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"Can the Lisbon Treaty keep EU relevant for Europeans?", Speech of the Head of the European Policy Centre, Hans Martens

Available languages: en

Brussels, Belgium, 18 March 2011

"Can the Lisbon Treaty keep EU relevant for Europeans?", speech of the Head of the European Policy Centre, Hans Martens at a seminar organised by the Ombudsman

In the end EU will be judged by its outputs, not the inputs. We are in Brussels very much focussed about the input side, including treaties, institutions, etc, but do Europeans really care about these things, while a lot of needs are waiting to be addressed for the European citizens? One example is all the discussion we have had in Brussels about establishing the External Action Service without really discussing or making progress on the content of the Foreign and Security Policy.

So if citizens should see EU as relevant it must address the challenges for the citizens, and it needs to find solutions. It is certainly difficult because there is not always consensus on many of the overall issues. On economic reforms I have always seen a sharp line between the liberal north and the conservative south, but this division seems to loose importance these days. We have all (more or less) refrained from protectionism and state interventions, which is obviously good, but it seems that the discontent with economic changes is as big in the north of Europe as in the south. This presents a real problem for Europe as it works against what are mostly needed, namely structural reforms. We can adjust monetary and fiscal policy (as we for example have done with the pact), but on the longer term Europe needs to go through a modernisation process and dramatic reforms to stay relevant in the world.

Here lies a real problem of our time. Because of present budget issues and long term problems with demography, we need to reform the European welfare state. New forms of solidarity will be required when sharing a shrinking pot of money, and citizens have difficulties in having what they see as “acquired rights” taken away from them. Often Europe is used as a scapegoat – as an excuse for doing reforms, and this is amplified because we have increasing growing nationalism at many levels in Europe. To sum up: People like someone who gives them something, but they hate those that take things away from them, and unfortunately EU is too often placed in that role.

Back to Lisbon: The European Parliaments powers have increased, but has it made a difference? Focus has been on the economy, and this has been dealt with mostly by Heads of State and Government.

More power to European Parliament has been the consequence of Treaty changes over the years, and so far it has not lead to an increase in voter’s interest. One could also ask if the Parliament is following the best possible strategy. Sometimes it could look as if it was about winning battles rather than the war, and of course fighting for rights can also create a reason for national politicians to criticise.

Perhaps the only way forward is to make the political party groups into political parties with a sharper profile, stronger manifestos and attach names for the EU top posts to the election programmes. It will hurt, it will mean a re-structuring of influence in EP, but it will be more inserting for citizens. It will enable them to be better aware of real political choices.

The Citizen’s initiative has taken a long time to establish, and we have not yet seen the first results. It will be crucial for future success and awareness how the first initiatives are treated: Can it be taken up quickly by the system, and will the Commission accept to make proposals for new initiatives?

For the moment the citizen’s initiatives have more interest by researchers and organised interests than European citizens directly. Unfortunately we sometimes get the impression that also elites in member states are loosing confidence in the European project, and this is important for the support for the project and also because they are opinion formers and disseminators.

In conclusion: We have seen the Lisbon Treaty in operation in a rather special year, in which it has been natural for European Council to take the lead. We have never before seen so many summits, but Mr Van Rompoy has done a great job out of it. It is however a top down approach, and I am afraid that with the tendency to increased nationalism, it is what citizens want. They want their leaders to be in charge of important issues rather than wait for a European democracy work its way bottom up. How will it work in more normal circumstances? We don’t know, the future will show, but of course there is also a risk that we will not see more normal circumstances in years to come!