Welcoming the Lisbon Treaty A Change for the Better in Europe

It took almost a decade. But on Tuesday, the Lisbon Treaty finally goes into effect. In a contribution for SPIEGEL ONLINE, European Parliament President Jerzy Buzek writes that a new era of European democracy has begun.

Jerzy Buzek hopes for more European democracy.
AP

Jerzy Buzek hopes for more European democracy.


"Historic" is a word often over-used. Yet, Dec. 1, 2009, will go down in the history of the European Union as the day the Lisbon Treaty enters into force, ending nearly a decade of internal discussions.

The treaty represents an era of increased democracy in the European Union and gives a huge boost to the powers of the European Parliament. There is almost a doubling of the legislative and budgetary powers of the parliament. The European Parliament will also jointly decide with national ministers in the important spheres of justice and home affairs, such as immigration and asylum including conditions for the reception of applicants, and international trade policy.

One key area of increased power is the common agricultural policy. Here Members of the European Parliament (MEP) will for the first time co-decide with national ministers on agricultural law and spending, the latter accounting for almost 40 percent of the EU budget. The same applies to the EU fisheries policy. MEPs will also get an equal say with state ministers on the how the EU's structural funds are spent.

Improved Governance

This increase in parliamentary powers builds on the fact that the parliament already enjoys joint-decision making with the Council of Ministers in many existing fields -- notably the EU's single market, as well as policy on environment, transport, employment and development.

The treaty changes for the better the way our continent is governed, enhancing the influence of citizens and national parliaments on the way the EU operates. It gives Europeans a more direct say in decisions made in the EU. The treaty creates the 'European citizens' initiative,' which enables one million citizens who are nationals of a significant number of member states to call directly on the European Commission to bring forward a legislative proposal in any area of EU competence. This sort of direct participation should lead to greater engagement with the increasingly influential European institutions.

The EU is a Europe based on common values, notably freedom and solidarity. The treaty promotes the Union's values, introducing the Charter of Fundamental Rights into European primary law, ensuring better protection of European citizens. The charter is a guarantee that Union institutions and law cannot violate basic standards of human rights -- European institutions will have to respect them. The charter has the European Union's full support, even though the United Kingdom, Poland and the Czech Republic have all negotiated opt-outs, thus demonstrating the EU's ability to apply flexible arrangements in respect to the sensitivities of individual member states.

High Level of Scrutiny

Our European Union, of almost 500 million people, will have an improved system of democratic accountability. Any legislation will be subject to the prior scrutiny of national parliaments and then the double approval of the Council of Ministers, composed of ministers accountable to those very same national parliaments, and the European Parliament. All of whom are directly elected by citizens to represent them at the European level.

This is a level of scrutiny that exists in no other international structure. It is scrutiny that should make the EU more transparent and accountable to Europe's citizens.

The Lisbon Treaty enables Europe to take its responsibilities in the world more seriously. The EU High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy (and I am happy it is a woman, as I had called for), served by a newly developed European External Action Service, will provide a clear voice for the EU on a global level. Baroness Cathy Ashton as vice-president of the European Commission will face a hearing in the European Parliament during the second week of January to assess her suitability for her new post. I am convinced that this new voice, supported by a strong European External Action Service together with European expertise in intergovernmental diplomacy, can offer a step change in the effectiveness of our foreign policy. With a growing number of EU crisis management missions around the world, the European Parliament will hold Baroness Ashton to account, ensuring transparency and accountability, as it is our duty to do.

Not an End in Itself

The EU's external action is closely linked to energy supply and security. A whole new chapter on energy policy is introduced in the Lisbon Treaty, including solidarity in energy supply, a concern for many Europeans. The goals of EU policy are clear: Promoting the internal energy market, promoting energy interconnections and guaranteeing supply. The treaty sets the foundations for a much needed common EU energy policy -- what I would call a 'European Energy Community.'

Last January witnessed the eruption of a Russian-Ukrainian gas dispute that deprived a number of Central and Eastern European countries -- especially Bulgaria and Slovakia -- of gas supplies for two weeks in the middle of winter. We saw what the lack of a proper EU-wide policy can mean. It was, in some ways, a re-run of similar events in January 2006. The developments in energy policy provided by the Treaty are therefore significant, necessary and are close to my heart: Europeans may not understand all the intricacies of geopolitics, they do, however, understand when the heating is turned off in their homes, hospitals and schools.

The Lisbon Treaty is not an end in itself, nor is it perfect. It is an improved set of rules to develop EU policy. Twenty years after the beginnings of the democratic changes in Central and Eastern Europe, and as the first President of the European Parliament from this part of our continent, I am proud to say that we now have a set of democratic and efficient rules capable of providing answers for 500 million people in 27 (possibly soon to be 28 or 29) member states.

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