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Almost there

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The European Union’s Lisbon Treaty is an awkward-looking animal – the proverbial ‘camel’ that emerges from discussion by committee. Formed out of the discarded limbs of the Union’s more elegant, but doomed constitutional treaty, this animal is not pretty, but was built to serve a vital function – improving efficiency and democracy in the EU.

To strain a metaphor, this camel has now cleared 25 of the 27 hurdles placed before it: Ireland’s voters, at the second time of asking, approved their country’s ratification of the treaty on 2 October. Only Poland and the Czech Republic remain. Poland’s president, Lech Kaczynski, signed the act of ratification on Sunday; meanwhile the machinations of the Czech president, Vaclav Klaus, and 17 Czech senators continue. Their aim is to block or delay ratification, and a new case – the second on this issue – is before the constitutional court. However, the Czech prime minister, Jan Fischer, remains confident that Czech ratification will come before the end of the year – to the chagrin of British Conservatives, who hope for a delay long enough to allow any new Tory government to call a referendum next year that would almost certainly scupper the treaty.

So this strange, misunderstood and misrepresented beast seems likely to hobble past the finish line: but what changes will it really make to the EU?

The headline-grabbing changes involve personnel, principally a new ‘President of Europe’ and ‘foreign minister’. In reality, things are more mundane – the ‘President of the European Council’ (to give the proper title) will chair the quarterly summits of EU leaders but have powers of representation more akin to the Secretary-General of the United Nations than any national leader. Member states will call the shots. Tony Blair (a former British prime minister) and Jan Peter Balkenende (the current Dutch premier) are thought to be frontrunners, and probably represent different visions of the role.

What changes will the Lisbon Treaty really make to the EU?

More interesting is the ‘High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy’, who will chair meetings of foreign ministers and represent the EU in foreign policy issues – but who will also sit as a vice-president of the European Commission – a collection of titles to rival those of Peter Mandelson. The nominated person will also head a new EU team of diplomats (a European External Action Service). Olli Rehn, the current commissioner for external affairs, Chris Patten, a former holder of that post, and the Swedish foreign minister, Carl Bildt, are in the frame.

There are changes to what the EU does, too – new powers (if only to coordinate, in some instances) on climate change, energy, tourism, space and public health. 61 areas – including many relating to agriculture and trade – fall under the ‘co-decision’ procedure, giving the European Parliament an equal say with national governments on the formulation of laws.

The nuts and bolts of voting by member governments (‘qualified majority voting’) will also change from 2014. The aim was simplification: however, the method chosen (linking votes for national governments to population size) meant Poland and Spain had less power than before. A fairly standard ‘fudge’ ensued, whereby old and new coexist (until 2017), and minorities can prolong debate on issues even if they don’t have the numbers to block a measure. So much for simplification.

So what is to be made of the Lisbon Treaty? Firstly, there’s less to it than meets the eye. Despite figureheads and some power transfers, the EU will not become a ‘state’. It will remain firmly a federation of independent states, with national governments calling the shots. Things will be streamlined, better-coordinated, and (hopefully) more efficient – but Lisbon represents no ‘great leap forward’, like the Single European Act (1986) or the Maastricht Treaty (1992).

There’s less to the Lisbon Treaty than meets the eye

Secondly, Lisbon will make the Union more ‘democratic’: despite a low turnout in its elections, the European Parliament is the only directly-elected institution, so an increase in its powers should be welcomed. National parliaments – with even greater democratic legitimacy – gain powers of oversight. Citizens, in sufficient numbers (one million) can request proposals from the European Commission.

Finally, it’s complicated. Whereas the constitutional treaty (which had much of the same content) could legitimately be described as a ‘tidying up exercise’ (with added extras), the Lisbon Treaty lays bare the inherent messiness of an EU of 27 members. Even a consolidated version of the treaties – the only way to make sense of the changes – weighs heavy with protocols, declarations and decisions included at the behest of one or more government.

With the exercise and the end result as fraught and messy as they are, little wonder that EU governments will be happy to see Lisbon in place – putting an end to Europe’s messy and exhausting constitutional decade.

This article first appeared on the Burson-Marsteller Blog