Europe After Lisbon. Almost

The Lisbon Treaty is still not entirely out of the woods, but after the Irish referendum in favor over the weekend, it looks like an increasingly safe bet. And if that seems like a metaphor for Europe’s broader chances, it probably is.

The question in terms of foreign and defense policy now becomes, What, if anything, will Lisbon change? The answer is, A whole lot. Maybe.

As Jolyon Howorth explains, the treaty creates a number of offices and institutions that represent potentially significant poles of power, both within the EU and vis à vis the member states. Most of the attention has so far focused on the newly created “president” of Europe. But the European “foreign minister” should also emerge as a major player, with its simultaneous presence on the permanent European Commission (the EU executive) and the semi-regular Council (the heads of state meetings that guide EU action and policy), and its five-year term (versus two-and-a-half years, renewable once, for the president). Howorth also rightly emphasizes the legal personality of the EU and the creation of a veritable EU diplomatic corps — under the direction of the foreign minister (technically the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy) — as major developments.

The “maybe” comes into play because the evolution of these posts and how they are used will inevitably depend a great deal on the personalities that occupy them (see this hilarious clip from the floor of the British Parliament to understand why), as well as on public expectations and on the inevitable power struggles that will define the separations of power within the Union — Lisbon expands the power of the EU parliament, for instance — and between the Union and its member states.

Here, the United States provides a good example of the way in which the constitutionally defined offices that comprise the federal government really offer no guidance for what to expect from any particular officeholder. The shifts in how those powers are wielded have in some cases been gradual and generational, in others as abrupt as the transition from one presidential administration to another. And while they have in general been to the benefit of the executive, they have not necessarily been a one-way street, ebbing back and forth with the passage of time and personalities. It’s also important to remember that a strong executive branch in the hands of a weak president is often less effective than a weak executive branch in the hands of a strong one.

Finally, less often mentioned in the context of Lisbon is the EU judiciary, which I suspect, judging from the American experience, will take on a progressively larger role in adjudicating some of the jurisdictional disputes that will, over the long term, determine the actual form that the EU’s new institutional architecture takes.