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Statement of Mr Jean Asselborn at the National School of Krajowa Szkola Administracji Publicznej

Published Monday February 25 2008

Ladies and gentlemen,

The subject that I have been asked to address today - the implementation of the Lisbon Treaty and its impact on the functioning of the European Union - might appear rather technical, but as you will see these so-called "technical issues" hide some major political challenges for the European institutional system.

Luxembourg is one of the two countries which had expressed itself by referendum in favor of the draft Constitutional Treaty. We still are of the opinion that this text was good for Europe. Although being less readable, the Lisbon Treaty, which takes up the essentials of the Constitutional Treaty, constitutes a step forward for Europe.

The Lisbon Treaty brings more democratic legitimacy to the EU by enhancing the powers of the national parliaments as well as those of the European Parliament. It increases the rights of the European citizens by incorporating the Charter of Fundamental Rights into the body of primary law with the same legal force as the Treaties. It improves in many ways the effective functioning of the institutions of the Union.

I will not be able to address all the improvements the Treaty provides for and which are currently under discussion in the Member States in the context of the ratification process. I do hope that these debates will bring Europe closer to its citizens. Without wanting to underestimate the difficulties, I am confident that all the Member States will ratify the Lisbon Treaty so that it can enter into force by the end of the year. In this respect, I was happy to learn during my talks yesterday with Foreign Minister Sikorski and the Marshall of the Sejm that Poland will be among the first to ratify the Treaty.

Various preparatory works have to be taken up rapidly to ensure that the changes in the inter-institutional relations will be implemented smoothly and in good condition upon entry into force of the Treaty.

Allow me to touch upon some of these changes in the functioning of the EU institutions from the point of view of the Member States of the Council of the EU and of the European Council.

The Treaty recognizes the European Council as an autonomous institution assigned with the role of political guidance. I believe that the most important innovation of the Lisbon Treaty is the replacement - at the level of the European Council - of the six-monthly rotating Presidency by a President elected by the members of the European Council for a (once) renewable 30 month period. This President must prepare and conduct the work of the European Council. He or she has the role of facilitator and must ensure visibility, continuity and coherence of the Union, both internally and externally. We are not talking about a President of Europe or about a President of the Union as it is sometimes presented. This would not suit the specificity of the institutional European model nor the triangular institutional balance. It will be important to ensure that the relations between the President of the European Council, the President of the Commission, the High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, as well as the rotating Presidency are harmonious and cooperative. The European Council conclusions should ideally be prepared in a concerted manner with the rotating Presidency and the Commission. As for the external representation at the international level, the President of the European Council should be accompanied by the High Representative and the President of the Commission.

In my view, it will not be necessary to create a new bureaucracy alongside the existing Secretariat. The President of the European Council must be able to count on the General Secretariat of the Council which is experienced in the day to day affairs of the EU. This should not prevent the President from having a cabinet at his/her disposal, but the creation of a separate structure should be avoided.

Another institutional innovation of the Lisbon Treaty is the creation of the post of the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy by merging the current position of High Representative with that of Commissioner responsible for external relations. The purpose of this innovation is to ensure coherence and visibility of the Union’s external action. The High Representative will thus wear a double institutional hat: he/she will preside over the Foreign Affairs Council, will present proposals, and implement decisions of the Council; being Vice-President of the Commission, he/she will have the responsibility and the means to coordinate all aspects of the Union’s foreign policy actions thus enhancing the synergy of the EU instruments. While there should be no doubt that the Union’s security and defense policy should be part of the external policy, one could debate whether this should also be the case for Europe’s commercial policy or Europe’s enlargement policy.

The High Representative and Vice-President of the Commission has a special status, reflected in the nomination as well as in the resignation procedures: he/she is appointed by the European Council, voting by qualified majority with the consent of the President of the Commission. The European Council may end his/her term of office. He/she must resign from his duties upon request of the President of the Commission. Being a member of the Commission, the High Representative is also subject to the vote of consent by the European Parliament, and would be part of a collective resignation following the adoption of a motion of censure by the EP.

One can see the potential dynamism that could emerge from the double hatting of the High Representative. At the same time it is clear that the triple accountability towards the European Council, towards the President of the Commission as well as towards the European Parliament might imply potential difficulties. It is worth noting that in principle the High Representative does not work under the authority of the President of the European Council, must however help with the preparations of the European Council as well as the implementation of its results.

The High Representative will be assisted by the European External Action Service (EEAS) which shall comprise staff from the Commission, from the General Secretariat of the Council and from the national diplomatic services of Member States. This service will be established by a decision of the Council, acting on a proposal from the High Representative after consulting the European Parliament and after obtaining the consent from the Commission. Obviously, many questions like the institutional attachment of the service, the status of the delegations of the external service of the Commission in third countries, the definition of quotas for Member States or the calendar for the setting-up will have to be addressed.

