The “European Union presidency”: a practical compromise

Simone Bunse Kalypso Nicolaïdis
10 October 2007

The design of the future presidency of the European Union council is likely to create confusion among European citizens. The inter-governmental conference (IGC) closing in Lisbon on 18-19 October 2007 could have done better on this issue without reopening the fundamentals of the new blueprint. If the notion of the "European Union presidency" is clarified, this could achieve a triple benefit: avoid confusion, increase legitimacy, and help safeguard the EU's founding principle of shared leadership.

Simone Bunse is assistant professor at Incae Business School, specialising in political analysis. Her publications include "Big versus Small: Shared Leadership and Power Politics in the Convention" (with Paul Magnette & Kalypso Nicolaïdis), in Derek Beach & Colette Mazzucelli, eds., Leadership in the Big Bangs of European Integration (Palgrave, 2007)

Kalypso Nicolaïdis is lecturer in international relations at Oxford University, chair of south European studies at Oxford, and professorial chair on visions of Europe at the College of Europe in Bruges. Her works include "We the peoples of Europe" (Foreign Affairs, 2004) and The Federal Vision: Legitimacy and Levels of Governance in the US and the EU (Oxford University Press, 2001). Her homepage is here

An earlier version of this article-proposal was contained in the document "Making it our own: A trans-European proposal on amending the draft Constitutional Treaty for the European Union", signed by over a hundred European Union scholars; and in Paul Magnette & Kalypso Nicolaïdis, Large and small member states in the European Union: Reinventing the Balance (Notre Europe, May 2003)

Two years after the rejection of the constitutional treaty in the French and Dutch referenda, there is light at the end of the tunnel. Everything looks set for a deal on the new "reform treaty" at the Lisbon summit - in time for the ratification process to conclude ahead of the European parliament elections in 2009. 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, one marginal improvement to the treaty would have constituted a positive-sum deal that would leave everyone - including EU citizens - better off. 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. While we realise the proposal is absolutely unrealistic for now, we believe the debate should be open for the future.

The ideal and practice that should be rescued in the EU's current round of reforms is that of shared leadership. The mandate of this IGC, 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 (for a two-and-a-half- year term, 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 downsized commission. Finally, the relative weight of member-states 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.

It would clearly 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 European citizens who, after the nomination of a new permanent president of the "European council", will continue to be told that "On 1 January 2008, Slovenia 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? The chances are that the new set-up, with two council presidencies - one permanent, the other rotating with "troika" coordination (i.e. between three succeeding presidencies) - will further alienate citizens from their EU institutions. And all this in the name of democracy!

The logic of rotation

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.

openDemocracy's work includes several focused projects and associated blogs: Our Kingdom, terrorism. openDemocracy.net, and 50:50 for gender equality

The latest of these is dLiberation, edited by J Clive Matthews, where (among many others) James Fishkin, Arthur Lupia, Amy Gutmann, and Ian O'Flynn discuss and contest the merits of deliberative democracy in the context of the Tomorrow's Europe experiment on 12-14 October 2007

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 affirmed 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 nineteen 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 (Jose Maria Aznar, Tony Blair, and Jacques 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 shorthand for such an 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 mere icing on the cake, however, since 80% of the council's agenda is built-in and supported by a highly professional and effective Brussels-based secretariat. But the six-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.

openDemocracy writers track the European Union in a decisive year:

Aurore Wanlin, "The European Union at fifty: a second life" (15 March 2007)

Krzysztof Bobinski, "European unity: reality and myth" (21 March 2007)

Frank Vibert, "The European Union in 2057" (22 March 2057)

George Schőpflin, "The European Union's troubled birthday" (23 March 2007)

Simon Berlaymont, "Tony Blair and Europe" (30 May 2007)

John Palmer, "Europe's next steps" (26 June 2007)

Krzysztof Bobinski, "The Polish confusion" (28 June 2007)

Michael Bruter, "European Union: from backdoor to front" (3 July 2007)

Olaf Cramme, "Europe: politics or die" (17 September 2007)

The third value of rotation is that it has held a key symbolic value by demonstrating to European citizens that EU policy is not "made in Brussels" but is a shared and decentralised 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 once every thirteen years in a union of twenty-seven.

A strategic clarity

Should we not rejoice that the current deal seeks to retain the best of both worlds? Article I-24 stipulates that the presidency of all council configuration, except foreign affairs, is to be held by member state representatives on the basis of equal rotation (the foreign-affairs council, in turn, is chaired by the new high representative). Thus, we may have a president at the European council level between heads of governments, but rotation continues at the council-of-minister level for the thousands of meetings and decisions taken by ministers, ambassadors, representatives, and bureaucrats.

