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A real compromise on the EU presidency, part 1

Kalypso Nicolaïdis
2 October 2007

Does the EU need a Caesar?

The design of the future EU Council Presidency is deemed to create confusion among European citizens. The forthcoming IGC can still do better without reopening the fundamentals of the new blueprint. Clarifying the notion of "EU presidency" could help safeguard the EU's founding principle of shared leadership, argue Director of the European Studies Centre at St Antony's College Oxford Kalypso Nicolaïdis, and Simone Bunse, Assistant Professor of Politics at the INCAE Business School.

Two years after the rejection of the Constitutional Treaty by the French and Dutch referenda, there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Everything looks set for a deal on the new ‘reform treaty' by the October 18-19 Summit - in time for the ratification process to conclude ahead of the 2009 EP elections. The draft text to be agreed by the IGC is already available on the web and no-one seems to want to reopen any of its clauses, for risk of seeing the whole enterprise unravel. Even Poland has fallen in line on the Council's new voting system.

Nevertheless, we believe that there is still time for at least one marginal improvement to the treaty which would constitute a positive sum deal, leaving everyone better off, including EU citizens. So why not go for it? Under the embellishment technique in any case, parties would agree in advance that if consensus is not reached on a reopened issue, the status quo ante would prevail and the text adopted as is.

The ideal and practice that should be rescued in the EU's current round of reforms is that of shared leadership. This IGC's mandate, echoing that of the failed Convention, is to bring the Union closer to its citizens while making it more efficient, including on the external front. Amongst the Convention's institutional innovations to achieve these goals was the replacement of the rotating presidency of the Council by a permanent president (two and a half year renewable once) meant to bring to the job the kind of continuity and visibility that it has so far lacked thus improving the workings of the Council and presenting a face to the outside world. Rotation was instead introduced in the down sized Commission. Finally, member states' relative weight were brought closer to their population size through a new double majority voting system.

The IGC mandate leaves this institutional bargain struck at the Convention intact: small and medium size countries loose their cherished rotating presidency, relinquish voting power in the Council but retain at least formal equality in the Commission. And Germany, the traditional defender of smaller states, has supported the deals because it balanced the new Council chair with an old German favourite: the introduction of a democratic mandate for the Commission president via the European Parliament.

Obviously, it would be naïve and foolish to question this bargain at this stage of the game. The meetings of EU heads of government, four times a year, will no longer be chaired by a current but most probably a former member of the club. Fine. It makes sense for the Council to have a president - just like the Commission and the European Parliament.

At the same time, however, it is hard not to feel sympathy for those Europeans citizens who, after the nomination of a new permanent president of the "European Council", will continue to be told that "On January 1st, Slovakia will take up the rotating Council presidency". Will they grasp the difference between the latter (Council of Ministers) and the former (Council of Prime Ministers)? Will they work out the division of labor and accountability between the two levels? Chances are that the new set up with two Council presidencies, one permanent the other rotating with Troika coordination (e.g. between three succeeding presidencies), will further alienate citizens from their EU institutions. And all this in the name of democracy!

Continue reading - part 2...

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