There’s a lot wrong with this viral list about the Lisbon Treaty

11 March 2019

A large number of our readers have asked us to factcheck a list of claims about the Lisbon Treaty, or “what will actually happen if we stay in the EU”, which has gone viral on social media.

The list has appeared in numerous versions across different platforms since mid-December. The text at the beginning and end is often different, but the central list of claims is virtually identical across most of the versions we’ve seen.

Much of it is wrong. The list is a mixture of false claims, and claims that have some truth but could be misleading given the context.

That’s partly because many recent versions of the text wrongly say that everything on the list is due to the “Lisbon Treaty”. However, the earliest version of the list we’ve been able to find only says that some of the things on it are due to the Lisbon Treaty.

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The Lisbon Treaty

Many recent versions of the list begin with this (or similar) text, which wasn’t present in earlier versions:


The Treaty of Lisbon is an agreement which made alterations to some of the key treaties setting out how the European Union operates.

It’s wrong to say that the Lisbon Treaty comes into force in 2020. It was agreed by all EU member countries in 2007 and came into force in 2009, and has been in place ever since. If the UK were to remain in the EU beyond March 2019 for any reason then the Lisbon Treaty wouldn’t suddenly change things.

The list


1: The UK along with all existing members of the EU lose their abstention veto in 2020 as laid down in the Lisbon Treaty when the system changes to that of majority acceptance with no abstentions or veto’s being allowed.

This is wrong. The Lisbon Treaty did make changes to how EU law gets passed which reduced the scope of states’ veto ability, but it did not abolish veto powers; and these changes are already in effect, rather than coming into force in 2020. The term “abstention veto” is not a part of European Union law (as you can see by the fact that most Google results for the term are references to this list.)

EU legislation has to be approved by the Council of the European Union, which is made up of ministerial representatives of the governments of all EU member states.

Depending on the type of issue it is voting on, it has three different standards for passing laws—a simple majority (where 15 out of the 28 states must agree); “qualified majority” (where laws must be approved by at least 55% of states, that have to represent at least 65% of the EU’s population); and a unanimous vote (where all voting states must agree, which therefore gives any single government a veto over the law.)

The Lisbon Treaty changed a large number of policy areas from being ones that needed unanimity (thus giving states a veto) to ones that were decided by qualified majority. At the same time, the Lisbon Treaty changed how qualified majority voting worked—this actually gave the UK slightly more voting power than it had before through the link with a country’s population, which is widely seen as having benefited large countries such as the UK, France and Germany.

The UK also doesn’t have to participate in EU legislation relating to justice and home affairs, but can choose to opt-in if it wants to.

It’s not clear what is meant by the claim that the Lisbon Treaty would see states losing their “abstention veto”. On issues that require unanimity, it’s the case that simply abstaining from a vote does not stop it passing (the Lisbon Treaty did not change this), but states can still veto by voting against.

2: All member nations will become states of the new federal nation of the EU by 2022 as clearly laid out in the Lisbon treaty with no exceptions or veto’s.

This is not something contained in the Lisbon Treaty or in any other EU agreements.

While some European politicians have spoken about their desire for a more federal European system, akin to the United States of America, there are currently no developed plans for this to happen.

The Lisbon Treaty only uses the term “federal” when describing the Federal Republic of Germany and (on one or two occasions) Austria and Belgium too. At no point does the Treaty mention the year 2022.

3: All member states must adopt the Euro by 2022 and any new member state must do so within 2 years of joining the EU as laid down in the Lisbon treaty.

At the moment, 19 of the 28 EU members are part of the ‘Euro area’. Both the UK and Denmark have “opt-outs” to joining. The UK’s opt-out, which says that the UK “shall be under no obligation” to adopt the Euro, is explicitly referenced in the Lisbon Treaty.

The treaty does reference the ultimate goal of “the euro becoming the currency of all Member States of the Union”, but that doesn’t override the UK’s opt out, and it does not set a time limit on that goal.

The seven EU member states that do not currently use the Euro, and do not have an opt-out, are expected to join the Euro, but only when they meet certain conditions. These criteria include: inflation (the way prices change over time) and long-term interest rates in that country must be within a certain distance of the three “best performing” countries in the EU, public finances must be “sound and sustainable”, exchange rates must be stable. The Lisbon Treaty says that countries not meeting these requirements will not have to adopt the euro.

