Lisbon Treaty ‘is not dead’

Institute for Strategic and International Studies
The year 2009 is certainly a year of great uncertainties regarding the future of the EU after the Irish ‘No’, particularly when this will be coupled with the unknown impact of the current financial and economic crisis, that seems to many more structural than simply a cyclical recession. But it may also be a year of opportunities. It will certainly be a year of great expectations of change in transatlantic relations and even in global politics with the arrival of President Obama at the White House.[1] The combination of these factors seems to point to 2009 as a year of both great opportunities and great challenges in terms of the future of the EU and of global governance.
There were no major changes in terms of the Portuguese debate on this issue from the previous report. The Socialist government who was responsible for presiding over the final negotiations and the signing the Lisbon Treaty continues to be, as Prime Minister José Sócrates made clear immediately after the Irish ‘No’, “deeply disappointed” with the problems in its ratification process, but also firmly convinced that the treaty “is not dead”.[2] Portuguese official position therefore continues to be very much to pursue a policy of having the Lisbon Treaty ratified and having a new referendum in Ireland after some effort to accommodate some Irish grievances, whether real, as in the case of the national Commissioners, or fictitious, as in the case of abortion. Those who continued to oppose the Lisbon Treaty in Portugal – especially the ‘far left’ – represented at the national and the European Parliament by the Communist Party and the Left Bloc, still believe, and as the latter’s MEP Miguel Portas put it, that “the treaty is dead” and any effort to try to revive it will bring discredit to the EU. In fact, the ‘far left’ had already presented a vote of non-confidence – purely symbolic given the absolute majority held by the Socialists in parliament – on the government, alleging it had not kept its electoral promise to hold a referendum on the Constitutional Treaty and hence they argued, necessarily also on the Lisbon Treaty.[3]
The fact that the conclusions of the European Council of December 2008 on the fate of the Lisbon Treaty seemed to point in that direction were therefore seen by Portuguese officials as a very positive sign. Things were moving in the direction they wished for. The reactions of the critics of the EU denounced a perversion of democracy, by having as many votes as necessary to have the people say ‘Yes’ on EU institutional reform.[4]
The upcoming European Parliament elections in June 2009 have been discussed so far in Portugal mostly in the context of a relatively tense political climate aggravated by the economic crisis, and of a very crowded Portuguese electoral year. In 2009 there will be municipal, European, and last but not least, national parliamentary elections. There has been a great deal of speculation in political circles regarding the dates of these elections. The law makes it difficult or even impossible to have these elections on the same day, yet a great deal of speculation has emerged regarding the possibility of changing this. Yet, this would require agreement at least between the governing Socialists and the main opposition party, PSD,[5] as well as the President of the Portuguese Republic.[6]
Aníbal Cavaco Silva, as Head of State, is the one with the power to actually set a date for the parliamentary and European elections – with the latter, of course, having to be held in June across the EU. The Prime Minister is the one who sets the date for the municipal elections, in principle between September and October. Prime Minister Sócrates has made clear he would not be willing to change the law to allow all three elections to take place on the same day, but he would be willing to have national parliamentary and European elections on the same date, citing a precedent for this in the past. However, this would require the President to dissolve parliament ‘in time’ for the European elections. In the absence of an ample consensus between the different political parties, which seems highly unlikely, the President is not likely to make any dramatic move on such a delicate matter. Still, an argument that has become significantly salient, reflecting the seriousness of the economic crisis, is that holding all these elections on the same day would save money.[7]
Ultimately, what will be determinant in this discussion are the political calculations in terms of cost-benefit by the major parties. The Socialist Party is widely expected to do worse in the municipal elections as well as in the European elections than in the national parliamentary elections. In municipal elections, because in the more rural areas the ‘right’ traditionally controls a larger number of municipalities – but also, particularly in the future elections, because the ‘far left’ refuses to accept any coalitions with the rulings Socialists – the key point has traditionally been whether or not this is then reflected in a majority of the aggregate popular vote. The same is broadly expected in the European elections, traditionally a way to show disapproval of national politics, and perhaps also because the right-wing PSD can now play the card that voting for them will mean voting for José Manuel Barroso’s continuation as President of the European Commission, which will become difficult if not impossible in case the European Left has a majority in the European Parliament. The Socialists are hoping that holding parliamentary and European elections as soon as possible and together will contain losses. Having the municipal elections after these two would provide some space for last minute local coalitions between the different left-wing parties.
What this shows, however, so far, is how dependent upon national politics European elections still are in a country like Portugal. Certainly, the political discussions have so far been dominated entirely by national concerns, even if there is at the same time, and perhaps somewhat paradoxically, a notion that a lot in the current crisis depends upon effective and coordinated European measures.
In terms of the formation of the new Commission in autumn 2009, the most serious Portuguese concern is whether or not its current Portuguese President of the European Commission, Barroso, will be willing and able to continue. One of the most influential Portuguese newspapers is but one example of the question everyone is asking: “The Year of the Re-Election of Barroso?” As this article notes, he seems to be running unopposed, but this might prove illusory given three reasons: first, how quickly events have been changing on the global landscape for the worst; second, how likely it is that as a result of this a turn towards more eurosceptic, ‘left-wing’ protest vote in the European elections has become; and, third, we would add, how appetizing the job is.[8]
There was some speculation in the past that he would be willing (or not) to consider instead becoming the first President of the European Council, if the Lisbon Treaty was ratified. A number of senior Portuguese politicians, including the President of the Republic and the Prime Minister, publicly expressed their wish that he should continue as President of the European Commission.[9] Now that the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty in time for the new Commission seems a thing of the past, however, that has become a more academic question, at least for the time being.
There has been some concerned speculation also as to why the European People’s Party did not formally endorse Barroso as its candidate in the December 2008 meeting. The public explanation offered, that the meeting had started late and ended early, did not fully convince one of Portugal’s most well-informed EU-watchers, Isabel Arriaga e Cunha, who noted in her blog that this might signal that Barroso was perhaps becoming a “falling star” most likely because of how displeased Merkel was with the perceived alignment of Barroso with Sarkozy and a more state-centred and expenditure happy approach towards the current crisis.[10] If this is the case, ironically, then it would show that the frequent criticism that Barroso is unwilling to take a strong position, and always strives for the middle road, is untrue; he is ready to take political risks and show leadership in a moment of crisis favouring the direction he believes is right in the attempt to overcome the current economic difficulties.
If, however, Barroso, for any number of reasons, does not succeed ‘himself’ as President of the European Commission, then a high profile Socialist would mostly likely be considered for a role of Commissioner; given the new disposition after the Irish ‘No’ that will preserve a slot in the Commission for each member state; and also given the fact that even if probably without an absolute majority the governing Socialist – according to all the polls – still seemed posed to win this year’s parliamentary elections and will therefore continue in government.[11] In that event one strong contender, who would seem to guarantee an appointment for a high profile portfolio would be Maria João Rodrigues, who presided as Minister over the initial stages of the Lisbon Agenda during the 2000 Portuguese EU-Presidency, and under the current government and during the 2008 Portuguese EU-Presidency played a key role as a special advisor to the Prime Minister on European affairs. Still, undoubtedly if that opportunity comes other contenders will emerge for such a potentially important job.
For the time being, however, the Portuguese public sphere seems to be dominated by short-term concerns with the economic crisis and quality of governance and not with longer-term implications and scenarios for the integration process itself. Still there are those, who try to engage in longer term thinking, usually in relative gloomy terms regarding the diagnosis, but not so gloomy regarding the need and ability to find some way out. This is the case for instance of the director of the main Catholic radio, Saarsfield Cabral, in an article titled the “Age of Suspicion”, where he points the absence of control and regulation over de facto transnational powers, as one of the major causes of that loss of faith in the democratic system and the need to counter it.[12] Likewise the former EU Commissioner and semi-retired elder statesman, António Vitorino, also tried to go against the current and look further ahead. Alongside a gloomy forecast of prolonged economic difficulties with no end in sight or sure way to get out of them, he puts high hopes in the new policies of US President Obama and their potential global impact.[13]

