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Dr Gavin Barrett’s (UCD Law Department) letter from Thursday’s Irish Times re the number of EU Commissioners being fewer than the number of EU States.


Mary Lou McDonald MEP is reported as questioning why Ireland should accept the loss of a permanent commissioner (March 25th). It should however be clearly understood that the issue of whether each member state should have a permanent commissioner is not at stake in the referendum on the Treaty of Lisbon.

It is already provided in the existing treaties (approved by the Irish electorate in referendum), that from the date when the next commission takes up its duties, the number of commissioners is to be fewer than the number of member states. (See Article 213 of the existing EC Treaty).

Nobody should be under the illusion that in voting for the Lisbon Treaty, they will now be voting away an entitlement to a permanent commissioner. What the Lisbon Treaty does is clarify and firm up the rules on when and for what period of time this previously agreed development will take place – and to ensure that the future rules in this regard will be on the basis of a system of “strictly equal rotation” between all member states.

– Yours, etc,
Senior Lecturer in European Law, School of Law, UCD


A Protocol to the Treaty of Nice states that once the EU reaches 27 States, the number of Commissioners shall be reduced to less than the number of Member States – how many there should be to be decided by the Council acting unanimously.

So Dr Gavin Barret is right in respect of the point that the principle that the number of Commissioners should be fewer than the number of Member States was accepted in the Nice Treaty.

But because a bad principle – that EU Member States should cease to have a permanent Commissioner – was accepted in Nice, is no reason for accepting it now and not seeking to reverse it.

The Lisbon Treaty lays down that the number of Commissioners shall be reduced to two-thirds of the Member States from 2014 onwards – which means a reduction of one-third. . . Which means that each State would be without a Commissioner for one our of every three Commission terms, namely, five years out of every 15, “unless the European Council, acting unanimously, decides to alter this number”.(Art.17.5, amended TEU)

Lisbon also provides that Member States shall lose their right to decide who their national Commissioner will be, being able to make “suggestions” only to the new Commission President, who will actually decide. This contrasts with Member States’ right to “propose” their own Commissioner under the current Treaties(Art.17.7, amended TEU).

These proposed changes to the number of Commissioners occur in the Lisbon Treaty context where the Big States greatly increase their voting weight in making EU laws and the smaller States lose influence. This “power-grab” by the Big States for control of the post-Lisbon European Union would make the loss of a permanent Commissioner for such a long period even more serious, especially for smaller States for whom having a fellow-national on the Commission has always been considered as especially important.

Moreover, this loss would occur in the law-proposing body for the constitutionally new European Union which Lisbon would establish – the new Federal EU – where it would be even more serious and damaging for a small State not to have a permanent member on the Commission.

If Ireland votes No to the Lisbon Treaty, it would be possible for the Prime Ministers and Presidents on the European Council to decide unanimously to maintain the principle of a permanent Commissioner indefinitely for each Member State, and to give a commitment in advance to that effect, for they have the power to do so under the Lisbon Treaty.

This indeed is one good reason why Ireland should vote No to Lisbon.

If Ireland votes No to Lisbon because many voters were concerned about the loss of a Commissioner for five years out of 15, as well as the loss of the right to decide who one’s national Commissioner is, Ireland would almost certainly receive the backing of many other EU Member States, especially smaller ones, for reversing the proposal to deprive countries of a permanent Commissioner on the body which has the monopoly of proposing all Union laws, because this proposal disadvantages them as well.