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Vice-President of the European Commission
Responsible for Inter-institutional Relations and Administration

The European Union's institutional evolution since the entering into force of the Lisbon Treaty

Conference - Implementing the Lisbon Treaty

Brussels, 9 February 2011

It is a great pleasure for me to speak to you today here at this dinner event, on the invitation of the Commission's own "Think Tank", the Bureau of European Policy Advisors (BEPA) and its Legal Service. This conference could not be placed at a better moment.

We are here together a little over one year and a couple of months after the most recent change in our rulebook, with the entry into force of the Treaty of Lisbon. This time has been extraordinary for the European Union. A year of major institutional transition and great policy challenges.

Much has happened. And much that could not have been predicted. We would never have expected that today, we would be thinking of new adjustments to the Treaty.

[As you have heard from President Barroso this morning his is a very pragmatic, very focused, change, to allow for a permanent crisis mechanism in order to safeguard the financial stability of the euro area.

You have also heard the President on the recent developments regarding economic governance, and how the Commission sees the possibility for real progress for more convergence on economic policies, as long as they are in line with the Treaty. At this stage, I would just like to conclude that these developments are relatively specific, and do not put into question the institutional architecture and balance put in place by the Treaty of Lisbon. It is a mature institutional framework, and one which will remain with us for the foreseeable future.

But let us take a closer look at how this mature institutional framework has evolved with the entry into force of the Treaty of Lisbon.

With all the eminent lawyers and doctrine makers in this room, I mainly want to give you the point of view of someone living the Treaty from the insidea practitioner: 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.

And I can tell you that it works. Of course, there are disagreements and clashes, the creative tension between institutions that are noticed by the public. But the reality is that over the past year, the EU has been able to deliver when it matters – even when faced with difficult questions, such as in the height of the sovereign debt crisis.

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. 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 (think of the EU-patent language regime proposal)? Who loses from extending co-decision to certain policy areas, when this gives much greater legitimacy to the decisions taken (for example in trade, agriculture or justice and home affairs)?

And as for the impression given to citizens of each institution, we know too well that most media and citizens make no distinction between European institutions. For them "the EU" (or even "Brussels") is seen as one.

"Inside the EU", commentators love to see the institutions in permanent competition, a "zero-sum game" which means that whatever one institution gains, the others inevitably lose. But what this year has shown is just how much the institutions depend on each other.

I will illustrate this by focusing on the relations with the European Parliament and secondly the relations with the Council. And finally, I will give you my assessment of what has been reached in the past year, together with an outlook on 2011.

Let me start with the revised Framework Agreement between the European Parliament (EP) and the Commission and its implications on the institutional balance within the European Union.

The purpose of the revision of the "Framework agreement on relations between the European Parliament and the European Commission" was primarily to adapt its content to the entry into force of the Lisbon Treaty. While fully respecting the institutional balance as defined by the Treaties, the revised Framework Agreement responds to the increased institutional competences of Parliament, such as in the field of international agreements.

The Framework Agreement also covers some new elements, translating the "special partnership" that President Barroso proposed in September 2009 in his political Guidelines; this includes provisions on the Code of Conduct of Commissioners or electoral leave for Commissioners taking part in European elections. .

The Framework Agreement aims at

  • Fixing mutual political commitments between the Commission and the EP,

  • intensifying the constructive dialogue and flow of information,

  • improving the cooperation as regards legislative procedures and planning, and

  • facilitating the Commission's participation in parliamentary proceedings.

All these improvements will help to prepare the political dialogue and decision-making process, but for the Union as a whole. And further steps will have to be made for those Treaty provisions, such as Union programming, which can only be implemented by the three EU-Institutions together.

Adapting to the EP competencies in the international field has been one of the most debated issues in the negotiations of the Framework agreement.-

This covered issues of informing the EP about ongoing international negotiations, and in particular access to international meetings.

We may now ask, can the European Parliament take an active part in international negotiations? The Treaties do not foresee an active role for Parliament. However, it has to give its assent to the result of an agreement and is kept immediately and fully informed on ongoing negotiations. The dividing line is thin, discussions were difficult and long, but in the end the result is one which presences the institutional balance wanted by the Treaties. It is one of the issues we shall be following closely in the implementation of the Agreement, and one where I believe we shall see further developments.

