No obstacles for parliamentary ratification – but some calls for a referendum

Austrian Institute of International Affairs

After the signing of the Lisbon Treaty Austria’s Chancellor Gusenbauer declared that the country would quickly ratify the treaty. In mid January 2008 the Lisbon Treaty was approved by the SPÖ–ÖVP coalition cabinet and passed on to the parliament.
 
Ursula Plassnik (ÖVP), Minister for European and International Affairs, declared she is expecting an intensive debate but a speedy authorization process in the parliament so that the proceedings will be finished by mid 2008. Observers do not see any obstacles to this timetable as the two coalition parties and the largest oppositional party, the Greens, have signalled to approve the treaty.
 
Communication with citizens
 
Chancellor Gusenbauer stated that one of the EU’s communication problems was the fact that common decisions are mainly based on compromises which have to take many different interests into consideration. Gusenbauer also mentioned that he aimed at strengthening political communication with the people, in order to better explain the significance and the contents of EU regulations. Gusenbauer criticised in this context the reflex to call the whole EU into question when people are not content with some decisions or regulations. He argued that the link between criticizing single issues and questioning the whole could only be broken by better communication.
 
Answering the question how he would explain people the Lisbon Treaty he said:[1]

 

  • That the Charta of Fundamental Rights would give every single EU citizen the right to appeal against national laws to the European Court. The treaty strengthens democracy in the EU by increasing the influence of the European Parliament and of national parliaments. The treaty would not only imply the parliamentarisation of decision-making processes but would also guarantee the ability to make decisions within the Union as such.
  • The Lisbon Treaty guarantees the functioning of an enlarged Europe. All previous treaties were designed for a Union of 15 members. Now we are 27. When a family grows, reorganisations have to take place. The EU is not a difference in this sense. The Lisbon Treaty was certainly not the best option but compared with the Treaty of Nice it would mean a clear improvement, he said. The citizens would not need a Europe occupied with itself, but one looking forward and occupied with the questions of tomorrow.

 
Vice-Chancellor Wilhelm Molterer stated that the government will have to explain the content of the treaty. He said that it will be necessary to include the Federal Council (Upper house of the Parliament) as well as the regional parliaments and the mayors into this information strategy.
 
Gottfried Kneifel (ÖVP), member of the Federal Council, emphasised that it was necessary to inform every single citizen about the body of the alterations to the treaty. However, this was not only the task of the government but of every single member of parliament. Communication strategies should emphasise that the EU is an unequalled peace project without any alternative, he added.[2]
 
Ratification also by referendum?
 
As previously mentioned there are no obstacles expected during the procedures in parliament as the two ruling parties SPÖ and ÖVP, but also the largest oppositional party, the Greens, have signalled to approve.
 
The two right wing parties, the FPÖ and the BZÖ, declared that they will not approve the treaty. However, there are quite a number of voices calling for a referendum on the issue. These voices include the two right wing opposition parties, prominent regional politicians from the SPÖ, as well as intellectuals and representatives of the print media.
 
The Austrian government has agreed on the fact that a referendum on the issue is not required. Chancellor Gusenbauer said that it was not necessary to hold a referendum on an improved treaty when there was already no referendum on the first treaty. The same view was shared by Barbara Prammer (President of the Parliament). However, regional heads of the social democratic party, including the mayor of Vienna and the leader of the social democrats in the province of Oberösterreich have expressed sympathy for a referendum.
 
The two oppositional right wing parties, the BZÖ and the FPÖ, have blamed the government to be afraid of the people and to shy away from a referendum on the issue. They have argued that as the treaty constitutes an essential amendment to the entire constitution, a referendum would be essential. Leftist groups including the communists have put forward the same argument.
 
Gusenbauer mentioned in an interview for the daily newspaper Standard that the call for a referendum was the expression of Euro-scepticism, but, he continued, this expression should not be confused with the solution of the problem. Neither the rejection of the treaty nor a referendum on the treaty would be an answer to Euro-scepticism.
 
Gerfried Sperl, a columnist of the Standard, criticised in his article the government’s stance in this question as pure opportunism.[3] Whereas a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty has been deemed not to be necessary, the coalition stipulated a referendum on Turkey’s EU membership. Sperl criticises the lack of any principles in regard to referenda and says that it is obvious that a referendum on the treaty was simply deemed to be too dangerous as such a move would not be supported by economically influential circles, whereas a huge majority has been highly critical of Turkey’s membership.
 
Austria’s Kronen Zeitung started a campaign calling for a referendum on the issue. The rather EU critical paper defends the position that the Lisbon Treaty affects the principle of the sovereignty of the people as it transfers too many decisions to Brussels.
 
Reactions to the establishment of a ‘Committee of the Wise’
 
It has been generally noticed that the establishment of such a committee goes back to French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s initiative, in order to keep Turkey out of the Union. France had conditioned approval to the continuation of negotiations with Turkey on the establishment of such a committee. However, contrary to his intentions the committee will not analyse Europe’s future boundaries but will mainly focus on such questions as the strengthening and the modernisation of the European model, of economic success and social responsibilities, the rule of law, and of sustainable development as one of the EU’s fundamental principles, as well as on global security, migration, energy, climate protection, and the fight against international crime and terrorism.
 
Whereas Austrian print media has speculated over ex-chancellor Schüssel’s nomination for the post of the chairman of the committee, it was the Spanish ex-Prime Minister Felipe Gonzales who was appointed to this job. The Austrian media has repeatedly put out speculations about Schüssel’s ambitions for a higher post within the EU.
 
Andreas Mölzer, member of the European Parliament (FPÖ), mentioned that the idea first sounded good whereas at a closer look it would become clear that the establishment of such a committee would actually mean the continuation of an undemocratic tradition of the EU. He further criticised that a closer look on the members of the committee would reveal that they are almost exclusively former heads of governments who have been jointly responsible for the stalemate of the Union.
 
However, it should be mentioned that reactions to the establishment of a "Committee of the Wise“ remained rather limited.


[1] Newspaper Der Standard, 02.01.2008.
 
[2] EU-Ausschuss des Bundesrates begrüßt EU-Reformvertrag Stärkung der nationalen Parlamente ist Chance und Auftrag, available at: http://www.ots.at/presseaussendung.php?schluessel=OTS_20071121_OTS0364 (last access: 05.03.2008).

[3] Gerfried Sperl: EU-Vertrag: Schindluder mit Volksabstimmung, in: Der Standard, 7.1.2008, available at: http://derstandard.at/druck/?id=3171830 (last access: 05.03.2008).