[1] See e.g. SpiegelOnline International: The World President. Great Expectations for Project Obama, available at:,1518,589816,00.html (last access: 21 November 2008).

[2] Lusa (news agency): José Sócrates “Desapontado” com vitória do não em referendo irlandês, news release, 13 June 2008).

[3] Left Bloc: Miguel Portas: Fingir que o ‘Não’ irlandês nunca existiu é liquidar credibilidade da Europa, press release, 13 June 2008.

[4] Jornal de Notícias: Irlanda volta a votar o Tratado de Lisboa, 23 December 2008; Alexandre Carreira: Irlandeses votam outra vez Tratado de Lisboa em 2009, Diário de Notícias, 12 December 2008.

[5] Right-wing Partido Social Democrata (PSD).

[6] The Socialists – Partido Socialista (PS) – rule an absolute majority but changes in this kind of legislation require a two thirds majority in parliament.

[7] Jorge Pinto: Eleições em 2009 custam cem milhões, Jornal de Notícias, 11 January 2009.

[8] Eva Gaspar: O ano da reeleição de Barroso?, Jornal de Notícias, 29 December 2008.

[9] See Bruno C. Reis/Mónica S. Silva: Report for Portugal, in: Institut für Europäische Politik (ed.): EU-27 Watch, No. 7, September 2008, Berlin, available at: (last access: 25 January 2009).

[10] Isabel Arriaga e Cunha: Durão Barroso, estrela cadente?, available at: (last access: 12 December 2008).

[11] The latest one gave 39.6 percent of the votes to the Socialists (PS) and 24.9 percent to the right-wing PSD, see for this and other polls commented by the foremost Portuguese pollster Pedro Magalhães his blog, available at: (last access: 31 January 2009).

[12] Francisco Saarsfield Cabral: Idade da Desconfiança, Diário de Notícias, 6 January 2009.

[13] António Vitorino: Previsões, Diário de Notícias, 2 January 2008.