Indeed, already in the short period since the entry into force of the Treaty, Parliament has been keen to use its new powers: in cases like SWIFT or the free trade agreement with South Korea, the result has been that policies have been tested in a way not seen before.

I personally welcome these developments which add political legitimacy and public acceptability to EU decisions. Not only is this very much in line with the intentions of the Treaty of Lisbon, but also ultimately in the interest of the entire Union.

On the other side of the institutional "triangle" Although the status of the Council has not been directly affected by the Treaty changes, all new elements of the reformed institutional architecture around it require that it needs to adjust its place within this architecture.

The most striking and visible effect is on the Rotating Presidency: the Head of Government of the Member State holding the Presidency no longer chairs the European Council, while the members of government continue to chair specialised formations of the Council. Does this reduction in visibility reduce the political influence of this actor? Our experience with the first presidencies (Spain, Belgium) shows that it is not the case. The presentation by the Head of Government of their Presidency programme and of its result to the EP and the bilateral meetings of the government with the whole College of Commissioners at the beginning of each term have ensured a role at Head of State on Government level. For the rest, the role of the rotating Presidency in the daily organisation of institutional activities remains indispensable. It is the rotating Presidency that truly sets the pace and the tone of the deliberations in the Council. When things move up to Heads of State and Government level, preparations have been smooth, and linkages with the first Permanent President of the European Council are working well.

With regard to external representation "discussions" and sometimes institutional "tensions" have arisen. [You will be discussing external actionj in more detail tomorrow in a dedicated working session.] Allow me just to comment on a tendency on the part of some Member States to want to retain the role of the rotating Presidency in external representation. They would also like to narrowly interpret the role of the Commission, limiting it to areas of exclusive EU competence.

The Commission's position is very clear: under Art. 17 of the Treaty, the Commission is responsible for areas outside the CFSP, while the President of the European Council and the High Representative are responsible for CFSP matters.

[The situation was particularly difficult concerning negotiations on a legally binding instrument on mercury, the first authorisation under the Lisbon Treaty for negotiation in a multilateral forum. Member States sought to secure a direct role for the Presidency in the negotiations, including on issues under Union competence. These suggestions were legally and institutionally flawed. The Commission took the unprecedented decision to withdraw its recommendation. Since then, with the Council giving the Presidency a clear mandate in areas of national competence, a "clean" mandate for the representation of the EU in these negotiations has been agreed.

This was a difficult file but other negotiating directives have since been adopted which comply with the competences set out in the Treaty (e.g. long range transboundary air pollution and the Montreal protocol), so I hope we are moving in the right direction here. ]

Another important change concerns the role of the General Affairs Council (GAC). It is the only Council configuration – together with the Foreign Affairs Council – where the tasks are described by the Treaty. The GAC is supposed to ensure "consistency" in the work of the different Council configurations and it shall "prepare" and ensure the "follow-up" to meetings of the European Council.

Does this mean in practice, that the GAC has been reduced to a kind of "Super-COREPER"? I think we should not underestimate the coordination function of GAC, as attributed to it by the Treaty. It may be instrumental for a number of horizontal issues, like the Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF) and Cohesion policy.

This first year of Treaty implementation was very intense –in terms of work and internalisation of changes. I think we are entering now a phase which allows us to dedicate more time to reflection and smooth adaptation. To compare it with a flight: We have more or less reached our "travelling altitude" while not our cruising speed.

So what will be on our plate for this year?

The Lisbon Treaty has also introduced major changes into the budgetary procedure, putting both Council and Parliament on an equal footing for all expenditures. The 2011 budget was the first to be adopted under this new procedure and its adoption could have been easier, to say it diplomatically. As you know, the Parliament rejected the first draft budget proposed by the Commission because the Council made cuts which were too important compared to the original proposal. The Commission had to present a second draft budget in a great hurry and this was finally approved at the very end of 2010.

