The now infamous “ehm” uttered by European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen in Ankara, when she realized her male counterparts had left her without a chair, reflects a long-lasting malaise in the institutional arrangements of the EU. This issue – illustrated by the famous quip attributed to US secretary of state Henry Kissinger, “Europe? What’s its phone number?” – should be addressed by the Conference on the Future of Europe, as the absence of clear EU leadership not only weakens the EU on the international scene, but also its comprehension by the citizens.
The creation of the permanent presidency of the EU Council when the Lisbon Treaty came into force in 2009, which was supposed to address this issue, has only deepened the problem. In a paper published at the eve of this century at the time of the European Convention, we feared that a permanent presidency of the EU Council could have two perverse effects. First, by reducing the rotating presidency to a mere symbol, it would undermine the EU dynamics of emulation between member states, and the appropriation of the EU by the European peoples. Second, we feared that the emergence of a divided leadership might lead to tensions, echoing those of French-style cohabitation.
Sadly enough, von der Leyen’s so-called ‘sofagate’ confirmed our fears. It would be a mistake to reduce the incident to a conflict of personalities. The flaws are structural and cannot simply be resolved through protocol niceties. From Africa to China to Turkey, the EU seems dysfunctional, affecting its reputation on the world stage.
Moreover, it is hard to deny that the permanent presidency of the EU has not helped address major issues over the past ten years: the decisions were either settled among heads of states (over the eurocrisis), delegated to other states (on Turkey), or managed by the commission (COVID). That the only ray of hope in the EU’s recent past lies with a Green deal, which however imperfect, emerges from von der Leyen’s commitments before the European Parliament during the appointment debate, is a lesson we should not ignore.
The only ideal and practice fitting the EU’s very nature is that of shared leadership
In the past two decades, each of the three logics governing European integration has been reinforced. The functional logic, with the commission gaining increased powers, yesterday to manage the Euro, today to manage the pandemic. The intergovernmental logic, with heads of states preserving their authority when deals require both urgency and monies. And the parliamentary democracy logic, with the European parliament stepping in increasingly forcefully in areas ranging from new technologies to investment rules.
This makes it even less probable that any of these bodies could claim legitimately to represent the EU as a whole. If the EU wants to stand on a par with the US and China on the international scene, notably on climate-related issues, it needs to come up with a credible answer to Kissinger’s old question, but it needs to do so while pursuing greater democratic legitimacy.
This implies that basic equality between these three institutions must be reflected in a triumvirate of presidencies who will not need to vie for preeminence. Each institution needs a chair, but none of them should be able to claim to be the EU’s presidency.
Primus inter pares
A single president for Europe elected by an almost 500 million-strong constituency, as some have proposed, would not be an appropriate solution for the EU. The EU is a union, not a state; a union of states and citizens, an original construct much more ambitious in its originality than the proponent of such a mimetic approach would have it.
The only ideal and practice fitting the EU’s very nature is that of shared leadership. Shared leadership between member states who should benefit, as in a recent past, from equal rotation of presidencies above and below the European Council and its permanent chair. And shared leadership between the three institutions of the EU, who would simply hold equal sway internally and externally.
Who would such an EU president be? Simply the head of the national government holding the EU’s rotating presidency for six months. Given rotation, there would be no risk of personality clash and competition. At the same time, and as an elected head of government speaking in the name of 27 countries, this person would stand as equal in foreign encounters, contrary to the existing permanent presidency. With the passing of time, and in the absence of a permanent rival speaking on behalf of the heads of state and governments, the Commission might one day emanate from EP elections, and better reflect the political preferences expressed by the citizens of the 27 states.
What would this rotating president do? Well, not much. They would not need to chair the meetings of the EU Council, a role reserved for its chairman. Instead, they would mostly be a symbolic figure, meeting foreign dignitaries alongside whoever might come along for the ride on the EU side, as primus inter pares, sitting on whatever piece of furniture is deemed appropriate for the circumstance. Nothing more. Nothing less.