Post-Lisbon realities: much practical work to be done

Piret Ehin

With the entering into force of the Lisbon Treaty amidst the ongoing economic malaise, the era of lofty visions and grand designs for the future of Europe has ended, and the focus now is on practical problem-solving, implementing the provisions of the treaty, and searching for new functionality and balance. Putting its house in order and ensuring the smooth functioning of institutions after the changes brought by the Lisbon Treaty will consume most of the Union’s energy in 2010. Throughout the process of treaty reform, the Estonian government was a strong proponent of further integration and constitutionalisation. While it would have preferred the original Constitutional Treaty over the watered-down Lisbon version, the Estonian government nevertheless welcomes the opportunity to leave the bargaining behind and “get down to real work.” Some commentators, however, argue that “the cure with the Lisbon Treaty has been worse than the disease itself:” while the EU was already off-balance as a result of enlargement, the new treaty produced even greater disorientation and institutional confusion.[1] Such criticism has focused, above all, on the selection of the new President of the European Council and the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. According to a prominent Estonian EU commentator Ahto Lobjakas, the Lisbon Treaty led to a darwinistic fight for existence in the upper echelons of the EU hierarchy. According to this diagnosis, the Union now has four presidents and one foreign minister without a functioning division of labor. As long as Herman Van Rompuy, José Manuel Barroso, and Catherine Ashton divide territories and learn their jobs, substantive policy­-making progress in the EU has been put on a halt. In particular, no progress can be expected in the realm of foreign policy, and the best one can hope for is retaining the status quo.[2]
The selection of the President of the European Council and High Representative was heavily criticised for lack of transparency, democracy, and public involvement. Some critics pointed out that the process resembled the procedures for selecting the leader of the Soviet Politburo in the 1980s, when after the death of another leader the public was presented with a hitherto unknown name.[3] “Can anyone imagine that we would elect the president of Estonia in such a manner? That a week before the electoral college convenes, the media would have to speculate about who the candidates are?” asked one journalist.[4] Observers complained about the lack of reference to any conceivable meritocratic scale.[5] Yet others criticised the process from a gender perspective, pointing out that there were far too few women among the candidates for the high EU posts.[6]
Reactions to the results of the selection were equally critical. While Prime Minister Andrus Ansip praised both individuals as “experienced politicians and strong personalities” well-suited to lead the European Council and to direct the Union’s foreign policy,[7] few others seemed to share his optimism. Marko Mihkelson, Chair of the European affairs committee of the Estonian parliament, said Van Rompuy and Ashton were a very “cautious choice.”[8] The ever-critical EU commentator Ahto Lobjakas portrayed the selectees as undistinguished bureaucrats who do not represent any noteworthy centers of power, do not embody any intellectual or ideological current relevant in Europe today, do not speak in the name of anyone, or stand for anything aside from possible personal convictions.[9] Others suggested that the labels “president” and “foreign minister” create excessive expectations: in reality, the President of the European Council is a secretary general of the European Council whose job is to organise meetings, and the High Representative knows fully well that she cannot go against the will of Paris, London or Berlin. In short, both are policy takers, not makers.[10] It should be noted, however, that in contrast to the initial outpour of opinions, there have been virtually no attempts in the Estonian media to assess the performance of either Van Rompuy or Ashton during their time in office.
The Estonian government regards the creation of the European External Action Service as a priority. The service must be “comprehensive and strong,” capable of providing substantial support to the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, and it should be created “as quickly as possible.”[11] Estonia emphasises that the service should include aspects of consular work and must be able to help EU citizens in crisis situations. A small country like Estonia has much to gain from a global network of EU representations (Estonia has 44 embassies, consulates and representations around the world, while the European Commission has over 130 delegations and offices). According to Foreign Minister Urmas Paet, the service should have “a leading role in planning out financial resources, for the sake of the coherency of the Common Foreign and Security Policy and development aid.”[12] Like several other new member states, Estonia also insists on ensuring geographical balance when choosing personnel for the service. This is particularly important given the fact that new member states are underrepresented in the European Commission and the Council’s bureaucracy, while, according to current plans, two-thirds of the staff of the European External Action Service will be recruited from the ranks of these institutions. Hendrik Hololei, head of cabinet for Commissioner Siim Kallas, claimed that “representation of all 27 member states will be the litmus test of the [European] External Action Service.”[13] On a related note, there appear to be tensions between the Estonian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Estonians working in EU institutions: for reasons not entirely clear, the ministry backs its own diplomats competing for high-ranking posts in the new service, while Estonians working in EU institutions are left to their own devices.[14]

There has been very little public discussion of the rules and procedures for the European Citizens’ Initiative, aside from a few articles by representatives of the EU institutions in the main newspapers. However, a potentially significant development is the launching of a web platform,[15] where anyone can post or electronically sign petitions using ID-cards equipped with a computer chip. The petitions launched so far have focused on domestic and local issues, but the platform could be used to collect signatures to support European-wide initiatives.

[1] Ahto Lobjakas: Euroopa hoovõturaja lõpp, Postimees, 05.01.2010.

[2] Ahto Lobjakas: Brüsseli suits ja peeglid, Postimees, 03.03.2010.

[3] Sulev Vedler, cited in Raul Sulbi: Vedler: ELi presidendi valimine meenutab poliitbüroo juhi valimist, Postimees, 14.11.2009.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ahto Lobjakas: Euroopa absoluutne nullpunkt, Postimees, 23.11.2009.

[6] Anna-Maria Penu: Soopimeda Euroopa Liidu Eikeegid, Postimees, 09.12.2009.

[7] Postimees: Paet ja Ansip tervitasid ELi juhtide valimist, 19.11.2009.

[8] Eesti Päevaleht: Mihkelson: Rompuy ja Ashton olid väga ettevaatlik valik, 20.11.2009.

[9] Ahto Lobjakas: Euroopa absoluutne nullpunkt, Postimees, 23.11.2009.

[10] Martin Kala: Et Euroopas võidaks julgus, Postimees, 18.12.2009.

[11] Ministry of Foreign Affairs: Foreign Minister Paet: EU Needs Strong European External Action Service That Can Help Citizens of Union in Crisis Situations, press release No 76-E, 06.03.2010, available at: (last access: 01.06.2010).

[12] Ibid.

[13] Kadri Kukk: EL-i välisteenistusse kandideerimine tekitab paksu verd, 30.03.2010, available at: (last access: 01.06.2010).

[14] Ibid.

[15] See the website (last access: 01.06.2010).