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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.

4 Responses to Presidency Paradox: The Problem with the new European Council President

  1. I’d say that this analysis looks correct on paper, but I from what I see, van Rompuy can actually use quite a bit of his not-existing power to exert quite a bit of influence, despite the lack of staff. And his power will grow with every day he remains in office.

  2. avatar Ralf Grahn says:

    The blog post lists a number of hypothetical arguments against the perception of (potential) power for the president of the European Council.

    However, it does not even try to explore any possible opportunities for the new president to become an influential player.

    This makes for interesting polemics, but hardly for balanced conclusions.

    The role of the European Council, now an official institution, has increased. It is, in my view, the most important institution, as much for what it does as for what it fails or neglects to do.

    If the institution has become more important, it is surprising if the role of its president diminishes.

    Formally, the European Council president has no vote, but its Rules of Procedure give him power over the draft conclusions, agenda setting and convening meetings.

    Herman Van Rompuy chairs the task force on economic governance (hardly an unimportant issue, these days) because of the intergovernmental character of economic policy coordination.

    In addition to the Commission, the EU now has one centrally placed individual whose role is to promote the general interest.

    30 months equals five Council presidencies, and 60 months sees ten member states guiding the ‘other’ Council configurations of diverse quality. Continuity can be seen in a different light from your presentation.

    ‘Internal deals’ can be used to belittle the tasks of the European Council president, but the EU advances or retreats according to how it succeeds in this respect.

    Take a fresh look at the issue, please.

  3. avatar Richard Corbett says:

    Speaking purely personally, I would argue that all ten of the points are debatable, to say the least.

    1.lack of political authority
    Previous incumbents of the European Council presidency secured their position by an automatic rotation — whether their colleagues were pleased or not, and whether it was politically convenient or not (e.g. if a national election was due during their term). Now, the president is actually chosen by the heads of state or government, which implies a degree of confidence in him

    2 lack of national political/administrative resources
    The president can rely on the Secretariat of the Council of ministers (as all previous presidents did) and his cabinet. Relying on national resources to run a European level presidency was always a mixed blessing

    3 Disconnection from the Council of ministers & 4 competition with the rotating presidency
    A small element of truth in this, but so what? The rotating presidency is no longer very significant as it is merely the chairmanship of the sectoral Councils. The country in question no longer represents the EU on the world stage, its foreign minister no the longer chairs the foreign affairs Council and its prime minister no longer chairs the European Council

    5 Competition with the Commission President
    Maybe healthy competition? There will no doubt be discussion again, in a few years time, about merging these two posts (as was done at a lower-level for the high representative/vice president of the commission), but in the meantime both figures are determined to make it work.

    6 competition with high representative.
    There is no difficulty here. The relationship between the president and the high representative is similar to that between a head of state or government and the Foreign Minister Meetings with third countries depend on the level of meeting (the president meets heads of state or government, the high representative meets ministers). The President can also draw on the resources on External Action Service

    7 the term of office is too short

    It is a darn sight longer than the previous system whereby the president was changing every second or third meeting of the European Council!

    8 A qualified majority only exists for a weak president

    The realistic choice in the treaty was between unanimity and qualified majority. Unanimity would certainly have secured the lowest common denominator, while a qualified majority gives more flexibility

    9 few formal powers

    hard to see how this could possibly be “potentially weaker” than the old rotating presidency system, as the powers are equally ill defined — no more, no less. But the fact, under the new system, the president is full time (all previous incumbents had to spend the bulk of their time running their national government) and present in Brussels gives him the opportunity to network, to better prepare European Council meetings (exploring in more detail the common ground for possible agreements, etc) and to build up a detailed knowledge of the issues

  4. avatar Scott James says:

    You raise some very important points about the weaknesses of the old rotating presidency compared to the new position. I certainly wouldn’t advocate a return to the old rotating presidency, not least because successive enlargements had fatally undermined it. The point of my original blog was simply to highlight the fact that the Lisbon Treaty reforms represented little improvement on the earlier arrangements and that, in several respects, van Rompuy may even be in a weaker position than his predecessors. For those of us who want to see the EU developing a more active role on the international stage, it is important to recognise these underlying flaws in order to control expectations about what the reforms will achieve.

