Vice-President of the European Commission
Responsible for "Interinstitutional Relations and Administration"
"The Treaty of Lisbon – One year on Cooperation in a Mature Institutional Framework"
European University Institute in Florence
Florence, 12 Novembre 2010
Dear ladies and gentlemen,
Dear President Borrel,
It is a great pleasure for me to speak to you today, one year after the entry into force of the Treaty of Lisbon. This last year has been an extraordinary one for the European Union. A year of major institutional transition and great policy challenges. When the Treaty entered into force, a new parliamentary term had just started and the new Commission was being delayed. But above all, the economic crisis was still very much with us – and was about to take a new turn, with the sovereign debt crisis.
One year on, much has happened. And much that could not have been predicted. We would never have expected that today, we would not only have a very ambitious temporary crisis mechanism in place, but that we would even be thinking of a new Treaty change.
So first of all, a word on this point. The Treaty change foreseen is very different from the Treaty of Lisbon. It will be extremely limited and targeted on one issue: to allow for a permanent crisis mechanism in order to safeguard the financial stability of the euro area on a long-term basis. It would involve no transfer of powers to the EU level.
So whilst the process leading up to Lisbon involved a fundamental look at the EU's goals, policies and tools, this would be at the other end of the spectrum – a small scale, pragmatic clarification of the rules. It is still safe to say that the Treaty of Lisbon – which is the positive result of an almost 10-year long and, as you know, very difficult process – is likely to remain the last comprehensive treaty change for the foreseeable future.
Despite the many changes and transition, we can today speak of the EU as a 'mature institutional framework'. One which would be recognisable to our founding fathers. But one which has also proved capable of responding to very modern challenges. The dramatic developments have not least been mastered due to stable and well-working institutions.
But let us take a closer look at how this mature institutional framework has evolved since the Treaty of Lisbon entered into force.
There are of course a number of fundamental legal and structural changes brought by the Treaty. Issues like the single legal personality of the EU, the explicit demarcation of EU competences, the abolition of the pillar structure, the Charter of Fundamental Rights becoming legally binding or the foreseen accession of the Union to the European Convention on Human Rights. However, these are not the elements I would like to focus on today. In most of these cases – as important as they undoubtedly are – it is still too early to give real-life examples of their practical impact on the future of the Union.
As a 'practitioner' I would rather like to share with you my experience with the concrete developments on the ground, and in particular on interinstitutional relations. As the Commission representative in the General Affairs Council and responsible for relations with the European Parliament, I have got to know the 'institutional triangle' from an insider's perspective.
From the Commission's side, this means acting as a 'facilitator', an honest broker between particular national and/or political interests. But, it also means the Commission assuming its role as a 'guardian of the Treaties' and reminding some of our partners of what had actually been agreed in the treaty text. Overall, I can say that the post-Lisbon balance sheet shows a clear gain in terms of interinstitutional cooperation.
I say this so clearly, as it stands in some contrast to what we can sometimes read in the press – and from time to time even in academic articles – about the post-Lisbon EU. There are especially two assumptions that I would like to challenge.
The first is that: "Interinstitutional relations are a "zero-sum game", whatever one institution gains, the other ones inevitably lose. Under the Treaty of Lisbon, Parliament and the (European) Council are the winners while the Commission loses."
The second claim is: "EU institutions are on a slippery slope towards intergovernmentalism and the Treaty of Lisbon has accelerated this process."
From my own experience, I would argue that both claims are wrong – and I hope my words will convince you!
For one thing, these claims cannot both be right. How can the EP possibly be a 'big winner' from Lisbon, if the same treaty makes the EU slip towards intergovernmentalism?
But in particular, these claims have little to do with the post-Lisbon reality of the institutions.
Concerning the claim of a 'zero-sum game', it is simply not true that strengthening one institution must mean weakening another. A key rationale of the Treaty of Lisbon has always been to strengthen all of the institutions and, by doing so, strengthen the Union as a whole. To give some examples:
The European Council has been around for over 30 years, but with the Treaty of Lisbon it has become a fully-fledged European institution. It is uniquely positioned to handle big, strategic questions: the kind of questions that need the real commitment of 27 Member States. Issues like the Europe 2020 strategy for smart, sustainable and inclusive growth. An ambitious programme of economic growth like this is doomed to failure if it does not have the strong support of national governments. It would also be hamstrung if the dividing lines of national competence were drawn so strictly that the EU could not even comment on such areas – the involvement of the European Council makes this much easier.
And the recent crisis has shown the benefits of having a permanent European Council President to ensure consistency and coherence. The strong cooperation between the President Barroso and President Van Rompuy rests heavily on this longer-term perspective. Economic governance is just one area where there are real advantages in avoiding a stop-start Presidency – the interplay between the (Task Force) European Council and the Commission proposals has been essential in building consensus for major changes.
