Ten years ago – despite popular opposition – the Lisbon Treaty came into effect in the European Union. On 1 December 2019, EU leaders celebrated the anniversary. At the ceremony, Council President Charles Michel said Lisbon was “just as relevant today as it was 10 years ago, giving us the tools to tackle our modern-day challenges”.


Here we take a look back at why the Left opposed the Lisbon Treaty a decade ago, and why we still think it’s bad for people and planet.


1. A democratic disaster

With versions of the text having been democratically rejected in referendums in France, the Netherlands and Ireland, the Lisbon Treaty was rammed through, by EU leaders all too eager to ignore widespread concerns among citizens about moving political power further away from them.

Unpopular and undemocratic, the Lisbon Treaty was a massive missed opportunity to reconnect the EU with citizens following the rejection of the European Constitution.

At the time, the Treaty was hailed as a ‘new era’ for Europe by its architects. However, with minimal democratic nods to member state parliaments and the European Parliament, the Lisbon Treaty fell well short of the EU’s stated democratic ideals.

While the scope of the co-decision procedure was extended in the European Parliament, MEPs were still deprived of any powers of legislative initiative – a right that most parliaments have, and that the European Parliament still doesn’t have. This was a wasted chance to boost the only democratically elected EU institution.


2. Workers betrayed

The Lisbon Treaty was bad news for workers. Another milestone in a decades-long neoliberal crusade to drive down the cost of wages across the continent was never going to be good for working people.

A series of judgements from the European Court of Justice – from Vaxholm/Laval when social dumping was prioritised over collective bargaining in Sweden, to the Viking Line ruling when the right of trade unions to take collective action was deemed less important than the employers’ right to freedom of establishment – underlined the predominance of the rights of capital over those of labour within the EU in the early years of this century.

However, Lisbon’s Protocol on the Internal Market and Competition provided both the Commission and the Court of Justice with an even stronger mandate to undermine workers’ pay and conditions.

The Treaty was thus a prime vehicle in accelerating the process of lowering wages and increasing the race to the bottom, moving the European project further in a neoliberal, free market direction.


3. Public services on the chopping block

Chipping away at the welfare state in Europe has been a top priority for neoliberals for decades. Lisbon was another breakthrough in their efforts to push deregulation and privatisation on public services.

For example, the treaty places new “economic and financial conditions” on the provision of Services of General Economic Interest. These conditions mean that services, including health care and education became subject to the rules of competition.

Meanwhile, Lisbon mandated the EU to ensure that “competition is not distorted”. Such “distortions” could include state aid, public funding, health, environmental and labour regulations.

Another victory for the enemies of common goods.


4. Bombs away!

Coming off the back of the devastating conflict in Yugoslavia during the 1990s and the so-called ‘War of Terror’ in the first decade of the 21st century, the Lisbon Treaty had a highly militaristic bent that troubled pacifists.

Tone deaf to the real-life demands of EU citizens, the architects of the Lisbon Treaty included an obligation to increase military spending so that all ‘member states shall undertake progressively to improve their military capabilities’.

While EU leaders hailed the Treaty as a way to advance EU peace building, in truth, it signalled the start of a renewed weapons shopping spree – one that still contributes to a more dangerous world, and one that benefitted the arms industry to the tune of billions in taxpayers’ money.


5. Global justice dumped

Neoliberal free trade deals are a fundamental priority for the European Commission. Luckily, for the denizens of this institution made up of political appointees, Lisbon handed them more powers than ever to initiate and conclude negotiations on international trade agreements.

With a Commission in possession of unprecedented powers over global trade talks seeking to liberalise international trade, the EU remains wedded to a belligerent market agenda with a damaging impact on the world’s poorest people.


6. Climate crisis lip service

A mention, a few words, an allusion – that is how much attention the Lisbon Treaty gave to the biggest crisis facing humanity this century.

The relevant article merely talks of “measures at international level to deal with regional or worldwide environmental problems, and in particular combating climate change.”

A decade ago, those words did not amount to very much – and they certainly don’t today. The EU was under no obligation to do anything about the biggest crisis of our times, and yes, we were most certainly well aware of the urgency of the climate change crisis in the 2000s.

This massive oversight is yet another reason why the Treaty was not, and still is not, fit for purpose. For the Left, there will be no possibility of reshaping the EU, of rebuilding closer ties with citizens, without breaking with the treaties as they stand. These outdated rules must be overhauled with a new framework put in place that is fit for the 21st century.

GUE/NGL Co-President, Manon Aubry, addresses the European Parliament on the 10th Anniversary of the Lisbon Treaty