    I’ve tried to address each of your points in turn:

    1. I agree that certain European Council presidents in the past carried little political authority on the EU stage, and van Rompuy’s appointment represents an improvement in that sense. However my broader point relates to how the role and power of the new president will compare with the presidencies of the larger member states – particularly the ‘big’ three. The UK, German and French presidencies of 2005, 2007 and 2008 may not have been popular in some quarters, but they arguably got things done and certainly raised the EU’s profile on the world stage. I also agree that the appointment of van Rompuy by the other national leaders implies a certain level of respect and support – but only to the extent that the new president performs a fairly limited ‘chairman’ role. The old rotating presidency may only have produced intermittent periods of international activism, but it is difficult to see who if anyone is now capable of doing that in the new arrangements? In selecting Van Rompuy and Catherine Ashton, the larger member states have ensured that they retain the international limelight.

    2. The Council Secretariat will no doubt provide some valuable resources, as it always has done, and will almost certainly be expanded as a result. But this doesn’t change the fact that the new president now has less administrative resources at their disposal than in the past, precisely because they can no longer draw upon the vast bureaucratic machines that national heads of state/government control. Although the Secretariat boasts around 3500 staff, this still only represents 0.7% of the 529,000 employed by the UK civil service. It also ignores the importance of political resources, such as interpersonal connections between serving national leaders and party-political networks.

    3/4. I’m afraid I don’t share your optimism that the rotating presidency is ‘no longer very significant’ because it is ‘merely the chairmanship’ of the sectoral councils. Smaller member states may well be content to perform this largely administrative role, as they always have done. But Zapatero was clearly not content with this and lobbied hard for the EU-US and EU-LAC summits to be held in Madrid earlier this year. The EU was the ultimate loser because it almost certainly contributed to Obama’s decision to stay away. Of course we will have to wait a few years before one of the larger states gets a turn, but by all accounts the Polish government is planning an ‘activist’ presidency at the end of 2011. I therefore don’t see the EU-US summit incident as an isolated one, but rather a manifestation of an underlying institutional flaw that the Lisbon Treaty has failed to resolve.

    5/6. I don’t doubt the desire of the three leading figures to make the new arrangement work for the good of the EU. However there remain two potential sources of conflict. First, the analogy to the relationship that exists within national governments between a head of state/government and foreign secretary ignores the fact that van Rompuy’s position is in no way comparable to that of a head of state/government for many of the reasons I’ve outlined above. I therefore still remain to be convinced that if Henry Kissinger wants to talk to Europe, he will choose to ring Brussels over London, Paris or Berlin. Second, and perhaps more seriously, the division of labour between van Rompuy and Barosso with respect to economic and social policy remains particularly blurred. Hence the recent jostling for position over who should be leading the EU’s attempts to reform its economic governance arrangements, the need for both presidents to represent the EU at meetings of the G8/20, and the fact that representation in shared areas of competence like energy have to be decided on a case-by-case basis. The Commission may describe their relationship as ‘complementary’, but it strikes me as being far from ideal.

    7. QMV is certainly preferable to unanimity. My point was simply that for the foreseeable future there is likely to be a ‘blocking minority’ of states against the appointment of a strong president. The previous arrangement was far from perfect, but at least the rotating presidency did manage to do this on an intermittent basis.

    8. Although van Rompuy’s term of office is considerably longer, I would argue that this has not compensated for a relative loss of power vis-a-vis the Commission President in other important respects. Although the rotating presidency only served a 6-month term, the division of labour between the head of state/government and the Commission President was far clearer and overwhelmingly tilted in favour of the former. Hence at international meetings (like the G8 or EU-US summits) the rotating presidency tended to represent the EU first-and-foremost, with the Commission President in a de facto deputising role. It is this informal but important precedent that has now been upset.

    9. You are quite right to point out that the formal powers of the new permanent president are little different from the situation that existed before. However this is precisely the point. The rotating presidency could make as much or as little of the role as they liked, with some countries preferring a quiet businesslike affair (like Ireland) while others fostered proactive diplomacy (like France). Crucially though, as elected governments and serving heads of state/government, they had the authority, legitimacy and autonomy to do so. Hence few countries ever criticised or tried to curtail the agenda of an EU presidency. I would argue that van Rompuy has far less freedom of manoeuvre because national leaders will try to dictate the terms of the role (especially as he has to seek ‘re-election’ after 30 months). The danger is that instead of having presidencies that periodically attempted (albeit not always successfully) to blaze a trail, the role of the permanent president risks being downgraded to the lowest common denominator.

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