Saturday, January 09, 2010

Is Lisbon in the interest of the Czech Republic?

Czech Daily MF Dnes, 20 October 2009

European Commission President José Manuel Barroso said that “it is not in the Czech Republic 's interest to keep postponing the completion of the ratification of the Lisbon treaty”. It’s not clear whether this remark by the top Commission official was meant as a threat or a claim, but it is worth looking into what the Lisbon Treaty would actually mean for the Czech Republic. The Lisbon Treaty means a critical transfer of power to the European Union. It will make it easier to pass laws in Brussels rather than in national parliaments like the Parliament of the Czech Republic.

Firstly, it abolishes over 60 national vetoes - a country's right to say no. The Czech Republic will give up its right to veto new EU laws on everything from what rights criminal suspects should have to aspects of foreign policy. If you don’t like what is proposed then that’s too bad, because the Czech government won’t able to say veto EU laws it dislikes. At the same time a new voting system also lowers the threshold for passing laws in the areas where majority votes are taken. The new version of the Qualified Majority Voting (QMV) system is complicated - but one of its main features is to sharply downgrade the influence of small member states.

According to a study by academics at the London School of Economics, the power of the Czech Republic to block laws it dislikes will be cut by a massive 51% under the Lisbon Treaty, compared with less than 2% for Germany. This means it will be much more difficult for the Czech Republic to steer new EU rules in the right direction. These changes to the voting system inevitably mean we will find that the EU will produce more laws than ever before. Open Europe has found that the annual cost to Europe of EU regulation has soared over the last five years by more than 50% from €108bn to over €161bn – and with Lisbon this is set to rise even higher.

Moreover, the study also found that 62 percent of the cost of regulations in the Czech Republic is already coming from the EU, where it is more difficult to exercise democratic control of laws than it is at the national level. Under Lisbon this will only get worse. If we are going to compete with America and China the last thing European business needs is to make it easier for unaccountable EU institutions to churn out even more red tape. But this isn’t just about business. If the Lisbon Treaty came into force, it would greatly expand the EU's control over important areas of public policy. For the first time the EU would begin to make important decisions over issues such as healthcare, transport and sport.

It would also give the EU huge new powers over extremely sensitive issues such as decisions on criminal justice. Under the Treaty the European Court of Justice would effectively become the Czech Republic's highest criminal court. Unelected EU judges would increasingly begin to determine Czech criminal law, for example, rather than the Czech courts and Czech voters. It has been said by EU leaders that this will be the last big EU Treaty for a long time. Indeed it is, but not because the appetite to constantly transfer power to the EU will disappear. It’s because the Lisbon Treaty introduces a system to make the Treaty self-amending, meaning EU leaders can change the treaties incrementally, without the need to go back to their electorates or national Parliaments.

It is a common myth that the Lisbon Treaty brings greater powers for national parliaments. In fact, the combination of the loss of policymaking powers to the EU level, the loss of the national veto brought by the increase in the use of majority voting, and new arrangements for amending the treaties means that national parliaments will have less influence on policymaking than ever before. As the German Constitutional Court recently pointed out: “The status of national parliaments is considerably curtailed by the reduction of decisions requiring unanimity and the supranationalisation of police and judicial cooperation in criminal matters.”

Under the Treaty the Charter of Fundamental Rights becomes legally-binding for the first time. It is likely to affect national law and give the European Court of Justice substantial new powers. The European Commission has confirmed that the Treaty of Lisbon introduces new rights. How the ECJ will use these powers is difficult to predict, so President Klaus is right to ask for stricter legal guarantees. And it would be no bad thing if this delays the Treaty for a few months. Having bullied the Irish people in voting a second time on the Treaty, when they had already rejected it, EU leaders are desperate to pass this Treaty and will stop at nothing to cajole the Czech President into signing it. We must resist this anti-democratic trend.

Polls show that a majority of people all around the EU wanted a say on any Treaty handing new powers to the EU, including 82% of Czech voters, but they were ignored. In the UK, the public is crying out for a vote, and the Conservative Party, which looks likely to win the next election in a few months’ time, has promised to give them a say if the Treaty is still not in force by then. Everything depends on what President Klaus decides to do next. It is only by resisting the entrenched forces prevalent in the EU institutions and in EU capitals that we can hope to stop this undemocratic Treaty once and for all and force Europe to change for the better.

Pieter Cleppe is the Head of the Brussels office of Open Europe

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