New treaty provides boost to Europe’s rights and values

The Treaty of Lisbon came into force across the European Union on 1 December 2009. As well as helping to make an enlarged EU work more efficiently, the Treaty promises to make it easier to address major issues of the day and provide a boost to Europe’s social policy commitments.

In general terms, the Treaty paves the way for a more democratic and transparent EU. For example, the European Parliament has been given new decision-making powers, which means it has more of an influence on framing EU legislation and budgets than ever before.

Delivering “the goods”

Services of general interest (SGIs) are services provided by public authorities that are subject to specific public-service obligations. SGIs include services such as education and social protection, as well as commercial services in areas like transport, energy and communications, which are known as Services of general economic interest (SGEIs).

The Lisbon Treaty has introduced a new rule for SGIs which will require providers to take account of differences in user needs and preferences depending on where they live and on their cultural and social situation.

In addition, the Treaty now provides SGEIs with a legal basis, which will allow EU institutions to define how they are established and how they function, without prejudicing the competence of EU Member States. This change acknowledges the key role SGEIs can play in promoting social and territorial cohesion.

The Community’s working methods have been simplified and voting rules have been amended. Qualified majority voting in the Council – where Member States have the final say on EU policy and law – has been extended so there is less chance of deadlock.

And a streamlined institutional framework, headed by the new post of President of the European Council, promises to improve cooperation within the EU. This will make it easier to address a range of issues more effectively such as climate change, Europe’s ageing population, globalisation and energy supply.

The Treaty has also provided scope for the development of a new citizens’ initiative, which promises to give Europeans a stronger voice in policy making. If one million EU citizens from a variety of Member States sign a petition asking for action on a particular issue the Commission is duty bound bring forward proposals – providing the EU has the power to act.

Social affairs... and more

Lisbon stresses the link between the economy and social issues by stating that the EU will “work for the sustainable development of Europe based on balanced economic growth and price stability, a highly competitive social market economy, aiming at full employment and social progress.”

The Treaty also introduces two new clauses relevant to the social arena which the EU must consider when it defines and implements its policies and actions.

The first obliges the Community to promote a high level of employment and to tackle social exclusion while guaranteeing adequate social protection and good quality education, training and protection of human health.

The second clause underscores the EU’s commitment to combat discrimination based on gender, racial or ethnic origin, religion or belief, disability, age or sexual orientation.

The Treaty actually enshrines the EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights into Community law, giving it binding legal force in almost all Member States. (The United Kingdom, Poland and the Czech Republic have negotiated opt-outs).

The Charter sets out a variety of civil, political, economic and social rights under six key areas:

  • dignity,
  • freedom,
  • equality,
  • solidarity,
  • citizenship and
  • justice.

Social issues dealt with by the Charter include workers’ rights, the right to social security and social assistance, and the right to reconcile family and professional life.

The role of social partners is also specifically provided for by the Treaty, which states that the EU must recognise and promote their role and undertake more social dialogue.