The future of the EU after the Irish ‘No’

Elcano Royal Institute

The debate in Spain about the conclusions of the European Council of December 2008 on the fate of the Lisbon Treaty was quite predictable. After the summit, the Spanish government defended domestically the solution that had been agreed with Ireland – basically, to keep one Commissioner per member state and to clarify formal guarantees about Irish neutrality, corporate taxation and family law –, on the grounds that this allows Dublin to call for a second referendum before October 31 2009 and, therefore, to complete the ratification process. The socialist Prime Minister, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, admitted in the Spanish Parliament that he preferred a smaller and “genuinely supranational” Commission but, realistically, some deal with Ireland was needed. On the other hand, he stressed that the compromise reached among the 27 member states also included a very important provision for Spain; specifically, that the delay in the process of ratification would not impede the increase in the number of Spanish MEPs according to the Lisbon Treaty. Thus, although Spanish electors will elect only 50 representatives to the European Parliament in the forthcoming June 2009 elections – as regulated in the Nice Treaty – four additional seats will be conferred to Spain once the Reform Treaty comes into force.[1]
The future size of the Commission was lightly criticised by the main opposition party. Thus, the leader of the conservative Popular Party – Mariano Rajoy – said in the Spanish Parliament that he was somewhat worried since a single country, whose population represents less than 1 percent of the total EU, had been able to re-shape the entire governance of the Union, probably worsening the future effectiveness of the Commission. Notwithstanding this, and “just in order to avoid institutional paralysis", the PP accepted the agreement as well. The Lisbon Treaty – said Mr. Rajoy – is better, even with these cutbacks, than the current failure to make progress in the EU.[2] It is interesting to note that, despite this “paralysis“ and despite the fact that the Nice Treaty – which increased Spain’s weight in the Council to a very similar level to the four largest member states – was successfully negotiated by the former Prime Minister and former PP leader José María Aznar, the Spanish conservatives have not taken the opportunity of the Irish ‘No’ to remark on the institutional advantages for Spain of the Nice institutional framework. They did not do so either during the ‘reflection period’ that followed the failure of the Constitutional Treaty in 2005, since the PP has always officially supported the reform and asked its electors to vote ‘Yes’ in the referendum that was held in February 2005. However, it is true that some voices within the PP – and, perhaps, within the government – suggest that Nice institutions are not so terrible and that, in particular, Spain can live comfortably with 27 votes at the EU Council – and only 50 MEPs – instead of with the double majority voting system – and four additional deputies.

Nevertheless, most Spanish people and the political elites are unambiguous supporters of the Reform Treaty and, therefore, the postponement of its entry into force is considered damaging to Spain’s national interests. However, the truth is that a little additional period of uncertainty, at least, until January 2010 may be welcomed by the officials who are preparing the Spanish EU Presidency during the first semester of the next year, since the maintenance of the current institutional architecture would help to: (i) ease the organisation and smooth functioning of a ‘traditional’ rotating Presidency; and (ii) ensure the visibility of the Spanish Prime Minister in the European Council and important bilateral summits to be held during the semester – such as the EU-US –, in the absence of the new Lisbon figures: the permanent President of the European Council and the reinforced High Representative, whose precise roles, means and status have not been specified.[3]

