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Lisbon Treaty marks new beginning for enlarged EU with profound changes

by Xie Dongfeng* The landmark Lisbon Treaty, the new treaty for the European Union (EU) signed by EU leaders this month, not only marked the end of a years-old constitutional crisis agonizing the bloc, but will also have profound changes for the 27-member alliance.If approved by the 27 EU states, the document, which replaces the defunct EU constitution rejected by French and Dutch voters in 2005, will take effect in January 2009, enabling the EU to face up to the challenges of the globalization era more confidently, giving it the impetus to move forward and further uniting it."This is not a treaty for the past. This is a treaty for the future, a treaty that will make Europe more modern, more efficient and more democratic," Jose Socrates, Prime Minister of Portugal, which currently holds the rotating EU presidency, said at the signing ceremony of the treaty in Lisbon on December 13.He said the treaty would also create conditions for the EU to have its voice heard in the world.European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said that with this treaty the EU is preparing itself to better serve its citizens and address world issues.And French President Nicolas Sarkozy told reporters in Lisbon: "Europe was blocked, without knowing how to move forward, and we found the solution with this treaty."The new treaty is vital to streamlining the functioning of the regional bloc, which has enlarged from 15 members to 27 since 2004 and has developed from a regional economic bloc into an economic and political alliance. It also provides for far-reaching changes in the EU's institutions and decision-making mechanisms.The treaty creates the post of a long-term president of the European Council, which comprises heads of state of the member states, in place of the current six-month rotation system.The European Commission, the EU's executive body, will be downsized, with the total number of commissioners reduced to 18 from the current 27. The commission's president will also have more powers.A new post of the EU foreign policy chief will be created, which combines the duties of present foreign policy chief Javier Solana and EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner.To improve decision-making, a double majority voting system — approval by at least 55 percent of membership and at least 65 percent of the bloc's total population — has been introduced to the Council of the EU, a decision-making body composed of ministers from member states. Except for certain areas where unanimity is still required, policies will be decided through the double majority voting system, notably in justice and home affairs.The new treaty removes national vetoes in around 50 policy areas and redistributes voting weights between member states.However, it drops all references to the EU flag or anthem, to assuage eurosceptic fears of another step toward a federal Europe.The year of 2007 will be remembered as "the year of breakthrough" for the new treaty, which is a simplified version of the 2004 EU draft constitution aimed at improving the EU's efficiency, streamlining decision-making and promoting its development.Germany, which took over the EU presidency on Jan. 1 this year, made it a top priority to revitalize negotiations on the new treaty. In March, the EU special summit in Berlin, which marked the 50th anniversary of the EU's founding, declared the end of "the reflection period" of the constitutional process. At the June summit in Brussels, the EU leaders decided to replace the failed EU constitutional treaty with a new reform treaty, and worked out a "roadmap" for it.On October 18 in Lisbon, the EU informal summit, after lengthy negotiations and bargaining, reached agreement on the new treaty — the Lisbon Treaty.After its signing on December 13, the treaty will go through the ratification process in each member state in 2008, and will be effective before the European Parliament elections in January 2009.At their summit on Dec. 14 in Brussels, the EU leaders called for a "swift completion of the national ratification process" with a view to allowing its scheduled entry into force.Unlike the defunct EU constitution, all the EU states have expressed their support for the new treaty.Hungary became the first EU member state to approve the new treaty on Monday night when its parliament voted 325-5 in favour of the document.France, which rejected the EU constitution in 2005 in a referendum, has launched the ratification process of the new document, and Germany has said it wants to be among the first group of countries to approve it. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown has ruled out a British referendum to approve the new treaty.Among all the 27 members, only Ireland insists on holding a referendum — expected in May or June next year — to ratify the document, reducing the risks of an upset, even though polls suggest many Irish voters are undecided or indifferent. The other nations will approve the treaty through votes in their national parliaments.EU policy experts are more confident that the new treaty will be given a green light this time around.In a recent interview with Xinhua, Antonio Missiroli, head of studies at the European Policy Centre, expressed his "qualified optimism" over the ratification process of the treaty.However, he cautioned that Ireland is going to be a big question mark given the fact that Irish voters vetoed the Nice Treaty in 2001, another document for the EU."If Ireland returns a 'no' there will be ripple effects elsewhere. Other parliaments will suspend ratification; there will be calls for referendums in other countries. That is the possible domino effect," he said.The EU hopes that with the completion of the new treaty, the bloc will now be able to focus on efforts to address regional and world challenges, enhance its role on the international stage, harden its position in global talks, and sell the so-called "EU mode" of principles and standards around the world."The Lisbon Treaty provides the Union with a stable and lasting institutional framework. We expect no change in the foreseeable future, so that the Union will be able to fully concentrate on addressing the concrete challenges ahead, including globalization and climate change," the EU leaders said in a communique issued in Brussels last week.The world will now turn its eyes on whether the treaty will be ratified smoothly and whether it can deliver the far-reaching changes the EU is seeking. 

* Xinhua

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