The Treaty has also chosen the right approach by strengthening the "Community method" (or "Union method" as it should now be called). An extended 'Union method' leaves the Commission in a position to play to its strengths: its right of legislative initiative, its indispensable technical expertise, its understanding of the general European interest and the 'acquis communautaire' it protects. For issues within EU competences (like the internal market, financial markets, social policy, cohesion, agriculture and transport), the reality is that only the Commission can deliver. It has the resources, the networks and the expertise.
So for example, the abolition of the "third pillar" has strengthened this role of the Commission and extended the range of the Commission's powers to sets the legislative agenda and act as the engine of the Union. In the end, the EU always returns to this method as the, "normal" but also the most effective way of doing things.
At the same time the Treaty has strengthened both the legislative and budgetary powers of the European Parliament. Co-decision between the EP and the Council is now the ordinary legislative procedure and the EP has a full say on all expenditures under the annual budget. Parliament has been keen to underline these changes, and make use of its prerogatives. In cases like the negative vote on SWIFT or the difficulties with adopting the free trade agreement with South Korea, the result has been that these policies were tested through democratic scrutiny in a way not seen before. It adds political legitimacy and public acceptability to EU decisions, which is not only very much in line with the intentions of the Treaty of Lisbon, but also ultimately in the interest of the EU as a whole. On a more "parochial" level, the recently concluded negotiations of the Framework agreement between the Commission and the EP have also demonstrated how the latter is eager to assert its prerogatives, in areas as sensitive as international negotiations and infringement procedures.
Allow me to add a short reference to the increased role of National parliaments in EU policy-making, which also reinforces the democratic scrutiny of the functioning of the EU. This is done through the subsidiarity control mechanism foreseen in the Treaty, but maybe even more importantly through a very lively exchange of views and political dialogue between the Commission and national parliaments.
Last, but certainly not least, the capacity of the Council has been increased, for example through the extension of qualified majority voting. Even if the Council still prefers to find consensus where possible, the chance of a vote changes the logic of negotiations and motivates national representatives to engage more actively in finding a suitable agreement. The Council has perhaps been the institution where a Union of 27 has had more impact on its work; so increased QMV was vital to ensure that its effectiveness has not been harmed.
My examples underpin the rationale of the Treaty of Lisbon to strengthen all institutions, individually and collectively. After all, if one institution runs into problems, all face the consequences. Where is the Commission's interest in seeing the Council blocked due to unanimity voting? Who loses from extending co-decision in policy areas such as trade, agriculture or justice and home affairs, when this gives much greater legitimacy to the decisions taken? We have surely learnt that it is a mistake to try to by-pass popular understanding of controversial issues, and Parliament is the institution best placed to provide a forum for public discussion.
What of the second claim, about a 'creeping intergovernmentalism'. From a practitioners' perspective I can tell you that most of the debate about "intergovernmentalism versus supranationalism" is a false dichotomy. The reality is of course that the EU contains elements of both – it always has and it always will.
That is its uniqueness, an indeed its genius. It is much more than a traditional international organisation, but it is also not a federal state and – maybe more importantly – it does not have the ambition to become one. "Ever closer Union" – a term that has been maintained by the Treaty of Lisbon – expresses the ambition to bring the "peoples of Europe" together ever more closely, but not to supersede or abolish Member States.
Too often, people try to apply the same ways of thinking to the EU as to a nation state. For example, on a strict separation of powers. This does not and cannot apply to the EU, with its complex system of 'multi-level-governance' where powers are shared amid institutions and across different levels. For some, the Treaty of Lisbon has re-ignited the temptation to make these fruitless analogies with national structures. But as before, the Commission is not a government. As before executive powers are shared between the Council and the Commission. And implementation of EU policies is split between EU, national, regional and local levels.
So with the Treaty of Lisbon the EU remains a 'strange animal' that is not easy to categorise. And it is much the better for that. Both supranational and intergovernmental elements continue to fruitfully coexist in the post-Lisbon EU and that is a central factor of its success. There is a big difference in what makes sense between different policies – the internal market and foreign policy, for example. Cooperation and mutual trust is more developed in some policy areas than in others, and the Union is stronger for recognising this. [While the 'Union method' has been a great success in the internal market, it would simply not work for CFSP.]
So the Treaty of Lisbon has found a way forward in other ways. In the area of foreign policy we will soon have the European External Action Service, with officials coming from the institutions working side by side with national diplomats. What we need in external policy is for EU and national policy to come together – and Lisbon provides a tool to help make that happen.
Of course, the reality may well evolve. If you look at justice and home affairs over the last 30 years, what once started in 1976 with the TREVI group, an intergovernmental ad hoc structure, has grown into a fully-fledged Union policy with the Treaty of Lisbon. Who knows where CFSP will go in the future, but one thing is clear – that working together as Lisbon foresees, is the prerequisite for stronger cooperation in the future.
Ladies and gentlemen,
After describing the broader impact of the Lisbon Treaty on the institutional framework of the EU, I would like to go on to highlight a number of examples that document very concretely the difference the new treaty has made.
