With all the fuss surrounding Prime Minister Gordon Brown's absence from the signing ceremony in Lisbon, the new EU Reform Treaty (or the Treaty of Lisbon as it is now known) has been the subject of extensive coverage in the press. Here we take a look behind the media frenzy at the actual reforms contained in the Treaty and what needs to happen before the Treaty comes into force.

27 European heads of government signed the Treaty of Lisbon on 13 December 2007 in the hope that they can now move on from the failure of the European Constitution. The Lisbon Treaty differs from the doomed EU Constitution on the basis that it amends the existing Treaties instead of replacing them. References to anthems and flags have also been removed from the substantive provisions. Through the Lisbon Treaty, Europe hopes to:

  1. achieve greater democracy and transparency;
  2. become more efficient;
  3. protect the rights and values of EU citizens; and
  4. increase the EU's global influence.

Democratic and transparent

Provision has been made to strengthen the role of the European Parliament and to create a new monitoring mechanism to ensure that the EU only acts where it is better placed to do so than the individual Member States (i.e. the principle of subsidiarity). Further provisions see the introduction of the Citizens' Initiative, whereby one million citizens from various Member States will be able to invite the Commission to bring forward new policy proposals.

Efficient

The Treaty also includes plans to make voting rules more straightforward and to streamline the EU institutions. This is particularly important given the recent expansion of the EU to 27 Member States.

Measures will include reducing the size of Commission so that there are fewer commissioners than Member States by 2014, with Commissioners being selected on a system of equal rotation among the Member States for five year terms. In the European Council, an elected President of the European Council serving for a two and a half year term will replace the current rolling six month presidency.

The Treaty also aims to speed up the decision making process by extending the use of Qualified Majority Voting (QMV) to make it the standard system of voting in the Council. This will replace the need for unanimity unless specifically required by the Treaties. From 2014, QMV will be based on a double majority of Member States and people and will be achieved when a decision is taken by 55% of the Member States representing at least 65% of the population of the EU.

Rights and values

The Treaty transfers increased powers to the EU institutions, in particular in the areas of security and justice, and it is hoped that this will enhance the Union's ability to protect its citizens by responding to crime and terrorism as well as reinforcing the values behind the concept of the EU.

Furthermore, the Treaty gives binding force to the rights contained in The Charter of Fundamental Rights. However, it is important to note that the UK has secured a specific protocol so that the Courts will not be able to hold that any of the UK's legislative provisions or administrative practices are inconsistent with the Charter.

Global influence

Under the Treaty, the European Union will have a single legal personality and it is hoped that this will strengthen its negotiating position and make it more visible to third countries.

There will also be a new High Representative for the Union in Foreign Affairs and Security Policy combining several existing posts to increase the impact and coherence of external actions.

Ratification

It is interesting to note, however, that for the above provisions to take effect, the signed Treaty will now need to be ratified by each Member State. If just one of the 27 Member States fails to ratify the Treaty, it will not come into force. Given the fate of the previous EU Constitutional Treaty after its rejection by the French and Dutch voters, the Member State governments are likely to try to avoid holding referenda unless bound by their constitutions to do so. So far only Ireland has announced plans for a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty. Opposition parties in the UK will no doubt continue to call for a referendum on the new Treaty on the basis that some of the content is similar to the Constitutional Treaty on which a referendum had been promised. However, the UK Government are more than likely to push for ratification by Parliament and have already introduced the European Union (Amendment) Bill, which will enable the UK to ratify the Treaty. The goal at the moment is for the Treaty to be fully ratified in time for it to come into force on 1 January 2009, allowing relevant provisions to be operational before the next European Parliament elections in June 2009. Whether that is achievable remains to be seen.

For further information, please visit the Treaty of Lisbon homepage at http://europa.eu/lisbon_treaty/index_en.htm.