On the other hand, a second ‘No’ in Ireland or a failure in the Czech Republic to complete the ratification this year – because of the lack of a majority in the Senate, a negative ruling on the Treaty if it is again side-tracked to the Constitutional Court, or a refusal of President Vaclav Klaus to sign the instrument of ratification – might cause many headaches during the Presidency if the EU looks to Spain in search of ideas to deal with this scenery of institutional crisis. Spanish officials have already stated that, if this is the case, the first semester of 2010 would be perhaps too premature to launch any ‘Plan C’ initiative.[4] But, even considering that ratification continues to be surrounded by great uncertainty and that it is therefore difficult to foresee the institutional agenda of the Spanish Presidency, it is indeed quite feasible that the Treaty should come into force in late 2009 or early 2010. Depending on the exact date, this may affect the Spain’s task to implement or not the new institutional instruments included in Lisbon. In any case, what is already clear also is that some obligations will not be fulfilled at all; for example, in the external and defence fields, where some novelties such as the EU External Action Service will need some time before they can become fully operational. Also linked to the new Treaty provisions, but rather affecting the Spanish parliament, is the definition this year of the new procedure for the reinforced input of the two-chamber Cortes – and, probably, the 17 regional parliaments as well – in the EU’s legislative process through the so-called early warning system.
Furthermore, Spanish officials devoted to EU affairs will not only have to prepare during 2009 the six-month rotating Council Presidency but also the 18-month Team Council Presidency with Belgium and Hungary. The S-B-H Trio wants to be the real first one to have a common agenda which started to be defined in Madrid last September 2008 according to the following five priorities:
(1)     Lisbon Strategy.
(2)     New EU policies: global climate change, energy security, migration and innovation triangle.
(3)     Budget reform for the next financial perspectives.
(4)     Institutional reforms (and Stockholm Programme in particular).
(5)     Widening (West Balkan integration and European Neighbourhood Policy reform).
The upcoming European Parliament elections in June 2009 are considered in Spain, as elsewhere in Europe, a domestic political event rather than a real European electoral process. Although this is a general feature of all EP elections, it is especially true this year, considering the political weakness of Prime Minister Zapatero in a scenario of deep economic crisis and the fact that his government does not enjoy a majority in parliament and is not backed by any other party other than its own. Thus, heads of lists in the main candidatures are important politicians but not specifically experts on EU matters. Their previous political experience has more to do with internal and not particularly European topics: a former Justice Minister in the case of the Socialist Party, a former Interior Minister in the case of the Popular Party and an economist specialised in Catalan regional infrastructures in the case of the most important peripheral nationalist coalition.
Regarding the formation of the new Commission in autumn 2009, José Manuel Barroso and his Commissioners are generally perceived in Spain as a competent team with a correct leader. The overall assessment of both politics and policy outputs is positive. First, and looking to politics, this Commission has been able to regain its credibility after the controversial Prodi Commission, established good relations with the Council and the European Parliament, and functioned smoothly, which is not an easy task in a Europe of 27 Member States. As concerns to policies, three important achievements should be mentioned from Spain’s point of view:
a)       The final outcome of the Financial Perspectives 2007-2013, in which the Commission defended Europe’s common interests with an acceptable degree of success.
b)       The basis for a common European policy on Migration, one of the most important priorities on the Spanish government’s internal and external agenda.
c)       The target of cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 20%, produce 20% of its energy from renewable energies and increase efficiency by 20% (the so-called "20/20/20 by 2020”) was highly appreciated in Spain, which supports an EU common energy strategy despite its poor performance in greenhouse gases emissions.
If, as it is foreseen, the European People’s Party gets a majority of seats in the next EP elections, the Spanish government and even socialist MEPs would be willing to back him for a second term. It is difficult to state who will be the next Commissioner from Spain, since it is not yet known if the next Commission will have 27 members or less. In principle, Joaquín Almunia – member of the governing Socialist Party –, who is responsible for the key portfolio of Economic and Monetary affairs, should continue since his track record is impeccable: highly skilled, with a truly European view and very well connected with the President of the Commission. In the event of the Lisbon Treaty finally being ratified by all member states and the post of CFSP High Representative becomes part of the Commission, then Spain would probably prefer to preserve this position and then Javier Solana would be the Spanish Commissioner as High Representative. However, it is also said that Solana, who is also a member of the Socialist party, is somewhat tired and, nevertheless, it will be difficult for Spain to retain the position of High Representative for a new appointment. In any case, it should be underlined that Spain (with or without Treaty into force) will probably ‘lose’ one of its two key institutional positions in the EU machinery after autumn 2009.

[1] See the address by the PM Rodríguez Zapatero in the Parliamentary Journal of Debates (Diario de Sesiones del Congreso, IX Legislatura), 53rd Plenary Session, 18 December, 2008, Spanish Congress, available at:ágina4) (last access: 30 March 2009).

[2] See the address by the opposition leader Mariano Rajoy in the Parliamentary Journal of Debates (Diario de Sesiones del Congreso, IX Legislatura), 53rd Plenary Session, 18 December, 2008, Spanish Congress, available at:ágina8) (last access: 30 March 2009).

[3] As it has been underlined (see Attila Agg, 2009, “Global Crisis Management and EU Team Presidencies: European Institutions at the Crossroads”, paper presented at the seminar “A Common Program for the 2010-11 Team EU Presidency”, Madrid, Elcano Royal Institute): “the decapitation of the rotating presidencies with the ’unemployed’ prime ministers can create tensions between the EU bodies and the nation states concerned, first in Spain. Given the delay of the ratification process both problems could have been treated but no special effort can be noticed in this direction. No doubt that the separation of the General Affairs Council and the External Relations Council can solve some problems, since the GAC may provide a job for the prime ministers concerned and with an open coalition-building role can solve some coordination problems among the member states. Most likely that the ERC will be the area of big power contestation in the field of the classical foreign policy and security as well as in the EU foreign policy beyond Europe“. To be sure, the division of the Foreign Affairs from the General Affairs Council could become very sensitive given the implications for the internal organisation of national executives, including the Spanish one.

[4] Nevertheless, in case of a new failure in the ratification process, some Spanish officials and analysts start to advance their support to an institutional reform oriented towards differentiated integration, without need of unanimity to go further. Even if the Lisbon Treaty completes the ratification, a multi-speed Europe – perhaps through the effective launching of the enhanced co-operations included in the Treaty – seems to be also unavoidable in a heterogeneous EU of, at least, 27 members. See Carlos Closa, 2008, After Ireland: Referendum and Unanimity (Elcano Royal Institute ARI 62/2008), available at: (last access: 30 March 2009).