Northern Ireland Assembly Business Trust Seminar

Lisbon Treaty

27.9.10 Long Gallery, Parliament Buildings

The seminar consisted of two distinct halves, the first a technical briefing from the European Parliament offices in London (Michael Shackleton) and Dublin (Francis Jacob), and the second a hands-on point of view from three MEPs, Jim Nicholson, Diane Dodds and Bairbre de Brun.

1. Technical Briefing

Michael Shackleton

Lisbon Treaty designed to improve efficiency and effectiveness of the European legislative process, and to increase inclusion. It seeks to clarify responsibility in key policy areas through its Catalogue of Competencies, assigning for each area whether responsibility is exclusive, shared or supportive. Article 50 is also a significant inclusion in that it allows the freedom of member states to leave – an important inclusion in winning support. Following the Lisbon Treaty, the legislative procedure is simplified in that, effectively, there is now one process followed in the normal course of events (with some exceptions). The process is unified across all subject areas. The Structural Funds decision-making process, for example, is an important simplification, and this process has also been made more transparent and inclusive. Qualified majority voting is a significant evolution also, with blocks of support sometimes formed within national groups to affect or block legislation. Furthermore, individual MEPs can now refine or block specific clauses within legislation more directly. The Lisbon Treaty also allowed for the creation of two new, significant posts, the President of the European Council and the High Representative. These posts are an attempt to clarify who has overall responsibility for the major decisions and policy directions of the EU: a ‘unified and more visible structure’. The example of recent EU-USA treaty negotiations was cited.

Francis Jacob

Democratic accountabilities and policies: the Lisbon Treaty remains, in some ways, quite abstract, which can be challenge when seeking to secure popular engagement. However, it does allow for greater involvement of national parliaments. The treaty sets out an explicit role for national parliaments, and allows them greater time for scrutiny (8 weeks). National parliaments are also given an increased commenting role, and allow for the blocking of specific decisions. The principle of subsidiarity: the Lisbon Treaty is not prescriptive here, but does encourage discussion of this issue. It leaves it to national parliaments to discuss with their devolved institutions their respective roles on specific issues. The EU does not necessarily play a direct role in this discussion, though ‘yellow’ and ‘orange’ cards are a useful device by which to provide clarity on the role of the EU versus local. Francis commented that significant evolution will probably take place on the issue of subsidiarity in terms of the procedures followed. The Committee of the Regions now has an explicit responsibility, and has direct access to the European Court of Justice. The Lisbon Treaty has a section on ‘democratic values’ which sets out the dialogue and liaison responsibilities of the EU. The Citizen’s Initiative is an important innovation also, though the details of this process (minimum age of citizens included, admission procedures, no. or participants per country etc) are under discussion. The Lisbon Treaty is not primarily concerned with policy, though EU policies are reinforced in certain areas and competence enhanced. Justice and home affairs is the biggest area (a significant enhancement on Maastricht), and human rights, social policy and health also significant. There are comparatively few new EU competencies set out in the Lisbon Treaty (this remains a politically sensitive area), though significant inclusions are: energy, sport, tourism, climate change, and procedures (especially Common Agricultural Policy and Common Fisheries Policy).

QUESTIONS: areas of discussion included the increased regulatory ‘burden’ imposed by the Lisbon Treaty, the issue of derogation, and corruption and transparency.

2. MEPs

Bairbre de Brun: much ‘battling’ among European institutions over practice and procedure – likely to set the landscape for the short to medium term. Lisbon Treaty not clear on the issue of budgetary agreement. There are wrangles on the ground about who represents the EU on specific issues, with representatives from the Commission, individual MEPs, and officials from specific institutions often competing for attendance at specific meetings. Inter-governmental ‘deals’ (for example, France and Germany) to initiate or implement particular action is an issue.

Diane Dodds: talked about her opposition to the Lisbon Treaty and the ‘erosion of national sovereignty’, though some significant modifications have occurred in practice since its agreement. Continued difficulties between the Commission and the Council of Ministers. She also talked broadly about the costs of running European institutions – some of which, she stated, are imposed directly by the responsibilities of the Lisbon Treaty: ‘competencies come with costs’.

Jim Nicholson: 75% of legislation discussed in the NI Assembly ‘originates in Brussels’. Discussion about the power of co-decision is frequent with many pieces of European legislation. Reduced bureaucracy versus increased monitoring and accountability is a difficult balance to strike, but a constant subject of discussion. He reflected on the relationship between the EU and NIA, commenting that the current NI Executive office in Brussels is probably sufficient at present. It will be crucially important to keep in touch with the European legislative process because of the eventual effect on domestic legislation (for example, the Nitrates Directive). Relationship between MEPs and the Assembly also important to discuss and evolve further.

QUESTIONS: these centred on: the ability to scrutinise European institutions, particularly the Council of Ministers; discussion of the agricultural discrepancies fine; and the EU’s role in the recession and recovery.