Written by Christian Schweiger (Shabka CPD Policy Blog)
December 1st, 2019 marked the tenth anniversary of the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty. The Lisbon Treaty still remains the latest constitutional treaty of the EU, which is rather surprising given the multiple challenges the EU has been facing throughout the past decade. The financial crisis and the subsequent triple banking, economic and sovereign debt crisis in euro countries resulted in the revision of the eurozone governance under German leadership. Outside of the eurozone the EU has however struggled to unify behind common approaches towards major policy challenges such as asylum, migration, border controls, defence and security, environmental protection and social cohesion.
Lisbon was a difficult treaty to implement and is essentially the result of the failed process of establishing an EU constitution and the reflection of increasingly diverging national interests in major policy areas. This growing divergence has evolved partially as a result of the continuous enlargement of the EU first towards 15 member states and subsequently towards 28 as part of the ‘big bang’ enlargement towards the post-communist countries in Central-Eastern Europe. The EU-15 struggled to prepare the Union for the accession of the post-communist countries in Central-Eastern Europe. Repeated attempts to simplify the EU’s institutional architecture and its procedural mechanisms in the wake of the Maastricht Treaty amounted to very limited results. The Amsterdam summit in May 1997 was supposed to act as a major reform summit. The aim was to agree on a revision treaty with a streamlined institutional framework which would enable the EU to continue to operate smoothly with a larger membership base. Amsterdam ended up being overshadowed by disagreements over the political framework which would accompany the single European currency in the shape of economic and monetary union. Amsterdam also illustrated that the former Franco-German leadership team was beginning to fall apart, when German chancellor Helmut Kohl openly disagreed with the proposals of French prime minister Lionel Jospin for the establishment of a jointly funded EU employment policy. Relations between Berlin and Paris deteriorated further in subsequent years. The low point occurred at the intergovernmental conference in Nice in December 2000, when German chancellor Gerhard Schröder teamed up with British prime minister Tony Blair in rejecting the institutional reform proposals put forward by the French EU presidency under President Jacques Chirac.
The resulting Nice Treaty hence turned out as a rather unsatisfactory temporary draft for the operation of the EU. The failure to reach a broader intergovernmental consensus on institutional reform and policy development resulted in the initiation of what became known as the process of establishing an EU constitution a year after Nice. At the December 2001 summit in Laeken the EU-15 in effect admitted that they were unable to complete institutional reforms before the forthcoming eastward enlargement. The declaration issued by the summit on 15 December 2001 defined greater democratic transparency, ensuring efficient policy-making after enlargement and raising the external profile as the main challenges for the EU. For this purpose, EU leaders decided at Laeken to initiate a ‘Convention on the future of Europe’ under the leadership of former French president Valery Giscard d’Estaing on 1 March 2002, comprising of 15 national government, 30 MPs from national parliaments across the EU and 16 MEPs. The aim of the Convention was to develop a draft constitution for the EU which clarifies the divisions of powers between the supranational institutional and the national level and also streamlines decisions-making in the enlarged EU. The Convention completed its work in July 2003 with the Draft Treaty Establishing a Constitution for Europe, which was subsequently adopted by the EU Council but rejected in referenda in France on 29 May 2005 and in the Netherlands on 1 June 2005.
The newly appointed German chancellor Angela Merkel used her clout to push towards the implementation of the changes the Draft Constitutional Treaty had envisaged for the EU against scepticism from other member states, most of all British prime minister Gordon Brown, who argued that Nice would provide a sufficient basis on which the enlarged EU could operate. The resulting treaty, which was passed at the EU intergovernmental conference in Lisbon July 2007, and only came into force in 2009 after further revisions after another public rejection in a referendum in Ireland in June 2008, was to a large extent identical with the wording of the Constitutional Treaty. The main changes Lisbon introduced were the enhancement of the European Parliament as the EU’s co-decision-maker under the ‘ordinary legislative procedure’ which was extended to 40 new policy areas, the introduction of the European Citizens’ Initiative, the creation of a double majority for qualified majority voting representing both the percentage of member states and the size of the population involved, as well as the creation of the President of the European Council and the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy with an accompanying European External Action Service as new institutional appointments. Lisbon also introduced the so-called ‘Spitzenkandidaten’ system in article 17 (7) of the Treaty, which determines that the European Council has to take into account the result of the European Parliament elections when choosing a new president of the European Commission.
