The European Union, Lisbon and the Office Hunt

Federiga Bindi
Federiga Bindi Former Brookings Expert

October 12, 2009

The Lisbon Treaty finally secured Irish ratification on October 2, but the fight is not over, several steps remain. First, the treaty is not yet fully ratified and several machinations remain. Second, even beyond the struggle for ratification, the details of implementation will determine what the treaty really means for the future of Europe. The first and most important step in implementation will be the choice of the individuals to fill the new posts of high representative and president. This will involve a mind-numbingly complex bargaining process, which will be less focused on the qualities of the individuals than attaining a delicate balance between nationalities, parties, and sub-regions of Europe. This article will first explain why Lisbon matters, then discuss the challenges the EU is facing, and finally sketch out how that bargaining process is likely to go. 

What Will Change with the Lisbon Treaty

The Lisbon Treaty is not the outline of new European state, but if implemented with seriousness of purpose, it will make the EU modestly more coherent and coordinated.

First, the EU will finally get juridical personality, which has so far been handled by the European Communities that will now cease to exist. Second, the Lisbon Treaty will widen citizenship (and antidiscrimination) rights and will “communitarize” Justice and Home Affairs by giving birth to the European Space of Freedom, Security and Justice (also including common immigration, visa and asylum policies). Third, it will change the EU legislative procedures making them more transparent and thus more democratic – when legislating, the council of ministers will have to meet with open doors. Additionally, the Lisbon Treaty will make it possible to have “reinforced cooperations” among smaller groups of willing member states in almost any field of EU policies.

The revised “Common Foreign and Security” and defense policies will enable a more coherent European presence on the international stage. The EU Foreign, security and defense policies will be led by the “High Representative for Foreign Security and Defense”, who will have a dual hat as chair of the external relations council and vice president of the Commission. The high representative will also have some 1,300 diplomats working for him, partly seconded by the member states and partly drawn from the Council and the Commission. In multilateral organizations like the UN, the EU will have to ensure enhanced cooperation and will negotiate a “reinforced” observer status.

In addition, the EU will have a “president” who – though without voting rights – will chair the European Council, a system that will partially put an end to the current system of rotating presidencies.

Risks and Negotiations

If the Czech court case is delayed, it will take from one month – in the unlikely event that the President Vaklav Klaus will cooperate – to three months. That means that the treaty will enter into force at the very earliest on January 1st, 2010. This in turn risks to clash with the British elections due in the spring of 2010. In that case, the Tory leader and likely winner David Cameron promised he would call for a referendum, too. It would mean a long halt to the ratification of the treaty and a suicidal move for Cameron, as the Tories are deeply divided on the issue and the BNP would be ready to profit from that.

Hence, European member states are working in the assumption that after all, the treaty will enter into force on January 1, 2010. European diplomats are meeting almost every day in Brussels to sort out apparently technical, yet very political, issues. There are in fact a number of important matters that still need to be defined.

First, the division of competencies between the General Affairs Council, that will be still chaired by a rotating presidency, and the External Relations Council, that will be chaired by the high representative. The bigger member states are trying to keep most competencies in the hands of the former, while the smaller (and/or most pro-European) countries like the Benelux, are not willing to reduce the high representative’s competencies. For instance, cooperation to development is a “rich” EU policy the member states want to keep their hands on. So is “enlargement”, which as it is now set, will stay under the control of the foreign ministers in the General Affairs Council. Another relevant matter is the question of the chairs of the working groups that will fall under the External Relations Council. In the current system, the rotating presidency chairs all the working groups in the council; it is a powerful way to influence the work of the European Union. But the question now arising is who will name the chairs of the working groups falling under the External Relations Council. Shall it be the sole responsibility of the high representative or shall be a matter of negotiations with the member states? And will the high representative have deputies? Who will they be? Could the member state foreign ministers substitute him in case of need? And most of all, who will be the next high representative?

The State of the Art

The situation is complex. José Manuel Barroso was rewarded for the unimpressive work of the past five years with confirmation – he will thus chair the Commission for the next 5 years. The Commission’s mandate will expire on October 30th, so there is an urgent need to renew the rest of the team. Yet, shall Lisbon enter into force, the number of commissioners will continue to be equal to the number of the member states, but under the jurisdiction of the current Nice Treaty there must be at least one commissioner less than the total number of states. To complicate things further, under Nice the high representative is the secretary general of the Council, while under Lisbon he will become vice president of the Commission.

In theory, a new Commission could be named with 25 members. The two missing ones could be a Czech and the one country that gets the high representative. Once Lisbon enters into force, this last will also become the Commission’s vice president and the European Council could name one more commissioner for the Czech. Yet, the most probable outcome will be the extension of the current Commission until the end of December. Javier Solana is also probably to be extended as high representative.

Solana’s term as Western European Union (WEU) secretary general will also expire on November 24th and the only sensible decision would be to dismiss what remains of such an inglorious organization. With the entering into force of the Lisbon Treaty, the only reasons for the WEU to be kept alive – mutual support against external aggression – will cease to exist. Yet, the WEU parliamentary assembly is unwilling to be dissolved. In the name of democratic deficit (!), it claims that it needs to stay absorbed in the EU (and, of course, nobody wants to deny the MPs the possibility to enlighten themselves in Paris twice a year… ). Keeping the WEU, would also mean having one extra post to assign in the redistributive game of chairs. Because no presidency gets wasted, all is duly weighted in Old Europe.

The Office Hunt

The Office Hunt, one of the most exciting seasons in Europe, is in fact officially open. A few posts were assigned already.

The Conservative Polish Jerzy Buzek got the European Parliament’s presidency. Irina Bukova was elected at UNESCO and that should set the Central and Eastern European countries.

The Scandinavians got both NATO, with the Liberal Danish Anders Fogh Rasmussen, and the Council of Europe, with the Norwegian Jagelund. This is likely to rule out two possible candidates for high representative, the Swedish Conservative Foreign Minister Carl Bildt – a long time front runner – and the Finnish Liberal Olli Rehn, current commissioner for enlargement.

The Southern Europeans got Conservative Barroso at the Commission and also have the French Jean Claude Trichet at the European Central Bank. He was supposed to have resigned already, but people forgot to remind him. Yet, Nikolas Sarkozy might find it useful to remember him now. In fact, the rumor is that Sarkozy would like to get rid of Bernard Kouchner and what better that a nice promoveatur ut amoveatur to Brussels? Indeed, the flamboyant French foreign minister could well serve the EU.

In the end, despite all the negotiations and all the divisions of powers, whether the EU will successfully act as one on the international scene, it will ultimately depend on the personality of the high representative. If Kouchner, a Socialist, becomes the high representative, then a Conservative is likely to get the post of EU President, something that would rule out Tony Blair, a fake candidate anyway: it is very unlikely that a person coming from a non-Euro and non-Schengen country would be the first EU President. A Socialist Southern European high representative would also rule out the former Prime Minister of Spain, Felipe Gonzales, rejuvenated since he got named president of the Reflection Committee on the Future of Europe. After the German elections, however, the chances that one relevant chair goes to a Liberal rouse again. The Germans just finished their term as European Parliament president with Conservative Hans-Gert Pottering. His former Chief of Staff Klaus Welle (also Conservative), was named secretary general of the European Parliament last May. In that case, the liberal and pro-European Guy Verhofstadt, former (Flemish) prime minister of Belgium is likely to be on the top of the list for EU President, a choice that would also please the Benelux countries, unhappy about the “big” member states’ attempts to retain control over the Union and to pre-void the content of the Lisbon Treaty with the current technical negotiations.

If Paris was worth a mass, Brussels may be worth some concessions.