international analysis and commentary

The EU’s Lisbon game


Ireland’s “resounding Yes” to the Lisbon Treaty earlier this month seemed to have paved the way for a quick exit from the decade-long saga about reforming EU institutions to equip them for a much larger Union and much wider world. Polish President Lech Kaczynski was indeed fast at signing up to the ratification bill. His Czech colleague Vaclav Klaus, however, is still dragging his feet.

On the one hand, he can claim that he must await the ruling of his country’s Constitutional Court over a complaint filed by a group of senators on the very eve of the Irish referendum (the first hearing is set for  October 27, 2009). On the other, he has hinted at a new condition for his signature, namely that Prague must get an exemption from the Charter of Fundamental Rights (that is part of the new treaty) in order to prevent possible property claims from ethnic Germans expelled from Czechoslovakia in 1948. Alas, the issue is very sensitive in the Czech Republic but it risks reopening a Pandora’s Box of treaty negotiations – with other member states coming up with similar last-minute requests.

It is quite bizarre that an international treaty democratically ratified by all 27 national parliaments and by the citizens of the only country which has consulted them (albeit, admittedly, at the second try) can be held up by a single man whose constitutional powers do not allow him to withhold his signature – although the Czech Constitution does not set a deadline for him to put pen to paper. Yet it is also difficult to see what pressure can be exerted to persuade Klaus to sign, and to do so swiftly: direct threats could backfire, in fact, offering him the opportunity to rally support against an alleged lack of respect for a small country’s institutions and interests.

At the same time, the EU cannot afford protracted uncertainty and stalemate over its legal basis, not least given the many urgent internal and external challenges it faces. Time is short and timing crucial: the Union must decide soonest on the composition of the new European Commission, as the current college’s mandate expires in late October – as does that of Javier Solana, the outgoing High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy. The size and shape of the former and the competences of the latter would be different depending on whether they are appointed on the basis of the Nice Treaty (currently in force) or of the Lisbon Treaty.

A Script for the Endgame
Such a unique and unprecedented situation requires a combination of flexibility and resolve on all sides. The Swedish EU presidency could begin working on a multi-pronged approach along the following lines:

First, the forthcoming European Council on October 29-30, 2009 could extend the current Commission’s mandate by up to two months, in order to buy some time also for the nomination of the new college. The fact that President Barroso has been confirmed for another five-year term should make this easier, as the Commission would not be seen simply as a caretaker body – or, worse, a “lame duck” – and could instead rely on the fresh legitimacy of its President-elect.

Secondly, the same European Council could appoint Solana’s successor and also decide that, as a consequence, his/her country will not have a Commissioner until the Lisbon Treaty enters into force. When that happens, the new High Representative would join the Commission as Vice-President and oversee the Union’s “foreign policy”, in compliance with the new treaty provisions. Such a mechanism would allow for the nomination of the new college, which would thus consist of the President and 25 Commissioners: as such, it would still be in line with Nice (fewer Commissioners than member states) but easily adaptable to Lisbon (one per country until at least 2014).

Thirdly, immediately after that, President Barroso could announce his new Commission (names and portfolios) and submit them to the European Parliament for the required hearings in the relevant committees. In the meantime, the Swedish presidency and the Parliament could remain in close contact in order to be able to agree quickly on switching to a Lisbon-based “script” – including the final vote of confirmation for the whole Commission – if and when circumstances allow (i.e. Klaus signs up). This could be done either by written procedure (as happened over Barroso’s reappointment) or by convening a snap extraordinary EU summit to set the date for the new treaty’s entry into force and take the required steps.

Only then will it be possible – in a fourth and final stage – to complete the “double hatting” of the HR/VP and appoint the semi-permanent President of the European Council foreseen by Lisbon. This could easily end up on the agenda of the December EU summit, which would also have to launch the implementation of those aspects of the treaty that require further negotiations – both among the member states and between the EU institutions.

The Name(s) of the Game
If this is a possible script, what about the leading characters? International as well as national media are already caught in a frenzy about possible candidates for the two top jobs envisaged by Lisbon, namely the HR/VP and the President of the European Council. No call for applications has been made yet, and such speculations entail a degree of arbitrary guessing and even manipulation. Still, naming and praising (or shaming) potential leaders is also a way of publicly and openly debating their possible role(s), especially given the limited details that the Lisbon Treaty offers on their actual powers. Indeed, the first holders of those jobs are likely to define their respective profiles and functions – and the boundaries between them.

All that can and should be said at this stage is that a “package” deal on the new EU leadership is desirable – including some political, geographical and hopefully also gender balance across the Union – as shared ownership of the new Lisbon “system” would help increase both its legitimacy and its effectiveness.

To date, two top EU jobs have already been given to personalities from the center-right, namely the European Popular Party (EPP) who got a plurality of votes in last June’s elections for the European Parliament: Portugal’s Josè Manuel Barroso and Poland’s Jerzy Buzek. Moreover, the center-right is also currently leading approximately 20 governments out of 27 across the EU, and will probably appoint as many Commissioners to the new college. This may create a five-year long political imbalance that could impinge upon the perception and “image” of the Union among its 500 million citizens.

It would therefore be sensible to give at least one post to a personality from another political family, preferably the Party of European Socialists (PES). Logic would suggest that the President of the European Council – a purely intergovernmental role – be an expression of (or compatible with) the prevailing political “color” within the institution, i.e. the center-right. Conversely, it would make sense to pick a PES leader for the HR/VP job in order to broaden the political appeal of the Commission and strengthen its function as representative of the common European interest – and also its chances of getting a bipartisan endorsement from the Parliament.

By the same token, it would also be advisable to pick personalities capable of representing countries that are currently overlooked both within the EU leadership and in related organizations. Accordingly, with Southern and Central Europe already represented at the top, the Western and Northern areas may demand adequate consideration – although France and Scandinavia, for instance, are already well-off in terms of international top jobs (look at who leads the ECB, the WTO, the OCSE, NATO and the Council of Europe). The final equation, however, may have to combine these political and geographic factors differently to get a satisfactory result – possibly taking also into account the distribution of portfolios in the new Commission.

Last but not least, a large majority of member states – big and especially small – prefer a “chairman”/mediator rather than a “president”/leader figure for the European Council, and an experienced diplomat/manager for the HR/VP post. If they get their way, considering also the other criteria mentioned above, the search for Solana’s successor would remain wide open (also to surprise solutions). For his part, Tony Blair may well end up not getting the post that particularly the Anglo-Saxon media want him in (one wonders whether he would consider the other one). And all this could play into the hands of Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende, who is presiding over a Grand Coalition and whose Harry Potter looks may eventually prove a game-winner: after all, today’s EU would only benefit from a touch of innocent magic.

 Further Reading
Marta Dassù sul Corriere della Sera