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The Lisbon Treaty for dummies


Don’t have a clue what we are being asked to vote on in the upcoming referendum on the Lisbon Treaty on June 12th? Join the rest of the country. The treaty comprises 270 pages of complex legal language - it’s not light reading even for those of us paid to study it. But don’t worry, help is at hand. Jessie Magee breaks down the treaty into a ten point summary, so you can make up your mind without having to enlist a lawyer.

Confusing. Unintelligible. Impenetrable. This is the general reaction of anyone who has read or attempted to read the Lisbon Treaty, from politicians to pundits to ordinary people trying to find the facts. The treaty amends the contents of several existing EU treaties in a document running to hundreds of pages of legal articles, protocols, declarations and annexes.

Those in favour of a ‘Yes’ vote argue that complexity is unavoidable when a treaty needs to set out the rules governing relations between 27 sovereign member states.

Those opposed to the treaty claim it is deliberately unclear, and that we should not be asked to vote on something we cannot understand.

Both sides agree that the Lisbon Treaty preserves the main substance of the EU constitution, rejected by French and Dutch voters in 2005. Both sides also agree that some reform of EU structures is necessary, to facilitate the continuing expansion of the union and streamline its decision-making processes. The question is whether the Lisbon Treaty, signed by EU leaders last December and due to come into effect in 2009, represents the best path to reform.

Ireland is the only country in the EU to hold a referendum on the treaty, as required by our constitution. Every other member state can ratify the treaty by a vote in their national parliament. As such, we hold responsibility for supporting or rejecting the treaty on behalf of about 490 million Europeans who do not have the option to vote.

Below are some of the main changes that will come about if the Lisbon Treaty is approved by the people of Ireland. Whether they are positive, negative, necessary, significant or otherwise is up to you to decide.

1. Top jobs

A politician will be chosen to be president of the European Council for two and a half years, replacing the current system where presidency is rotated between member states every six months. Another post to be created will be the EU High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy, combining the current roles of EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana and external affairs commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner.

2. Charter of Fundamental Rights

The Lisbon Treaty makes the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights a legally-binding document. The charter lists the human rights recognized by the European Union.

3. Citizens’ initiative

Under the Lisbon Treaty, the commission is obliged to consider any proposal signed by at least one million citizens from a number of member states.

4. National parliaments to get ‘yellow card’ facility

All proposals for EU legislation will have to be sent to national parliaments, who will then have eight weeks to offer a ‘reasoned opinion’ on whether they believe the proposal respects the principle of subsidiarity (this is the principle by which decisions should as far as possible be made at local or national level). If enough national parliaments object to a proposal, the commission can decide to maintain, amend or withdraw it.

5. Smaller commission

The European Commission is the EU’s executive arm; it puts forward legislation and ensures that EU policies

are correctly implemented. Since 2004, it has been made up of 27 commissioners, one from each member state. Under the new treaty, the commission will be reduced to 18 members from 2014, with membership rotating every five years. This means that only two-thirds of member states will have their own commissioner at any one time, and each country will lose its commissioner for five years at a time.

6. European Parliament to get greater powers but reduced numbers

Currently, the European Parliament has joint lawmaking power with the Council of Ministers over about 75% of legislative areas. If the Lisbon Treaty enters into force, co-decision will be extended to virtually all areas of EU policy.

The European Parliament comprises 785 MEPs from across the union; under the treaty, this will be permanently reduced to 751. The number of Irish MEPs will drop from 13 to 12.

7. New areas of EU competence

The Lisbon Treaty will set out those areas over which the EU has exclusive competence, shared competence with member states, or supporting competence. The treaty gives the EU no new areas of exclusive competence; however, it establishes joint competence in the areas of space and energy. It also gives the EU the role of supporting competence in several new fields including health, education, tourism, energy and sport.

8. Redistribution of voting weights between member states

Within those areas to be decided by qualified majority voting, the current rules require the support of a little over 72% of member states for a law to be passed. Under the new system due to come into effect from 2014, a vote can be passed if it is backed by 55% of member states, and secondly, if these countries represent 65% of the EU’s population. It can also be passed if less than four countries oppose it. The changes mean

that it will be easier to pass legislation, and more difficult to block it. Countries with smaller populations will have less chance of blocking legislation.

9. Shift from unanimity to majority voting

The Lisbon Treaty will see an increase in the number of policy areas to be decided by a majority vote at the council, rather than by unanimity. Qualified majority voting will become the norm; however, there are some notable exceptions that will still require unanimous decisions, including taxation and defence.

One area where the unanimity veto will give way to qualified majority voting is Justice and Home Affairs, covering issues such as asylum, immigration, criminal law, border controls and police cooperation. Ireland has the power to opt out of this area on a case-by-case basis.

10. Changes to common security and defence policy

The Lisbon Treaty provides for the progressive framing of a common defence policy for the European Union, which will nonetheless respect the neutrality of member states like Ireland. It also allows the European Council to change decision making from unanimity to majority voting in a number of areas, excluding military and defence. However such changes will themselves require unanimous decisions.

The treaty extends the range of peacekeeping and humanitarian missions for which the union may draw on member states to include disarmament operations, military advice and assistance and post-conflict stabilization.


1950: Robert Schuman, the French Minister for Foreign Affairs, makes a speech proposing that France and Germany pool their coal and steel resources in a new organization that other European countries can join. This date, May 9, is regarded as the birth of the European Union, and is now celebrated annually as Europe Day.

1951: France, the Federal Republic of Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg and Italy sign up to the treaty, which creates the European Coal and Steel community (ECSC).

1957: The Common Market and the European Atomic Energy Community (EURATOM) are created by the Treaty of Rome. The Common Market allows member countries to trade freely with one another with import /export taxes being added to the cost of their goods.

1960: The European Free Trade Association is created (EFTA). This is made up of Iceland, Norway, Switzerland and Liechtenstein. It is created to establish free trade among members and to broaden the economic union to other non-EU western European countries.

1973: Ireland, Denmark and the UK join the European Community. Norway holds a referendum and votes not to join.

1979: For the first time, 410 members of the European Parliament are elected by elections in which the public vote.

1981: Greece joins the European Community.

1986: The Single European Act is adopted. Spain and Portugal join, bringing membership of the European Community to ten countries.

1991: Creation of the European Economic Area.

1992: The treaty on European Union is signed at Maastricht.

1993: The single market is created.

1995: Austria, Finland and Sweden join the European Union.

1997: The Treaty of Amsterdam is signed.

1999: Eleven member states start the third stage of European Monetary Union and vote to adopt the Euro as their single European currency.

2001: The Treaty of Nice is signed. Irish voters reject the treaty in a referendum in June. Voter turn out is low at 34%.

2002: Euro notes and coins come into general circulation in 12 countries. Ireland holds a second referendum on the Nice Treaty in October. This time turnout rose by almost a third, and the treaty is approved by a majority of almost 63%.

2004: Ireland holds the presidency of the EU from January to June. Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia join the European Union.

2005: The French reject the European Constitution in a referendum, followed three days later by voters in The Netherlands.

2007: Bulgaria and Romania join the European Union. The Treaty of Lisbon is signed by EU leaders in December.

2008: Ireland holds a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, the only EU member state to do so.

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