Parliament has fully used its co-decider in powers - EP President BUZEK made clear announcements in that respect to the European Council in October 2010.As a result of difficult discussions, Yves Leterme, then holding the chair of the Council, promised that the next Presidencies will arrange for regular contacts between the Presidents of the three institutions in preparation of the next multiannual framework agreement, until the Commission has tabled its proposals in June 2011.

These discussions, and the subsequent negotiations on the financial framework and the specific legal basis for the programmes, will again raise the level of tension, in particular in the difficult economic context we are going through. Institutional cooperation and good communication and understanding will be fundamental in bringing this to a successful conclusion.

The Commission will play a constructive role to ensure that the Union will have the necessary funds it needs to meet the new Treaty obligations and deliver on the political objectives of the Europe 2020 strategy. When presenting the 2011 Commission Work Programme to the EP, President Barroso was very clear on this.

And we will have to reckon with new actors in the EU's political scene. Firstly, national parliaments, through the so-called subsidiarity control mechanism set by the Treaty; then citizens, through the newly created European Citizen's initiative

On the almost 90 Commission proposals that so far have fallen under the scope of this subsidiarity mechanism, the Commission has received 217 opinions of national parliaments, out of which 33 opinions raised concerns in terms of subsidiarity. In all cases the thresholds for reaching even the "yellow card" (1/3 of the chambers) were far from being reached – the most "negative" opinions was received on the directive for seasonal workers, where 8 national chambers raised concerns. It can thus be said that the first year of experience shows that it requires a lot of coordination efforts for national parliaments to effectively use this new tool. In parallel, the political dialogue with national parliaments whereby chambers comment on the substance of Commission proposals, is working very well: we received almost 400 opinions last year, and I replied to most of them on behalf of the College.

This increased involvement of national parliaments in the life of the Union is to be welcome as it increases the legitimacy and the closeness to citizens – European policies should more and more be deal with as national issues in the national political sphere.

This move on more democratic control was accompanied by the introduction of an element of participatory democracy: "European Citizens' Initiative".

This means that at least one million EU citizens, coming from a significant number of Member States can "invite" the Commission to propose a legal act to implement the Treaties. It is an agenda setting instrument at the disposal of the European citizen, and one which I hope will be used to best effect in the future. As you probably know, after almost 9 months of negotiations, a political agreement was reached between the institutions last December, and the text should be signed by both institutions on 16th February. There is a short delay in terms of starting actual implementation, but we hope to see the first initiatives launched by early 2012.

In my view, the agreed rules achieve the right balance so that the citizens' initiative becomes a credible and powerful instrument of participatory democracy: on the one hand, the procedure is as user-friendly as possible and on the other hand, it should ensure that citizens' initiatives are representative of a Union interest, respect key principles like data protection and do not become a tool for extremists.

A final word on one issue which you have touched upon today – delegated and implementing acts. As you know, regarding implementing acts – Article 291 of the new Treaty – the three institutions reached an agreement last December on the reform of the comitology procedures. This Regulation will enter into force very soon on 1 March 2011. It sets up a simple, flexible and efficient system of control by the Member States over the exercise by the Commission of its implementing powers. The article 290 on delegated acts is self-executing, but the three institutions have worked towards a common understanding of how to apply it.

Now it is the time to implement these provisions: While it is clear that Art. 290 and 291 TFEU are mutually exclusive, it might be difficult to establish in a given case if a delegated or an implementing act should be used. Indeed, the demarcation line between delegated and implementing seems to be a rising issue in the practice of the Institutions. One practical example is the case of external aid programmes, where according to the EP, delegated acts should be applied, while the Commission and the Council rather consider the use of implementing acts. It remains to be seen how the practice will evolve, but this will surely be one issue to follow in 2011.

Ladies and gentlemen,

To conclude, ultimately all our actions must have a common goal: An effective and democratic Union that is well-respected on the global stage. The way the institutions operate should only be an invisible frame behind the work towards this ultimate. As the institutions of the EU stand or fall with the success of the Union's collective achievements, I am convinced that "good cooperation" will remain the default mechanism for its successful functioning. As such the Treaty of Lisbon (as in fact any treaty) is only a tool – a tool that we have to use at best for the benefit of European citizens.

Thank you very much for your attention.

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