A similar claim, based on a prediction in an opinion piece in the Telegraph from 2014, has been circulating recently, claiming that all EU members will have to adopt the Euro after 2020. The UK’s opt-out means that it, and any other countries with opt-outs, do not have to do this.

4: The London stock exchange will move to Frankfurt in 2020 and be integrated into the EU stock exchange resulting in a loss of 200,000 plus jobs in the UK because of the relocation. (This has already been pre-agreed and is only on a holding pattern due to the Brexit negotiations, which if Brexit does happen, the move is fully cancelled - but if not and the UK remains a member it’s full steam ahead for the move.)

The London Stock Exchange (LSE) and Deutsche Börse (its German equivalent) announced in February 2016 that they had proposed a merger to combine their activities. (This merger was not set out in, or related to, the Lisbon Treaty.)

However the merger was blocked by the EU in March 2017, on the grounds that it risked creating a monopoly.

Under the terms of the proposal, the two businesses would have continued to operate under their existing brand names and would not have merged into an “EU stock exchange”—nor does any such stock exchange exist. There was discussion of some level of job losses as a potential result of the merger, but nothing close to the 200,000 scale, and the LSE denied that there was any planned relocation to Frankfurt.

Separately, in January 2017, Xavier Rolet, the Chief Executive of the London Stock Exchange, told a committee of MPs that over 200,000 UK jobs—across the country—could be at risk if the terms of Brexit meant financial “clearing” jobs had to leave the UK. This was not linked to the proposed merger with Deutsche Börse, and was explicitly spoken of as a possible result of Brexit, rather than a result of staying in the EU.

5: The EU Parliament and ECJ become supreme over all legislative bodies of the UK

EU law has to be approved by the European Parliament (made up of elected MEPs from all EU member states) and the Council of the EU (comprising relevant government representatives from each EU country). The Lisbon Treaty put the European Parliament’s power to approve law on an equal footing with the Council, and widened the number of areas over which they could make laws.

The European Court of Justice (ECJ) is the highest court on matters of EU law.

For all EU member countries, EU law takes “supremacy” over domestic law—to ensure that rules are applied uniformly throughout the EU. The UK has accepted the supremacy of EU law for some time—since parliament passed the European Communities Act in 1972—so it’s not as a result of the Lisbon Treaty.

EU law doesn’t cover all aspects of UK law. In areas where no EU law is applicable, the UK parliament and courts are the supreme bodies for making and judging law.

6: The UK will adopt 100% of whatever the EU Parliament and ECJ lays down without any means of abstention or veto, negating the need for the UK to have the Lords or even the Commons as we know it today.

As discussed earlier, the UK also has some ability to veto EU laws, and has opt-outs from certain EU policies.

As we explained above, it’s correct that the UK (as an EU member) must adopt any EU laws that are passed—but there are many areas of UK law not covered by the EU. This has been the case for decades, during which time the House of Commons and Lords have continued to function and pass UK law.

7: The UK will NOT be able to make its own trade deals.

The next few items on the list largely describe the status quo of EU membership.

It’s correct that the UK can’t strike its own trade deals if we remain in the EU, as this has to be done at an EU-wide level. But we would be a part of (and have influence over) all the deals that the EU negotiates. For the most part this isn’t related to the Lisbon Treaty. Even before the Treaty came into force EU member countries couldn’t agree their own trade deals and the EU had largely exclusive powers over trade. The Lisbon Treaty expanded these powers slightly.

8: The UK will NOT be able to set its own trade tariffs.

It’s correct that under the rules of the EU’s customs union, all EU countries have to set the same tariffs on imports from outside the EU. There are no tariffs on trade between EU countries. This is not related to the Lisbon Treaty.

9: The UK will NOT be able to set its own trade quotas.

The EU applies a number of “tariff quotas” (where tariffs are reduced or removed on a certain amount of trade in particular goods). As a member state, the UK follows these and can’t set its own quotas. This is not related to the Lisbon Treaty.

10: The UK loses control of its fishing rights

As a member of the EU, the UK is part of the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP), which originated back in the 1970s. Under this policy, the EU sets a limit on the number or tonnage of each species of fish that can be caught by each country in a year.

Fishing vessels registered in the EU have equal access to EU waters, with two exceptions. At the moment EU member states are allowed to place limits on who can fish in their territorial waters, and up to 100 nautical miles fishing is restricted to those who traditionally fished there, but the legislation covering this expires in 2022. Whether it will be replaced is a matter for the politicians to determine.

