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A real compromise on the EU presidency, part 2

Kalypso Nicolaïdis
4 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. (See also Part 1)

Before presenting a simple remedy to this problem, it is worth recalling how it came about - and why the reform treaty does well to retain a rotating presidency for the many configurations of the councils of ministers.

It is hard for any EU observer to forget the intense controversy which surrounded the decision to abolish the current rotating Council presidency. During the Convention the Belgian Prime Minister vehemently assured that reform of the presidency would only take place "over [his] dead body." But the coalition of small and medium sized EU countries (a variable geometry numbering up to 19 who called themselves the ‘friends of the community method') was unable to resist the pressure emanating from the bigger member states in the Convention endgame and subsequent IGC.

The idea of a "permanent president" of the Council first stamped ABC (Aznar, Blair, and Chirac), then formally tabled by a Franco-German coalition was doomed to succeed. A twice yearly change at the helm of the EU, so the argument went, was confusing to all and deeply compromised the need for policy continuity. And with enlargement, how could the small and inexperienced new member states be expected to take on such a role! The friends of the community method accepted some of these arguments, but protested that there was no need to throw out the baby with the bathwater.

Rotation can be defended on at least three grounds. First, the rotating presidency reflects the very ethos of the EU, the idea at the foundation that such a union of states would serve to balance the unavoidable temptation towards domination by the big states which had plagued the continent for centuries. A short hand for such anti-hegemonic role has been to speak of equality between states even if, of course, power politics are alive and well in an EU. For half a century, the creation of an independent Commission together with a rotating Council presidency have served as a counterweight to the power of the big states. In contrast, the embodiment of such presidency by a single person reveals the yearning for a "European Napoleon" on the part of all those who have failed to understand that this Union is not a nation seeking incarnation in a great leader.

The second virtue of rotation has to do with the kind of efficiency associated with healthy competition between national administrations. When their turn comes, each government brings new energy, political capital and issue-specific commitment to European affairs.

This is icing on the cake of course, since 80 percent of the council's agenda is built-in
and supported by a highly professional and effective Brussels-based secretariat. But the 6 month stint serves to socialise civil servants and citizens into "thinking European" which in turn helps the job of the council secretariat. In the process, governments and their bureaucracy must act in a more neutral and imaginative fashion than they are used to in order to engineer the complex compromises on which the Union rests. Perhaps most importantly, the system of rotation helps create long term reciprocity within the EU, as member states often support each other's presidency ambitions and deadlines in the expectation that the same will be done when their turn comes.

Last but not least, rotation has held a key symbolic value by demonstrating to European citizens that EU policy is not "made in Brussels" but is a shared and decentralized enterprise conducted everywhere in Europe from Helsinki to Lisbon. Summits in unfamiliar places are the most media-friendly events in EU politics (as well as providing useful anchors of teachers of the EU!). Hence, it is as valuable for the citizen whose country does not hold the presidency as for the one whose country does. This renders meaningless the often-heard argument that the value of rotation is lost if only held every 13 years in a Union of 27.

Continue reading - part 3...

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