Events & News


Lisbon Treaty on Foreign Policy

Mr Jean-Claude Piris, Joint Straus/Senior Emile Noel Fellow

24 Feb 2011

NUS Bukit Timah Campus, Block B, Level 3, Executive Seminar Room 469 Bukit Timah Road, Singapore 259756



Many observers have lamented the fact the European Union, while economically strong, lacks an equally strong or coherent voice in international affairs because of the large number of member states and a lack of coherence in views. Furthermore, the Union has different competencies in different policy fields, many of which with an external dimension. Prof. Piris’ lecture provided much clarification to the often misunderstood field of European Union foreign policy, and how competing and overlapping competencies can be managed. He also elaborated on the changes that have followed as a result of the Lisbon Treaty and the prospects of the EU’s role in reshaping global governance.

One might assume that if the Union, as a supranational entity had more powers in this field, its foreign policy would be more coherent. However, the changes as a result of Lisbon did not give more powers to supranational institutions and some might even argue that in this field, the treaty marks a shift to stronger inter-governmentalism. Prof. Pires argued that the changes have in fact provided the tools for a more stable, coherent and visible foreign policy. The Union now has a single legal personality, can conclude agreements with third parties, and can become a member of international organizations, all of which while remaining an intergovernmental organization where decisions are based on unanimity. There is no role for the European Court of Justice and the roles of Parliament and Commission are only indirect, even if the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy is also a Vice President of the Commission. Foreign policy is determined by the European Council and the Council of Ministers, along with the High Representative in nearly all areas. Qualified majority voting is politically impossible here, and the provision for constructive abstention has never been used, so unanimity remains the order of the day.

He then went on to explain the changes in detail: the creation of the role of the President of the European Council, a full-time position he described as a “quasi head of state”, and the new role of the High Representativ, that allows the holder to speak on behalf of the Union in the world. This position comes alongside other responsibilities over a 5 year term, the office of Vice President of the Commission and the President of the Foreign Affairs Council. Some powers were lost by the Commission in the creation of a new autonomous body. The European External Affairs Service (EEAS) which now coordinates the work of the 130 missions abroad. While before the Lisbon Treaty, they were representing the Commission, they now represent the European Union as a whole.

In summary, Prof. Pires presented the Lisbon Treaty not as a revolution but as a stepping stone, highlighting the increased internal and external solidarity and trends towards flexibility. Foreign policy has in the past been rather weak and characterised more by ambition than a series of redoubtable successes, but despite the uncertainties in the Treaty, he argued that the foundations are now there for a more coherent and visible Union, one that will play a major role in the reshaping of global governance in the new international system. However, he also cautioned that without the political will, all the treaty changes will not make the EU’s voice more visible in the world