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Presidency Paradox: The Problem with the new European Council President

By Scott James

Now that the sense of anti-climax surrounding the appointment of Herman van Rompuy as the new President of the European Council has subsided, it is worthwhile casting a critical eye over the likely role and powers of the new permanent president. Putting contingent factors (such as personality and leadership style) to one side, the cold light of day reveals that the new position is potentially weaker in a structural sense than the old rotating presidency in at least nine respects:

1. Lack of political authority

Previous incumbents of the European Council presidency enjoyed considerable power and prestige derived from being elected and serving heads of state/government. By comparison, as an appointed figure the new president lacks the political authority and democratic legitimacy of a serving national leader. Of course, the political weight wielded by former presidents varied greatly depending on which countries were holding the rotating presidency. Nevertheless, it almost certainly guarantees that the new President can never outshine the leaders of the larger member states.

2. Lack of national political/administrative resources

The new President has gained a small secretariat to manage the business of the European Council. In doing so however they have lost the far more significant political and administrative resources that elected heads of state/government are able to wield in their own countries. This not only includes the vast bureaucratic machines that could be put at the disposal of the six-month presidency, but also the invaluable network of interpersonal and party-political contacts that serving leaders inevitably construct during their time in office.

3. Disconnection from the Council of Ministers

Perhaps the most serious weakness of all will be the disconnection from the Council of Ministers. Because the various Council formations will continue to be chaired by the rotating presidency, the European Council President loses any ability to influence, direct or control the legislative process. When a serving head of state/government presided over regular summit meetings, they were assured of considerable day-to-day influence over the Council – in terms of agenda setting, brokering deals, shaping legislation, etc – as a simple consequence of the fact that their ministers and officials would chair all the sectoral councils and working groups. Today this invaluable institutional relationship has been severed.

4. Competition with rotating presidency

Rather than addressing the weaknesses of the old rotating presidency, the new position has simply added an extra layer of complexity. Because the former continues to preside over the Council of Ministers, van Rompuy is placed into direct competition with the head of state/government from the rotating presidency who now lacks a formal institutional outlet for their energies. We have already seen the consequence of this: Zapatero’s insistence that the EU-US summit be convened and chaired in Madrid rather than Brussels. As long as the rotating presidency continues to exist, the European Council President will forever live under its shadow.

5. Competition with the Commission President

Somewhat paradoxically, the ‘strengthening’ of the European Council in the Lisbon Treaty has potentially weakened the president of the European Council vis-à-vis the president of the European Commission. Although both figures are now appointed by national leaders, the Commission President may be in a stronger position for two reasons: first, because of the vastly superior administrative resources at their disposal; and second, as a consequence of the democratic legitimacy that derives from being formally approved by the European Parliament.

6. Competition with the High Representative

Although van Rompuy gains a small secretariat, the new High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy will chair the new Foreign Affairs Council and head the new External Action Service which combines the resources of both the Commission and Council. For this reason we are likely to see the establishment of an ‘inverted’ division of labour with the High Representative emerging as the EU’s ‘external face’, while the European Council President concentrates on brokering internal deals. Again, the recent informal European Council summit on EMU is perhaps a sign of things to come.

7. The term of office is too short

The new President is appointed for two and a half years, renewable once. This renders their potential time in office only half that of the Commission President. Moreover, it means that realistically they will only chair the European Council for the duration of one troika presidency programme (18 months). After this their attention will inevitably turn towards seeking re-appointment or, alternatively, life after Brussels.

8. A qualified majority only exists for a ‘weak’ President

The European Council President is elected amongst heads of state/government using qualified majority voting. Because the smaller member states fear the appointment of political heavyweight from one of the ‘Big Three’ states, they will always tend to constitute an effective blocking minority. Because the larger member states are unlikely to ever wield sufficient votes to push through their preferred nomination (assuming one even exists), a weaker compromise candidate will almost certainly be the outcome.

9. Few formal powers

Many have interpreted the extremely vague job description for the new European Council President as a potential strength, permitting the incumbent to mould the position to suit their own particular interests and priorities, and so that it can adapt to changing circumstances. However it may also be seen as a potential weakness: not least because it permits the members of the European Council (serving heads of state/government) to dictate the terms of office. Ambiguity in this sense allows national leaders to draw the boundaries of the role where they want.



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