We’ve written more about this here.

The Lisbon Treaty sets out that the EU has powers over “the conservation of marine biological resources” as part of the CFP and shares power with member countries over the rest of fisheries policy.

11: The UK loses control of its oil and gas rights

Within the EU, national governments have control over where companies can search for and produce oil and gas in their countries, and over granting licenses to companies. In the UK, onshore oil and gas licensing powers are devolved to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. So remaining in the EU wouldn’t mean losing these rights.

There are EU rules which govern how licensing must occur. The government has said these EU licensing rules, and rules on environmental protections, will continue to operate even if there is a no deal Brexit.

(The Lisbon Treaty does discuss the broad goal of a more integrated European energy policy, but states that “such measures shall not affect a Member State's right to determine the conditions for exploiting its energy resources, its choice between different energy sources and the general structure of its energy supply”.)

12: The UK loses control of its borders and enters the Schengen region by 2022 - as clearly laid down in the Lisbon treaty

This is false. The Schengen area is a group of 22 EU countries and four non-EU countries (Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland) which don’t have internal border controls.

Six EU countries aren’t part of Schengen, including the UK.

The UK has an opt-out from Schengen and hasn’t signed the Schengen agreement. The agreements setting out the UK’s opt-out also can’t be removed without the consent of the UK. If the government did want to get rid of the opt-out and join the Schengen area there would need to be a referendum on this.

It doesn’t say anywhere in the Lisbon Treaty that the UK has to join the Schengen system by 2022, or by any other date.

The UK does take part in some elements of the Schengen system, for example those relating to criminal law and policing rules. These special circumstances, and the ability of the UK to ‘opt-in’ to parts of Schengen are reflected in the Lisbon Treaty.

13: The UK loses control of its planning legislation

This is false. Member states have to follow EU laws on some aspects of planning. But EU laws on town and country planning must be unanimously supported by member states. This means the UK can effectively veto EU planning legislation as a member of the EU.

14: The UK loses control of its armed forces including its nuclear deterrent

This is false. The EU doesn’t have its own army, although some key players are supportive of the idea. The Lisbon Treaty sets out that the EU’s “common security and defence policy shall include the progressive framing of a common Union defence policy.”

But unlike in other areas of EU decision-making, the European Commission can’t propose laws about security and defence. And it can’t implement common defence policies unless the European Council unanimously approves. This effectively gives the UK a veto on any EU defence policies.

UK law also states that no such common EU defence powers can be handed from the UK to the EU without the approval of parliament and a referendum on the decision.

The Lisbon Treaty does not say anything about the UK’s nuclear deterrent. The House of Commons Library says: “Decision making on the use of British nuclear weapons is a sovereign matter for the UK. There is no requirement to gain the approval of the United States or other NATO allies for their use and only the Prime Minister can authorise an instruction to fire.”

15: The UK loses full control of its taxation policy

The EU does not have a direct role in raising taxes or setting tax rates, and the EU also has no say in how countries spend their tax revenues.

However, the EU does oversee national tax rules, in order to ensure they are consistent with relevant EU policies.

For instance, all member states have to have broadly similar rules and minimum rates on VAT, and taxes on petrol, tobacco and alcohol.

Elsewhere, the EU aims to ensure that its members' tax policies conform to EU principles such as non-discrimination and free movement. It also wants a coordinated EU approach on tax evasion. The Lisbon Treaty led to some small changes to tax policy—but most of the examples listed above pre-date it.

EU decisions on tax matters require unanimous agreement from all member countries, so the UK effectively has a veto on them.

16: The UK loses the ability to create its own laws and to implement them

False. See answers to claims 5 and 6.

17: The UK loses its standing in the Commonwealths

The UK is a member of the Commonwealth—“a voluntary association of 53 independent and equal sovereign states”, where “all members have an equal say—regardless of size or economic stature”.

The UK’s membership of the Commonwealth is not affected by Brexit or by membership of the EU, and there is nothing in the Lisbon Treaty about the Commonwealth.

Commonwealth countries aren't a collective trading bloc, but the UK might seek to do trade deals with Commonwealth countries after Brexit (something it can’t pursue on its own as part of the EU). There is some debate as to how feasible and valuable these would be.