What is the problem then? First, confusion. As stated above, the new arrangement hardly brings the EU closer to its citizens. The rotating council presidency at the level of the ministers will now either be invisible except by bureaucrats, or on the contrary, national presidencies will continue to be proclaimed in order to boosts governments' prestige and agendas. So we will have: the EU council president, the rotating council presidency, the high representative for foreign policy as the vice-president of the commission (itself with its president), alongside of course the European parliament's president. It is by no means clear who will represent the EU under this new arrangement. Maybe this is par for the course in a multi-centred union, but it would be nice if such multi-centredness could be expressed more clearly.

Second, legitimacy. As European leaders express a sigh of relief at the prospect of finally passing a reform treaty, they should not overlook the ratification debates, including in smaller and newer member states who could do with retaining the spirit of rotation. They should retain some perspective, less they forget that the current arrangement was only accepted grudgingly by the coalition of nineteen states. Should member-states not all feel comfortable with the reform envisaged for the European council? Is it not possible to reach a real compromise that would be endorsed enthusiastically in the forthcoming treaty?

"Rotation is dead, long live rotation!"

We believe that the IGC can still do better without reopening the fundamentals of this new blueprint. We need to address both, demands for more permanence and fears of concentration of power. We can, by presenting or labelling the current arrangements for rotation as the rotating presidency of the EU, a presidency for the EU as a whole that would put rotation not only below but also symbolically above the European council. At the same time, as envisaged in the current reform treaty, the European council would get its permanent chair and the EU would acquire its high representative for foreign affairs and security policy. Hence, the essentials of the existing bargain are left untouched.

Under this proposal, the goal of the big countries would be achieved by shifting rotation outside the European council and therefore de-linking it with its management. The EU rotating presidency would be stripped from most of the tasks currently associated with rotation, now entrusted to the new council chair and to the high representative of foreign affairs. Its main tasks would be to host on its territory some of the European summits held during its mandate (preferably the last one), chair the council formations (except foreign affairs), and coordinate with all EU institutions in doing so.

Also by Kalypso Nicolaïdis in openDemocracy:

"We the peoples of Europe...'" (18 December 2003)

"Europe and beyond: struggles for recognition" (21 February 2005)

Europe at fifty: towards a new single act" (21 June 2007) - with Philippe Herzog

As with the German presidency that concluded on 30 June 2007, for instance, this would mainly be a ceremonial position, assisting in the democratic life of the union by bringing its leadership closer to its citizens. It would act as the institutional acquis between the EU and the peoples of Europe. Each country would be "queen for a day", on top for six months, embodying the EU's ideal of shared leadership. And for once, journalists would be right when writing about the "EU presidency."

This proposal's first merit would be to make explicit that the new chair of the European council would not be thought of as the de facto president of Europe. Such a label has been wrongly attached to this potential position by many commentators. Who, they ask will be "the real head of the EU": the one backed by our princes or the one with the big budget, civil service and parliamentary mandate?

Whatever the de facto outcome, such personalisation of EU power will not serve the much invoked and much maligned balance between EU institutions. A rotating EU presidency would serve as a cap over both. Symbolically, such a presidency would reflect the character of the EU as an exercise in pooled sovereignty, collective governance and indeed shared leadership. It would provide the clearest sign possible that EU is not a superstate in the making, reproducing at the European level the models of parliamentary or presidential governance found in the member-states. And it hardly needs a full-blown reform but could merely constitute a simple declaration or explanatory note clarifying or slightly amending the current text.

This approach is both innovative and faithful to the spirit of the treaties. It would not detract from the benefits of the new permanent council president. On the contrary, it would make it acceptable. Indeed, every European Union body should have a single, permanent and accountable head, recognised inside and outside the EU as responsible for running his or her shop. This is the hallmark of all democracies: In the United States, the Congress and the Senate each have their president, even while there is also a president for the whole country. But let the EU as a whole continue to stand for another concurrent ideal of decentralised, transnational and shared leadership. In short, the compromise reached at the convention can still be embellished, if need be at the IGC with a marginal improvement that could go a long way in helping it fulfill its mandate.

Some will object that this proposal could appear as complicated to the European public as the current option. To be sure, it does not have the elegant simplicity of merging all existing positions into one! But come to think of it, would the average European citizen not be able to appreciate the logic of the construct: a new symbolic collective EU presidency, and a head for each separate EU institution? Would she not appreciate such a guarantee of EU pluralism and thus perceive the EU as closer to her concerns? It seems worth making this bet, and in the process mend the deepest divide in our constitutional dialogue.

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