Too Early for Triumph in Brussels What Lisbon Ruling Really Means for the EU

The political elite in Brussels are breathing a sigh of relief. The fact that Germany's highest court has set very strict conditions on the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty doesn't seem to be bothering anyone: The main thing is that the treaty doesn't have to be reworked again.

It didn't take anytime at all for the windbags in Brussels to start furiously sending out celebratory messages after Germany's highest court in Karlsruhe ruled on Tuesday  that the Lisbon Treaty to reform the European Union doesn't directly violate the country's constitution.

"I welcome the decision of the German Federal Constitutional Court," Jose Manuel Barroso, the president of the European Commission, the EU's executive branch, immediately announced, probably before he had had a chance to read through the 147-page ruling -- or even the 10-page press release.

That's because Barroso is currently in Greece, near Athens, as a guest at a working conference of German members of the European Parliament for the conservative Christian Democrats. They're currently working on more important things -- namely a plan to secure Barroso's re-election as the Commission's president. And one can't really say that the Karlsruhe judges recognized the Lisbon Treaty because of its "strengthening of the democratic legitimacy of the European Union," as Barroso sought to spin it.

German Checks and Balances for EU Laws

In fact, the exact opposite is true. The guardians of the German constitution are concerned about the EU's "democratic deficit" -- shortcomings it also sees in the Lisbon Treaty. On page after page, the justices formulate strict legal limits, stating that any future "Community law or Union law" deemed to violate those principles can be "declared inapplicable in Germany."

Somehow, though, the threatening verdict from Germany's highest court doesn't seem to be bothering anyone in Brussels.

Hans-Gert Pöttering , president of the European Parliament, "warmly welcomes" it. The Greens "welcome it." Even members of parliament for the far-left Left Party "welcomed" a "part of the ruling," even though their political bosses in Berlin were parties in the case seeking a blanket rejection of Lisbon at the Constitutional Court.

Klaus Hänsch, a longtime German Social Democrat in Brussels, described the development as a "good day for Germany." His colleague Alexander Lambsdorff, also a member of the European Parliament, warned his colleagues in Germany's Bundestag that the parliament must fulfil "its obligation" to make ratification of Lisbon possible by drafting domestic legislation demanded by the high court, so that the EU could be made "more democratic through the treaty."

Further Hurdles Remain

Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, whose country takes over the six-month rotating EU presidency on Wednesday, said that the time table for the coming half year would not be changed by the ruling. According to the current time plan, the Lisbon Treaty, which aims to make the union more transparent, is intended to go into force by the end of the year.

Jan Fischer, the prime minister of the Czech Republic, which just completed its EU presidency, also welcomed Wednesday's ruling. "I see today's decision as an important step towards the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty and towards institutional stability of the European Union," he said in a statement.

Still, it's difficult to pinpoint what is feeding all this Euro-euphoria. Many EU champions are just happy that the guardians of the German constitution didn't reject the Lisbon Treaty and that the worst-case scenario could be averted. Now, the complicated ratification process for this complicated treaty can continue.

But that alone is already going to be plenty of work. The next step in the process is an expected second referendum in Ireland in October that will see the Irish voting on Lisbon again after rejecting it last year.  The euroskeptic presidents of Poland and the Czech Republic must also be cajoled into signing the treaty.

Still, the treaty -- forged out of what was originally planned as a European constitution that failed in referenda in France  and the Netherlands  -- has cleared one more hurdle. Everything that the Constitutional Court has rejected, criticized and noted, will initially have more impact on German domestic democratic institutions than European. That's why the pro-Lisbon faction is celebrating. At the same time, its opponents don't want to be seen as the losing party -- that wouldn't come across well with their supporters. So everybody's happy -- at least judging by outward appearances.

Even the Europe grumps in Bavaria with the Christian Social Union, the sister party to Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union, who sued to stop Lisbon, are pleased with the Karlsruhe decision. But their pleasure is more schadenfreude than true joy. Markus Ferber, the leader of the CSU's party group in the European Parliament in Brussels, is less pleased about the development -- he would have preferred to see Lisbon fail the German legal review. But he's still happy that the court is forcing the German parliament to change the domestic laws pertaining to the ratification of the treaty and require greater participation from Germany's legislative bodies in the European decision-making process. Now, he says, there will finally "be more parliamentary control before governments make decisions in Brussels."

He says he has often told his colleagues in the German parliament that they give their chancellor and their ministers "too much freedom" in handing over competencies to Brussels and in passing new laws. In the future it won't be as easy as it often has been up until now for representatives of the 27 EU member states in Brussels to fiddle around and push through important decisions on a wide range of topics including personal or social security, cultural and legal questions or even military deployments involving German soldiers.

Before such decisions can be made, Germany's two legislative bodies, the Bundestag and the upper house of parliament, the Bundesrat, will have to give their approval. That might make the EU's work a little bit more cumbersome, but it will also be more democratic.

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