New institutions and instruments introduced by the Lisbon Treaty and the view from Austria

Hakan Akbulut

When Herman Van Rompuy and Catherine Ashton were respectively nominated as the President of the European Council and the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Chancellor Werner Faymann seemed to be content with the staffing while the press generally described the nominations as the least common denominator. Herman Van Rompuy’s role in Belgian politics as a conciliator was the only positive aspect to be mentioned. Overall, Van Rompuy’s nomination was understood to constitute a safeguard installed by the member states against Brussels playing a greater role or usurping the competences of the nation states. Reflecting this point of view, Die Presse columnist Oliver Grimm, for instance, maintained that Van Rompuy had “secretly, calmly and quietly”[1] taken decisions in his first 100 days in office which would result in the Commission being down-graded into a form of a secretariat-general while real power is transferred to the heads of state and government. As for his performance in the face of the economic crisis, Van Rompuy was criticised by leading figures. During a debate on TV, the President of the Austrian Federal Economic Chamber, Christoph Leitl, claimed that one did not hear anything from Van Rompuy despite the crisis.[2] In a similar fashion, former Foreign Minister Ursula Plassnik also maintained Van Rompuy should have played a more prominent and visible role. With regard to the role to be played by the rotating council presidency, there are apparently no major changes expected, as Van Rompuy’s role is conceived to be limited to acting as a chairperson and conciliator during summit meetings at best. Against this background, it is worth mentioning that Foreign Minister Spindelegger sharply criticised the decision to exclude the foreign ministers from summit meetings.[3]

As for Catherine Ashton, except for Chancellor Faymann’s positive remarks, she was widely described as an inexperienced no-name.[4] Ashton was criticised by Foreign Minister Spindelegger after the Cordoba meeting of the foreign ministers in March 2010. The Minister argued there was no visible foreign policy line and that no respective coordination on a common policy existed.[5] Spindelegger confirmed that there was dissatisfaction with the performance of Ashton so far and that the foreign ministers were frustrated about not being included in the process of setting up the European External Action Service (EEAS). He did not seem to be content with Ashton being the Vice-President of the Commission either, raising the question as to how this would affect her workload and stating that members of the Commission might be tempted to prevent competences from being transferred to the EEAS. Media reports also indicated that Ashton’s unpopularity was partly due to the impression that she was being excessively influenced by Barroso instead of pursuing independent policies.[6] Ashton’s performance was also severely criticised by the Member of the European Parliament (MEP) Andreas Mölzer from the Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ).[7] Due to Ashton, the EU had said farewell to world politics, Mölzer claimed. He simply described Ashton as the wrong choice.

As mentioned above, Foreign Minister Spindelegger stated, after the Cordoba meeting, that the foreign ministers were frustrated about not being included in the process of setting up the EEAS.[8] The day before the proposal on the EEAS was presented, during a parliamentary committee meeting, Spindelegger maintained that he fully supported the idea of the EEAS. He also supported the structure proposed in the draft put forward by Ashton. Nevertheless, there existed a number of questions that had to be solved, he added.[9] In his view, the EEAS could only be successful if the personnel from the member states were represented at all levels in due proportion and could participate on equal footing. He added that, in cooperation with other member states, progress had been made on the question of a geographically balanced staffing as well as on the training of the diplomats. Moreover, having German as an official and working language was also significant (a demand also supported by Austrian MEPs such as Strasser and Mölzer). When the foreign ministers achieved an agreement on the structure and the responsibilities of the EEAS in April 2010, former Foreign Minister Ursula Plassnik asserted that all Austrian demands had been met.[10] She praised the adoption of German as an official language and the acceptance of consular protection as one of the responsibilities of the EEAS offices.[11] Spindelegger also praised the EEAS and referred to crisis management and consular protection as major issues that should be of concern to the EEAS.[12]

The Social Democratic Party of Austria (SPÖ) is likely to be the first ever organiser of a European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI). Given existing differences with his party’s coalition partner, the Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP), on the topic of introducing a financial transaction tax, Chancellor Faymann declared that his party would initiate the first European Citizens’ Initiative on the establishment of a financial markets supervision system and the introduction of a financial transaction tax.[13] While supported by the German Social Democratic Party (SPD), Faymann’s initiative evoked criticism in Austria and was described as window-dressing by the other parties. Nevertheless, on 19 May 2010, a resolution supported by the Austrian People’s Party, the Social Democratic Party, the Greens and the Alliance for the Future of Austria (BZÖ) was passed in parliament, calling for, among other things, a lowering of the threshold for the initiation of an ECI from nine to six countries, a rapid introduction of the instrument as such, binding regulations for the handling of successfully finalised initiatives, and the decision on the admissibility of the initiative to be taken at an earlier stage by the Commission and not only after 300,000 statements of support have been collected.[14]

[1] Oliver Grimm: Meisterstratege: Van Rompuys diskreter Zug zur Macht, Die Presse, 16 April 2010.

[2] ORF broadcast “Im Zentrum”, 16 April 2010.

[3] Der Standard, 21 January 2010.

[4] Cf. Der Standard, 19 November 2009. For critical views by Green politicians see Die Presse, 20 November 2009.

[5] Der Standard, 5 March 2010.

[6] See for example Der Standard, 8 March 2010.

[7] FPÖ: Mölzer: Mit Ashton als “Außenministerin” hat sich EU von der Weltpolitik verabschiedet, 8 March 2010, available at:[114][offset]=0&cHash=5991 4ea5b818c808ea7dbd7229083f85 (last access: 19 May 2010).

[8] Wiener Zeitung, 5 March 2010.

[9] Parlament der Republik Österreich: Hauptausschuss diskutiert über Hilfen für Griechenland Weitere Themen: Auswärtiger Dienst der EU, Klima, Naher Osten, 24 March 2010, available at: (last access: 05 May 2010).

[10] ÖVP-Parlamentsklub: Plassnik: Mehrwert durch Bürgerservice, 27 April 2010, available at: (last access: 4 May 2010).

[11] See also Der Standard, 27 April 2010.

[12] Der Standard, 8 May 2010.

[13] SPÖ und SPD planen EU-Bürgerbegehren, 18 May 2010, available at: (last access: 18 May 2010).

[14] Der Standard, 19 May 2010; SPÖ: Muttonen: Europa braucht mehr Demokratie und starke Beteiligung der Bürgerinnen und Bürger, 19 May 2010, available at: (last access: 19 May 2010); ÖVP-Parlamentsklub: Neugebauer: Europäische Bürgerinitiative rasch umsetzen, 19 May 2010, available at: (last access: 19 May 2010).