EU Leaders Gather in Lisbon to Sign Landmark Reform Treaty

EU leaders gathered in Lisbon Thursday to sign a landmark treaty which they hope will revitalize Europe and avoid the referendum death which befell the constitution it is designed to replace.

Partial view of the Jeronimo monastery where EU leaders will converge to sign a landmark treaty (Photo: AFP)

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown will be a notable exception at the morning signing ceremony at Lisbon's Jeronimos Monastery, symbol of Portuguese power in a by-gone age.

Brown will appear before a parliamentary committee in London before joining his fellow EU leaders during lunch, when he will sign the 250-plus page text.

His failure to attend the public celebration of European unity has led to accusations at home of a "semi-detached" attitude to Europe.

In The Times newspaper Thursday Brown rejected the charges that he was luke-warm on Europe.

"I think you'll find on the debate about global Europe, we are leading the way," he said.

EU leaders will move on to Brussels Friday for a summit where they will be hoping to show they are now concentrating on pressing international issues after years of navel-gazing.

The "Treaty of Lisbon" -- Portugal holds the EU's rotating presidency until the end of the month -- was agreed in October after long and sometimes heated negotiations.

It is designed to replace the EU constitution which was scuppered by French and Dutch voters in 2005 national referendums.

The EU leaders deem it vital to streamline the functioning of a regional grouping which has ballooned from 15 to 27 nations since 2004 while pushing deep into the former Soviet bloc.

Like the rejected constitution, the treaty includes plans for a European foreign policy supremo and a more permanent president -- former British prime minister Tony Blair has been one name bandied around -- to replace the cumbersome six-month rotating presidency system.

It also cuts the size of the European Parliament and the number of EU decisions which require unanimous support from member states, hence reducing national vetoes.

However it drops all references to the EU flag or anthem, to assuage eurosceptic fears of another step along the road towards a federal Europe.

Attached to the new treaty is a European charter of fundamental rights which enshrines the rights of dignity, freedoms, equality, solidarity and justice, although Britain and Poland are opting out of making that binding.

At the charter signing in the European Parliament Wednesday, Portuguese Prime Minister Jose Socrates had to contend with a noisy group of far-left and right members chanting "referendum," a sign that Thursday's ceremony is not the end of the treaty's tricky passage.

After the Lisbon signing the 27 member states will have a year to ratify the text, if it is to come into force as planned in January 2009.

Many EU governments, including France and the Netherlands, have said there will be no need for national referendums this time around.

The treaty "does not transfer sovereignty to the EU ... and there is no judicial reason to resort to a referendum," Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen argued on Tuesday.

However for those clamoring for national votes on the treaty, the words of Valery Giscard d'Estaing, the father of the abandoned European constitution, ring true.

He has said that legal experts had "taken the original draft constitution, blown it apart into separate elements, and have then attached them, one by one, to existing treaties."

Only Ireland is constitutionally bound to put the issue to a vote.

That vote, expected in May or June, cannot be taken for granted with polls suggesting that many Irish voters are undecided.

In order to avoid a British referendum, London was granted key policy opt-outs, its cherished "red lines" on foreign policy, labor rights, the common law and the tax and social security systems.

With some leaders sharing flights to keep their carbon footprint down, the summiteers move from Lisbon to Brussels, keen to get back to the future, looking at Iran, Kosovo and globalization. 

Source: AFP

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