The policy areas most obviously affected are of course external relations and the former 'third pillar', where the entire institutional set-up has undergone major change. In the area of criminal justice this has already had a very concrete impact on policy-making. The Commission can now put forward directives or regulations to the legislator in this area, such as the proposed directive on rights to information in criminal proceedings and no longer "ad hoc" legal instruments. And it will soon put forward a Communication and legislative proposals on a common legislative framework for data protection, using the new single legal base.
In all these areas, the enhanced role of the European Parliament has come out clearly. It has had a tangible influence on the results. For example on the SWIFT agreement, the Parliament had concerns about data protection and the protection of fundamental rights: the result was a better balance between these points and the fight against terrorism, so ultimately a better result for Europe.
There are other policy areas that received less attention when the Treaty was drafted and negotiated, but where the experience of the last year has shown that the treaty makes a considerable difference in practice. For example, the economic governance package adopted by the Commission on 29 September, where two proposals are based on new Treaty provisions (article 136).
Another concrete example is last July's 'European investment package', based on the new EU competence for foreign direct investment. As a step towards the Treaty objective of setting a EU-wide investment framework, the proposal establishes transitional arrangements for the (numerous) bilateral investment agreements between Member States and third countries. It is a very concrete example of the co-existence of intergovernmental and supranational elements, as the Commission provides legal security for European and foreign investors relying on bilateral agreements, whilst preserving the EU's ability to negotiate new investment treaties.
Other examples show the institutions still in a learning process – and sometimes with a steep learning curve! Occasionally it seems that the Treaty comes as a bit of a surprise to Member States who agreed it and ratified it. For example, there has been disagreement over how to apply the new treaty provisions concerning representation of the EU in international negotiations and whether the rotating Council Presidency still had a role. As ever, in the meantime, practical arrangements have been found that allow for a coherent Union position to the outside world. We think the Treaty is very clear here as regards the Commission representing the Union. Indeed, the objective of a clearer and more united international voice was always part of the political rationale of the Treaty of Lisbon.
Another example of how a change in rules brings about a change in culture is in policy areas previously reserved to legislation by the Council alone, such as agriculture or fisheries policy, and now largely under co-decision. And by the same token, Parliament has had to learn that new powers also entail new responsibilities. For example, the fact that sensitive trade files are made available to parliamentary scrutiny obviously requires that certain confidentiality standards are observed.
In some areas, 'blank spots' left by the "constructive ambiguity" of the treaty are still in the process of being filled. To illustrate this, let me give you two examples falling directly within my portfolio.
Since the treaty provisions only sets the broad framework for a 'future comitology', a new approach was needed on both delegated acts and implementing acts. The Commission has made proposals on both, one a regulation. On this particular file, both the EP and the Council have been jealous to guard their prerogatives, while the Commission has been anxious to ensure a clearer and more efficient system to deliver the policies concerned. After solving a number of complex questions, however, an agreement by the end of the year now seems to be within reach.
The second file falling directly within my portfolio which requires secondary legislation is of course the European Citizens' Initiative. The Commission has worked tirelessly to have this important innovation up and running as soon as possible. And it has done so without cutting any corners: a full public consultation on the basis of a Green Paper was held, which provided the Commission with more than 300, mostly very substantive contributions. In the light of the consultation results, we managed to adopt a proposal within just a few weeks of the Commission coming into office; and since then we have been working hard with a view to reaching a 1st reading agreement between the EP and Council by the end of the year. Here again we found ourselves in the position of a 'facilitator' and honest broker, as two key concerns have to be reconciled: On the one hand, a user-friendly and non-bureaucratic system; on the other, that the system respects key principles like data protection and does not become open to abuse by extremists.
Ladies and gentlemen,
With my presentation I have aimed to give you an overview of our experience with the Treaty of Lisbon one year on. I have tried to make clear that the treaty neither favours a "creeping intergovernmentalism" nor does it turn the EU into some kind of a "super state." It rather preserves the delicate balance between different approaches and institutions. The "Union method" has clearly been preserved and strengthened.
We certainly have a more diverse institutional landscape with the new Treaty, but our experience also shows that we are dealing with mature institutions – institutions that can adapt to change and continue to deliver even in times of transition and when subject to considerable external pressures. The past year has demonstrated that the interinstitutional relations – despite this transition phase and intense institutional learning – continue to be marked by a spirit of good cooperation. And I can certainly speak for the entire institution, when saying that the Commission is very confident of its role in the new set-up. Ultimately all our actions must have a common goal: A more efficient, more democratic Union that is well-respected on the global stage. The way the institutions function must always reflect this ultimate goal – by working together as a coherent institutional system. As the institutions of the EU stand or fall with the strength of the Union's collective achievements, I am convinced that 'cooperation' will remain the default mechanism. As such, the Treaty of Lisbon (as in fact any treaty) is only a tool – a tool that we are must use for the best benefit of European citizens.
Thank you very much for your attention.