As mentioned already, the Lisbon Treaty preserves the principle of rotating presidencies. As far as the configuration and the functioning of the Council are concerned, the main novelty is certainly the creation of an autonomous Foreign Affairs Council chaired by the High Representative and Vice-President of the Commission. The only other configuration of the Council foreseen in the new Treaty is the General Affairs Council. The Treaty states that the other Council configurations should be established by a European Council decision. Only the Foreign Affairs Council and the European Council will have a stable presidency. The presidency of the General Affairs Council will be held by the rotating presidencies and one can expect that this will apply also to the other Council configurations yet to be created. This is notwithstanding a declaration annexed to the Treaty concerning a political agreement on a decision foreseeing teams of presidencies with 3 Member States for periods of 18 months. These teams could share all of the presidencies of the different Council configurations for 6-month-periods (as is the case today) or divide them among themselves for the whole 18-month-period.

The presidency of the General Affairs Council will therefore be the privileged instrument of the rotating presidencies to maintain their influence. What does the new Treaty say on this? The General Affairs Council guarantees the coherence of the work of the different Council configurations prepares the meetings of the European Council and ensures their follow-up together with the President of the European Council and the Commission. The role and the composition of the General Affairs Council probably need to be clarified. Some would like to see the emergence of a Council composed of ministers in charge of European affairs or even Vice-Prime Ministers that would become an entity "primus inter pares" or even an Appeals Chamber of the specialized Councils. This would constitute a broad interpretation of the concept of coherence.

As the General Affairs Council prepares the European Council, it will also be entrusted with foreign policy dossiers. In brief, the General Affairs Council could guarantee the integrity and coherence of certain horizontal policies like competition rules, the internal market or the provision of State aid which are sometimes lacking because of their sectoral treatment. Besides this function, the General Affairs Council should retain a certain number of dossiers which by their very nature can only be treated exclusively by itself. I am thinking particularly of inter-institutional relations, the financial perspectives and enlargement. Does one have to go further regarding certain issues related to external relations, I don’t know. One should also try to avoid adding an additional level of complexity and confusion, by imposing - for example - a re-appropriation by the rotating Presidency of the foreign policy dossiers or by making the General Affairs Council a rival of the European Council.

As to the person that should preside over the General Affairs Council, some see a role for the head of State or Government of the Member State holding the rotating Presidency. The coherence of the six-monthly Presidency ensured in the current system through the role of the head of Government as President of the European Council is lost with the new Treaty. What choice in this respect the first presidencies will make after the entry into force of the new Treaty, remains to be seen. But the President of the General Affairs Council, whatever position he or she holds back home, would be required to report - at the end of their presidency - to the European Council on the work and progress of the whole Presidency in all the different Council configurations.

Anticipating from what precedes, one could claim that the uncertainties concerning the implementation of the new Treaty remain numerous. While being careful not to prejudge the outcome of the ratification process in the various Member States, it is important to consider these issues now, so as to be ready once the Treaty enters into force.

Some principles should guide the European Union's work in this area. Firstly those of coherence, effectiveness and continuity which give their rationale for the creation of the office of (permanent) President of the European Council and of the High Representative and Vice-President of the Commission. Equally important are the respect for institutional balance and the maintenance of the Community method. These principles are the basis for the success of the European Union. They encompass the Commission's sole right of initiative, its role as guardian of the treaties and the interaction of the Council and the European Parliament as co-legislators. This supposes also a role for the European Court of Justice. The return to a single structure without the pillars established by the Treaty of Maastricht, the introduction of co-decision in matters as important as agriculture, justice and home affairs or the new budgetary procedures, surely suggest a strengthening of these principles. It is necessary to ensure that the new role of the European Council and its presidency are actually leading to a strengthening of the European Union in the international context.

I want to stress my commitment to the fundamental principle of equality of Member States, whatever the voting rules in the Council or the parliamentary representation may be. The new President of the European Council and the President of the Foreign Affairs Council have to represent all Member States and the European Union as a whole.

Ladies and gentlemen,

As you can see, many questions remain open concerning the implementation of the Lisbon Treaty in terms of the functioning of the institutions. I dare to say that the answers to these questions will have quite some bearing on the further development of our Union. However, I do recognize that issues of "who will do what" tend to attract far more attention. The only thing I can say in this respect, is that in the end there will most probably be a "package deal" of appointments whatever the individual procedures for each function are. What we must aim for is that this "package deal" reflects both the richness and diversity of the European Union in cultural, geographic, economic and, of course, political terms.

Thank you for your attention.