Decision for parliamentary ratification proved controversial

Institute for Strategic and International Studies

The decision to ratify the Lisbon Treaty in Parliament and not through a referendum was announced by the Socialist Prime Minister, José Sócrates, in the beginning of January 2008. The delay in the announcement had been justified by the desire to avoid doing so during the Portuguese Presidency.
 
Parliamentary ratification still does not have a set date. The process is likely, however, to be completed by the end of April, after the presentation, planned for 16 April 2008, of a report by the Parliament Commission on European Affairs, which is supposed to include the results of public sessions of MPs in a number of cities.
 
The decision to ratify the Lisbon Treaty in Parliament proved controversial. One of the main arguments of those who argued for a referendum to the Treaty was that it would allow a broad debate in the Portuguese society about European integration process. No international treaty could be subject to a referendum until June 2005, when a constitutional ban to that effect was removed. Moreover, the referendum itself is a relatively recent innovation in post-1975 Portuguese democracy. Therefore Portuguese EU membership was never subject to a referendum. This contributed to increase expectations in some sectors of public opinion, especially those more critical of the process of European integration. In terms of relevant parties this line in favour of a referendum was taken by the communists (PCP), the leftists (Bloco de Esquerda) and the right-wing CDS-Partido Popular.[1] One of their key arguments was that the ruling Socialists had won power on an electoral manifesto that committed them to ratifying the Constitutional Treaty by referendum, in line with many other member states, so as to reinforce the democratic legitimacy of the European project.[2]
 
The Socialists have replied that there is no longer a Constitutional Treaty. More importantly, the priority should be to move on with a much needed EU institutional reform in Europe. This vital priority would be at risk if there were a number of referenda across Europe.
 
Very importantly, the new leader of the main opposition party, the centre-right PSD, reversed the previous position of the party, and also defended parliamentary ratification with very similar arguments. This, and above all the fact that Portugal’s President, Aníbal Cavaco Silva – who has the power to dismiss the government and has to approve any referendum – also indicated that he did not believe one was necessary made it much easier for the Portuguese government not to call a referendum.[3]
 
There is no reason to believe this decision was motivated by fear of a popular rejection of the new Treaty, because all the polls seem to vindicate the view that the EU remains positive, the economic crisis notwithstanding. Even the Catholic Church dropped its initial reservations to the Treaty – due to the absence of an explicit reference to the Christian heritage.[4] Fear of a potential domino effect across Europe paralysing much-needed reform seems to have been the prevailing concern.
 
There is no appreciable public impact or any salient reaction so far to the work of the committee of the wise.


[1] s.n., Lusa Press Release (20.12.2007).

[2] Government Programme 2005-2009, p. 152, available at: http://www.portugal.gov.pt/NR/rdonlyres/631A5B3F-5470-4AD7-AE0F-D8324A3A....

[3] Luís Filipe Menezes [interview by João Marcelino and José Fragoso], Diário de Notícias (21.10.2007).

[4] Leonete Botelho, ‘Igreja deixa de ter reservas ao Tratado Reformador’, Público (11.12.2007).