ever to accurately explain the new EU mechanism to voters,” he said.

One thing that will remain a key feature of the mechanism under the new treaty, he said, is the EU’s dual structure — coexistence of regional institutions and those of member states.

By omitting the official title of “EU foreign minister,” EU flag and anthem as well as mention of EU statehood, the treaty made it clear that the bloc will remain a union of the member states, the professor said. “For the time being, this dual identity will continue to be the practical choice” that will be acceptable for the bloc’s population, he added.

Hirashima noted that institutional changes alone will not mean the EU has a greater say in international affairs. What matters is who will actually take up the job of EU president and the foreign policy high representative, he said.

Policy adjustments among member states will continue to involve difficulties given the expansion from 15 to 27 members since 2007, he pointed out.

But once internal agreement is reached on certain issues, the EU as one voice will no doubt have an increasingly large say in global discussions, he added.

Yasuhiko Ota, an editorial page writer of the Nikkei business daily who served as moderator in the seminar, concurred that the EU’s importance will increase as the United States’ grip on international matters declines.

Japan, for its part, also needs to realize that the EU is its major competitor in Asia — a region that is a key source of Japan’s growth today but which was also the home turf of European powers until several decades ago, Ota said.