Green Light for European Reforms EU Clears Last Lisbon Treaty Hurdle

The Czech Republic has abandoned its final resistance to the ratification of the European Union's Lisbon Treaty. This opens the door for EU member state leaders to select the bloc's first president and foreign minister. But critics say the reforms are already past their sell-by date.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy are breathing a sigh of relief after closing eight years of difficult negotiations over European Union reforms.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy are breathing a sigh of relief after closing eight years of difficult negotiations over European Union reforms.

Foto: A2931 Bernd Weißbrod/ dpa

The last hurdle has been surmounted. On Tuesday, after the Czech Republic's Constitutional Court rejected a complaint  submitted by 17 euroskeptic senators against the Lisbon Treaty, the blueprint for reforming the European Union can now enter into force, as planned, at the end of the year.

Likewise, Czech President Vaclav Klaus will no longer have any more excuses for withholding his signature from the document. When he finally signs it, as he is expected to do within the next few days, the long process of ratifying the treaty will finally -- after eight long years -- be at an end. At that point, Europe's leaders will be able to take a large, collective sigh of relief. It's been a long, arduous path, one that saw three failed referendums -- in France, the Netherlands and Ireland -- and a number of complaints submitted to various constitutional courts.

Even David Cameron, the leader of Britain's opposition Conservatives, has given up his resistance. In the spring, if the Tories retake the House of Commons, as they are widely expected to do, they will not call for a retroactive referendum on the treaty. As Cameron regretfully put it, by that time, the treaty will no longer be just a treaty; it will be the equivalent of a European constitution. Though his euroskeptic supporters will be very upset about the fact that he broke a solemn vow, the fact is that Cameron saw no other choice.

In the wake of the court's decision in Prague, there has been widespread relief across the Continent. Freshly minted German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle called it "a good day for Germans," adding that it is "high time that we leave these discussions about internal reform behind us." Even José Manuel Barroso, the president of the European Commission, seems to be happy with things.

More Efficiency, More Democracy

Despite increasing scepticism, the Lisbon Treaty will bring about several sensible changes. For example, the requirement of having unanimity will be dropped in a number of areas. Given the fact that the EU has 27 member states, this step is long overdue. Beginning in 2014, for a measure to be passed, it will have to be approved by at least 55 percent of these states, which together must account for at least 65 percent of the combined population of the EU. Under these conditions, Germany's influence in the international forum will grow. With its 82 million inhabitants, its percentage of the vote will jump from 8.4 percent to 17.2 percent.

The reforms will not only make the EU more efficient, but also more democratic. In the future, the European Parliament will have greater power of co-decision, and national parliaments will also be informed earlier about EU directives so that they have more time to react and, if necessary, express their reservations, rather than just being handed a fait accompli. National vetoes will still apply in the areas of foreign, tax and social policy.

The biggest headline-grabbers will be the new posts created by the Lisbon Treaty aimed at creating a higher profile for the EU on the international stage. The presidency of the Council of the European Union will no longer rotate to a different country every six months as it has up until now. Instead, the president will remain at the helm for two-and-a-half years. The new EU foreign minister, who will officially be called the high representative for foreign policy, will also have a diplomatic corps with 3,500 officials. These offices have huge potential -- how that potential is used will depend on who is selected for the offices.

For weeks now, leaders of the EU member states have been negotiating future personnel -- with an almost endless flow of telephone calls. The first EU president and foreign minister are expected to be chosen at a special EU summit in mid-November. But one early decision did fall at last week's EU summit in Brussels: The European Socialists have decided they want to stake a claim on the foreign minister post. Conservative EU leaders would then be left to seek a president for the council.

Tensions Expected Between Old and New Guard

That decision has pushed former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who has long been considered a leading possibility for the office of the first president, out of the running  -- unless the conservatives were to pick a social democrat, a development that is hardly likely. German Chancellor Angela Merkel in recent days expressed her preference for a president from a smaller EU member state. And French President Nicolas Sarkozy doesn't want to make a decision that is counter to Merkel's line. In place of Blair, the names now being dropped are those of Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende  and former Austrian Chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel.

For the foreign minister post, British Foreign Minister David Miliband is seen as a strong candidate, although up until now he has brushed off talk of a possible candidacy. One reason for his delaying is the concern that a move to Brussels only a few months before the British general election could be interpreted as jumping from a Labour government that is a sinking ship. Some even believe his ambition is to inherit Prime Minister Gordon Brown's position as party chair.

Once the personnel issues have been addressed, the true test of the Lisbon Treaty will begin. Frictions between the old EU leaders -- the government leaders and European Commission -- and the new representatives are inevitable. In the coming months, a new division of labor must be developed within the European institutions.

EU's Economic Interests Under-Represented

The Lisbon Treaty leaves many old EU problems unsolved. The fundamental dispute over whether the EU should be broadened or deepened will continue unabated. Former Finnish Prime Minister Paavo Lipponen demanded in an interview with the Financial Times that the eurozone members should make it their aim to introduce the single currency in all EU member states by 2020. Many countries would bitterly oppose that, especially Britain. Other member states, meanwhile, are against expanding the EU.

Critics say the Lisbon Treaty will already be out of date when it comes into force. A new global economic order has emerged in the eight years it took Europe to ratify it. The G-20 has replaced the G-8 as the global forum of leading economic powers and the EU has lost some of its global clout. While the Lisbon Treaty will improve the EU's outward representation, critics say the bloc isn't good enough at defending its economic interests against those of the US and China. Most EU states continue to behave like competitors, which leads to internal European battles for prestige within the G-20.

It will take time for these issues to be resolved. After the nightmare of getting Lisbon ratified, the heads of government are yearning for a quiet spell, free of reforms. They want the next few years to be a period of consolidation. The EU hasn't yet totally digested its eastward expansion, and the new decision-making processes will need to be tried and tested.

The next challenges are already on the horizon. The British general election next spring will probably produce an extremely euroskeptic government in London. And the accession talks with the Balkan countries and Turkey will keep on triggering intense debates about the role of the EU. Lisbon was just an interim victory for the EU project -- nothing more.