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Human Rights First

Human Rights First

Posted: October 6, 2009 11:21 AM

EU's Lucky Charm: Ireland Supports Lisbon Treaty - Now What?

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By Joelle Fiss
Human RIghts First Pennoyer Fellow

BRUSSELS, October 3, 2009 - "This is a day of celebration for Ireland and for Europe", chuckled former Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt to the press from a smoke-filled Irish pub in the heart of the European Union headquarters in Brussels. As EU staffers and journalists huddled around him, Verhofstadt was watching the live TV results of the Irish referendum vote on what is commonly known in Europe as the "Lisbon Treaty."

Though the news was predicting a comfortable margin of victory for the treaty, with 67% of Irish voters in favor of the treaty, in reality, it was rather a "day of relief" than of exuberant festivity in Brussels. Ireland is the only EU country constitutionally obliged to put the treaty to a referendum. After a decade of negotiations, strings of ministerial summits and ratification hurdles, this referendum was the last stumbling block before the new EU treaty can enter into full force. You could practically hear the sighs of relief in the pro-Lisbon camp where EU officials and politicians, many of whom had been waiting for this result for years, continued to calmly sip on their beers.

The new treaty, sorely needed to update an enlarged European Union now encompassing twenty-seven states, lays out new structures for the EU. Internally, it will ease the adoption of new laws on a range of issues, including human rights, as well as empower the EU to propose new initiatives. Externally, the EU will now be a more visible player on the global stage. How will this all shake out? Here are some thoughts:

How will the new treaty affect US-EU relations?

From a diplomatic perspective, the EU will now put an end to the system of its six-month rotating presidency that coordinates Europe's foreign policy. The system had its shortfalls: In times of crisis, small nations, such as Malta, cannot pull the same diplomatic weight on the world stage as larger states, such as Germany. The establishment of a permanent EU President, who will be Europe's face to the world, will boost the Union's leadership and end the complicated web of hierarchal structures of the presidency that were often difficult for outside observes to grasp. The creation of this new post primarily aims to answer the famous question that Henry Kissinger once asked, "Who do I call when I want to call Europe?" There will now be one number to dial, even though Europe's foreign policy and defense positions will continue to require unanimous backing from all national capitals.

Will human rights policies be strengthened in Europe?

From a political angle, a "high representative", (in euro-slang "EU Foreign Minister") will articulate and coordinate Europe's political voice. The novelty here is that this post will better blend governmental positions with the wider range of the EU's external tools, such as the aid it provides to its non-European partners and its democracy-building instruments. To support this coordination, a new EU diplomatic corps (composed of national civil servants and EU staffers) will be established. As a result, Europe's foreign policy, defense, trade and aid policies should - in theory - increase in coherence as national capitals and EU officials in Brussels will work closer together to put their policies into practice. Although no one has yet discussed the precise modalities, one can safely predict the creation of a "human rights department" within the EU diplomatic corps, a division that would serve to mainstream human rights policies in a range of spheres.

Will there be more rights for citizens ... and EU competence in the field of criminal law?

The new legislative tools are the treaty's largest achievement. The "Lisbon Treaty's" text provides a reinforced framework to defend citizen's rights and freedoms. First, the EU's Charter of Fundamental Rights - which sets out a whole range of civil, political and social rights - will now be part of the treaty and, therefore, legally binding. This means that citizens will be able to use the Charter to challenge any decision taken by EU, or by governments implementing EU law, if they feel that their rights have been infringed upon. EU citizens could bring a matter before a judge in their country, who, in turn, could request an interpretation from the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg. The "Lisbon Treaty" will also allow the EU to accede to the European Convention on Human Rights as a legal entity and be bound by judgments of the European Court of Human Rights.

Second, the Lisbon Treaty represents a significant shift in EU decision-making. In many areas, the system of "qualified majority" voting will be extended. This change that will pave the way for EU laws to be adopted and applied in sensitive areas, including asylum, immigration, as well as police and judicial co-operation in criminal matters. In the past, these controversial policies largely remained in the purview of national governments, but now the EU will have improved tools to collectively fight problems such as racist violence or organized crime.

Finally, the European Parliament will be able to co-decide with governments on these important matters, which will deeply transform the political dynamics in Brussels. These new relations will also change the working culture for non-European governments and civil society representatives who would like to weigh in on the process.

The devil will lie in the detail...

With the Lisbon Treaty now closer to ratification, a new chapter has now been opened. As the EU rushes to put these commitments into practice, however, the devil will lie in the details. Though it is hard to predict how things will all shake out, an important recent development may give us some insight. European Commission President José Manuel Barroso, under pressure to get reappointed for his second term, recently promised the European Parliament to set up a "human rights" portfolio in the next European Commission. Perhaps his action shows that when push comes to shove, the most important attribute needed to advance Europe's ambitions is political will.