Both the European Citizens’ Initiative and the ‘Spitzenkandidaten’ system have turned out to be major disappointments in terms of the original aspiration of the constitutional treaty and Lisbon to substantially address the EU’s democratic deficit. The Citizens’ Initiative, under which a legislative proposal backed by at least one million public signatures of support across all member states, has to this date only resulted in four legislative proposals in total to legislative stage. The majority of initiatives were either withdrawn or received insufficient support. It has hence failed to bridge the growing gap between the European citizens and EU-level policy making. The same applies to the ‘Spitzenkandidaten’ system, which is essentially no longer in operation since the most recent European Parliament elections in May 2019. The appointment of former German defence minister Ursula von der Leyen as the new president of the European Commission represents a profound violation of the system. It was based on the understanding that each political group in the European Parliament would nominate leading candidates and the candidate of the group with the largest number of MEPs would be selected as Commission president by the Council. The fact that Manfred Weber, the official candidate of the centre-right European Peoples Party (EPP), which maintained its status as the largest political group in the 2019 elections, lost out in favour of the nomination of outsider von der Leyen, is extremely damaging for the EU’s public legitimacy. Von der Leyen is not only completely inexperienced in EU affairs. More importantly, she also became European Commission president as a result of a secretive backroom deal between German chancellor Merkel, French president Macron and the Visegrád countries, who all shared profound concerns about Weber’s suitability for the job. The impact this will have on the turnout in future European Parliament election cannot yet be foreseen. It is however obvious that many citizens will feel betrayed in witnessing the rejection of all the officially nominated candidates for the top job of Commission president, including Franz Timmermans (S&D), Margarethe Vestager (ALDE) and the double act Ska Keller/Bas Eickhout for the Greens/EFA.
Ten years on the Lisbon Treaty has consequently failed to meet the expectations EU leaders set out in the Laeken declaration. Firstly, it has not managed to substantially enhance the efficiency of the political process of the EU, which remains indecisive predominantly cumbersome, indecisive and in many areas inefficient in addressing fundamental internal and external challenges. Secondly, in spite of the institutionalisation of foreign and security policy and the strengthening of the EU’s external representation the Union lacks a coherent external profile and has failed to develop an efficient European military pillar within NATO. Lastly and most profoundly Lisbon has not managed to narrow the growing gap between the elite-level of decision-making and the general public. A decade after Lisbon the EU hence has failed to instil deep-seated public support for its institutions and policies, which is reflected by the growing support for eurosceptic parties in the European Parliament and on the national level. This is not only the result of the lack of democratic transparency in the way the EU reaches decisions. It is also the reflection of the mounting scepticism towards the EU’s ability to effectivly manage major challenges such as migration, climate change, poverty, digitalisation, global competition and external instability. Ultimately Lisbon remains a symbol for the waning solidarity and the lack of consensus between the member states. It may therefore yet turn out to be the final constitutional treaty the EU ever manages to produce.
About the author:
Christian Schweiger is Visiting Professor at the Chair for Comparative European Governance Systems in the Institute for Political Science at Chemnitz University of Technology in Germany. Previously he was Associate Professor in Government in the School of Government and International Affairs at Durham University in the United Kingdom. His research concentrates on the comparative study of political systems, economies and welfare states of the member states of the European Union (particularly the UK, Germany and transformation in the CEE countries), the political economy of the EU Single Market, economic globalisation and transatlantic relations. His most recent publications include the monograph Exploring the EU’s Legitimacy Crisis: The Dark Heart of Europe (Edward Elgar, 2016), the jointly edited collection with Anna Visvizi Central and Eastern Europe in the EU: Challenges and Perspectives Under Crisis Conditions (Routledge, 2018) and the articles ‘Germany’s Role in the EU-27 Leadership Constellation after Brexit’ (2018) in German Politics and Society 36 (2): 100-117 and ‘The Global and Financial Crisis and the Euro Crisis as Contentious Issues in German-American Relations’ (2018) in German Politics 27 (2): 214-229