18: The UK loses control of any provinces or affiliated nations e.g.: Falklands, Cayman Islands, Gibraltar etc

This is not stated anywhere in the Lisbon Treaty, nor would it happen as a result of the UK remaining in the EU.

The future of the UK’s relationship with Gibraltar has previously proved a sticking point in Brexit negotiations. The government has set out a “Memoranda of Understanding” on matters relating to Gibraltar, stating that this does “not imply any modification of the respective legal positions of the Kingdom of Spain or of the United Kingdom with regard to sovereignty and jurisdiction in relation to Gibraltar”. However, some new processes will be established (in areas like police and customs) to ensure cooperation between the UK and Spain after Brexit.

If the UK remained in the EU, its relationship with Gibraltar would presumably remain as it is now.

19: The UK loses control of its judicial system

False. See answers to claims 5 and 6.

20: The UK loses control of its international policy

False. See answer to claims 7-9, and 14.

21: The UK loses full control of its national policy

That depends on what you mean by “full control”. The Lisbon Treaty widened the number of areas over which the EU parliament could pass laws, but there are many areas of UK law which are not covered by EU regulations. We explain this more in the answers to claims 5 and 6.

22: The UK loses its right to call itself a nation in its own right.

This isn’t true.

23: The UK loses control of its space exploration program

The UK has its own space agency that’s part of the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy. It is responsible for leading on UK civil space policy and “its contribution to European initiatives”, coordinating investment and regulating UK civil space activities, among other things.

The Lisbon Treaty says that the EU has powers in “the areas of research, technological development and space … in particular to define and implement programmes”, but it also says that this isn’t at the expense of member countries also having powers in these areas.

It also says that the EU can draw up a European Space policy and “promote joint initiatives, support research and technological development and coordinate the efforts needed for the exploration and exploitation of space.” It also gives the European Parliament and the Council powers to create a European space programme. But excluded from this is the power to ‘harmonise’ the laws and regulations of member countries—or make them all the same on the issue.

The UK is a member of the European Space Agency (ESA), which sent astronaut Tim Peake into space in 2016. The ESA is not an EU body, so whether we stay in or leave the EU our membership of the ESA won’t be affected. Brexit will affect the UK’s ability to participate in some collaborative space programs such as the Galileo satellite navigation system.

24: The UK loses control of its Aviation and Sea lane jurisdiction

The EU has significant influence over the UK’s transport policy. Its rules on aviation cover a number of areas including licensing and safety. Most of these regulations were set out in Treaties which pre-date the Lisbon Treaty.

Shipping rules in the UK are governed by the UK’s membership of a number of international organisations including the International Maritime Organisation, the OECD, and the UN Commission on International Trade law; as well as the EU. The Lisbon Treaty says nothing specific about shipping. National vetoes over EU laws on shipping and aviation were dropped in the 1980s.

25: The UK loses its rebate in 2020 as laid down in the Lisbon treaty

The UK, like several other EU members, gets a “rebate” which reduces the amount it pays into the EU budget.

The EU has proposed that we would lose our rebate if we stayed in the EU as a full member beyond 2020.

This is in line with an EU proposal to get rid of all the rebates it gives to its members—including Denmark and the Netherlands—over the course of the next budget.

The proposed removal of the rebate would be part of the “Multiannual financial framework” (the EU’s long-term budget) which requires unanimous agreement among member states, so the UK could potentially block it.

The Lisbon Treaty doesn’t mention the rebate at all.

26: The UK’s contribution to the EU is set to increase by an average of 1.2bn pa and by 2.3bn pa by 2020

The Office for Budget Responsibility, the UK public spending watchdog, has forecast that the UK will contribute around €16 billion to the EU budget in 2018, €17.2 billion in 2019 and €18.5 billion in 2020. That’s after any rebate or discount the UK receives, but before any money is spent in the UK by the EU.

In pounds that works out at around £14.1 billion in 2018, £15.2 billion in 2019 and £16.3 billion in 2020, based on the latest exchange rates, or an increase of around £1 billion per year.

2020 is the last year the UK would contribute towards the EU budget, assuming that the UK exits the EU and a withdrawal agreement is passed by parliament. It is also the year in which the EU’s current budget comes to an end (these generally run in seven year blocs and the rules around them were amended by the Lisbon Treaty—though not any specific amounts to be paid).

We’ve written more about the UK’s contributions towards the EU budget here.

With thanks to UK in a Changing Europe and Professor Steve Peers for their help with reviewing this factcheck.

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