Lisbon Essay (31): Checks, balances and a stronger social dimension

And in the last of our Lisbon essays, Labour Party leader Eamon Gilmore rather trenchantly asserts that Lisbon is not about transfering power from Dublin to Brussels. It is he believes, in contrast to Jimmy Kelly in LE26, enhances a social Europe by setting the Charter up as a watchdog on all EU institutions when it comes to the framing and passing of law. And in contrast with Joe Higgins’ concerns in LE4 he believes it would provide a bulwark against those “who instead call for unrestricted free-market capitalism”.By Eamon Gilmore TD

First, let’s get one thing straight: this treaty is not about transferring powers from national governments to “Brussels”. Rather, it changes the way the European Union exercises its existing responsibilities while adding extra checks and balances – both in terms of democratic accountability and in terms of social protection.

Let’s start with the democratic accountability. Under Lisbon, no EU legislation can be adopted without, first, prior examination of proposals by national parliaments, second, approval by the EU Council of Ministers (composed of national ministers accountable to those national parliaments) and third, approval of the European Parliament (composed of our directly elected MEPs).

This is a level of scrutiny that exists in no other international organisation. Anyone genuinely worried about accountability should focus on the IMF, the WTO, the World Bank, the OECD and so on, which lack such accountability.

The treaty will also require the Council of Ministers to meet in public when discussing legislation – entrenching a long overdue reform.

Lisbon also provides for the President of the Commission to be elected by the European Parliament. The European Council must make a nomination taking account of the European election results and the majorities that are possible in the European Parliament. At the very least, this (and the need for a vote of confidence by Parliament in the whole Commission) will make it clear that the Commission is not a group of unaccountable bureaucrats, but is a political executive dependant on the confidence of the elected parliament.

As an extra safeguard, the treaty obliges the EU institutions to respect a Charter of Rights, failing which its decisions can be struck down by the courts. This will ensure the EU cannot undermine rights commonly accepted across Europe, including key workers’ rights.

With these democratic reforms come some practical changes to help the institutions function better in an enlarged Union: merging the two EU foreign affairs positions into one role of High Representative and replacing the 6-month rotating European Council presidency (changing chairman every second meeting) with a longer 30-month term.

Equally important are the changes on the social front.

The Lisbon Treaty will strengthen the European Social Model. It will enshrine the values of social justice, full employment and solidarity in the EU’s mission statement and commit the EU to “a social market economy, aiming at full employment and social progress”. The Treaty emphasises that the EU must work to “combat social exclusion and discrimination”, and will be legally required to promote social justice, gender equality and solidarity between generations. It is values such as these that clearly differentiate the EU from the American model of capitalism that allows private wealth and public squalor.

A new protocol will require the Union to safeguard public services, including the way they are organised and financed in each country. The treaty also requires the Union, in all policy areas, to take account of “the promotion of a high level of employment, the guarantee of adequate social protection, the fight against social exclusion, and a high level of education, training and protection of human health”.

Lisbon reaffirms the existing obligation on the Commission to “promote the consultation of management and labour at Union level”, to “facilitate their dialogue by ensuring balanced support for the parties”, and to “consult the social partners before submitting proposals on social policy”.

The Charter of Rights, approved by every Member State government in 2000, but which will with Lisbon become legally binding on the EU institutions, sets out the civil, economic and social rights that the EU will be obliged to respect. These include the right to fair and just working conditions, to collective bargaining and collective action, including strike action, equal pay for men and women, the right to social security and freedom from discrimination.

The Lisbon treaty is, of course, a compromise and, indeed, falls short of some aspirations. However, it provides a base to protect and develop a social vision of Europe. The overwhelming majority of socialist parties and of trade unions across Europe support the Lisbon Treaty, despite some reservations, precisely because it will enshrine the European Social Model.

Moreover, a rejection of the treaty would further galvanize those who are bitterly opposed to the values of social inclusion and solidarity that are enshrined in the EU, and who instead call for unrestricted free-market capitalism. It is no coincidence that the treaty’s strongest opponents are the British Conservative and UKIP parties and the Czech President Vaclav Klaus. This would be a disaster – the social model is central to the European project and is too important not to be fought for.

For those of us who believe in a European Union that is fit for purpose, this treaty is a result to be welcomed – a set of useful reforms that should put an end to years of institutional wrangling and will make the EU institutions more responsive to citizens, to Member States, their parliaments and their peoples.

In other words, it will deliver a more focused EU, better capable of delivering in those policy areas where we benefit from common European action, not least the social, environmental and consumer protection legislation that tames market forces. At the same time, it subjects the EU to stronger safeguards and more scrutiny. This, surely, deserves our support.

Eamon Gilmore TD is Leader of the Irish Labour Party…

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty