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A more democratic and transparent Europe

The Treaty of Lisbon confirms three principles of democratic governance in Europe:

  • Democratic equality: the European institutions must give equal attention to all citizens
  • Representative democracy: a greater role for the European Parliament and greater involvement for national parliaments
  • Participatory democracy: new forms of interaction between citizens and the European institutions, like the citizens' initiative

The treaty also clarifies the relations between the European Union and its member countries.

Greater powers for the European Parliament

The members of the European Parliament are elected by direct universal suffrage every five years to represent the citizens of the member countries. Parliament's powers have been gradually extended with every new treaty. The Treaty of Lisbon is no exception, giving more powers in relation to lawmaking, budget and international agreements.

Lawmaking: the 'co-decision procedure' (renamed 'ordinary legislative procedure') has been extended to several new fields. This means that Parliament now has the same degree of lawmaking power as the Council in some areas where it used to be merely consulted or not involved at all. These areas include legal immigration, penal judicial cooperation (Eurojust, crime prevention, alignment of prison standards, offences and penalties), police cooperation (Europol) and some aspects of trade policy and agriculture. The Parliament now has a role to play in almost all lawmaking.

Budget: the new treaty confirms the established practice of working with a multiannual financial framework, which Parliament must approve. It also abolishes the former distinction between 'compulsory' expenditure (like direct income support to farmers) and 'non-compulsory' expenditure, with the result that Parliament and the Council determine all expenditure together. This innovation creates a new balance between the two institutions when approving the EU's budget.

International agreements: under the Treaty of Lisbon, the European Parliament's assent is required for all international agreements in fields governed by the ordinary legislative procedure.

A greater role for national parliaments

The treaty gives the national parliaments greater scope to participate alongside the European institutions in the work of the Union. A new clause clearly sets out the rights and duties of the national parliaments within the EU. It deals with their right to information, the way they monitor subsidiarity, mechanisms for evaluating policy in the field of freedom, security and justice, procedures for reforming the treaties, and so on.

The greatest novelty lies in new power to enforce subsidiarity. Subsidiarity means that – except in the areas where it has exclusive powers – the EU acts only where action will be more effective at EU-level than at national level. Any national parliament may flag a proposal for EU action which it believes does not respect this principle. This triggers a two-stage procedure:

  • if one third of national parliaments consider that the proposal is not in line with subsidiarity, the Commission will have to re-examine it and decide whether to maintain, adjust or withdraw it
  • if a majority of national parliaments agrees with the objection but the Commission decides to maintain its proposal anyway, the Commission will have to explain its reasons, and it will be up to the European Parliament and the Council to decide whether or not to continue the legislative procedure.

Transparency in the Council of Ministers

National parliaments and citizens are now able to see which decisions have been taken by which national ministers in the Council, since all its deliberations on legislative matters are made public.

More participatory democracy

There are already many ways in which European citizens can find out about and take part in the political process of the EU. The newest of these is the citizens' initiative, whereby one million citizens, from any number of member countries, will be able to ask the Commission to present a proposal in any of the EU's areas of responsibility. The practical details of this initiative will be worked out once the Treaty of Lisbon takes effect.

The treaty also recognises the importance of consultation and dialogue with associations, civil society, workers and employers, churches and other non-denominational organisations.

Relations between the EU and its member countries

In answer to a question frequently asked by citizens: "Who does what in the EU?" the treaty stipulates who is to act in which domain - the Union or the member states. Three categories of powers are thus identified:

  • Exclusive powers: in fields like the customs union, the common trade policy and competition, only the Union may legislate
  • Supporting, coordinating or complementary action: in areas like culture, education and industry, the Union may only support action by the member states (by providing funding, for example)
  • shared powers: in other fields, like the environment, transport and consumer protection, the Union and the member states share lawmaking power, not forgetting subsidiarity.

After joining the European Union, countries remain members by choice. The Treaty of Lisbon includes a voluntary withdrawal clause, recognising that the member states may always withdraw from the Union if they wish to.

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