Nosemonkey's EUtopia

In search of a European identity

On “the President of Europe”

The proposed President of the European Council is very far from being “President of Europe” – either in terms of profile or power.

Whoever lands the job (and it’s highly unlikely to be Tony Blair) will have practically zero influence on anything, acting instead as little more than a moderator between the governments of the member states as they continue to run the EU show. And will be in office for just two and a half years – which is no time at all in EU terms (hell, it’s just taken more than a decade to get agreement on a treaty which doesn’t solve half the problems it was meant to…)

Meanwhile the rotating EU Presidency – the Presidency of the Council of the European Union – will continue as usual (currently Sweden, with Spain taking over on January 1st), ensuring that the President of the European Council can constantly be outshone by whoever holds the more established rotating presidency. Because the rotating presidency still has the ability to influence the EU’s focus for the six months that each member state holds it – whereas the President of the European Council will have *no* formal powers whatsoever, and remains hugely ill-defined.

And that’s before you note that the President of the European Council’s role, as vaguely as it has been described, also overlaps with that of the far better-established Presidency of the European Commission (currently Jose Manuel Barroso) and the EU High Representative (currently Javier Solana). A brand new two and a half year office versus two existing five-year offices? I know which ones I’m betting on to have the real power here.

In other words, it really doesn’t matter who gets the gig. It’s not important in the slightest. It’s a meaningless position.

I do get that it’s confusing to have a (proposed) President of the European Council AND a President of the Council of the European Union (not to mention the Council of Europe), but come on – the significance of this is being blown out of all proportion.

(Originally posted as a comment to this article over at the Guardian)


  1. “…A brand new two and a half year office [with a “hugely ill-defined” remit] versus two existing five-year offices? I know which ones I’m betting on to have the real power here.”

    Yes. Alternatively, perhaps it shouldn’t be a betting matter? The problem with “ill defined” roles is that they can _be_ defined pretty much however you like. Personally, I’d prefer it if the role did have clearly defined limits.

    And if it’s “not important in the slightest”, why was such a contentious clause included in the constitution/treaty?

  2. On the first point, the major characteristic of the EU is the constant efforts of the governments of the member states to retain as much power for themselves as they can. This means that if a new position within the EU hierarchy is ill-defined, it is almost certain to remain powerless – because for it to gain any power, the governments of the member states would have to voluntarily relinquish some.

    As for why it was included? The initial aim was to create a position that could act as a focal point for the EU as a whole – a kind of EU spokesman. It makes more sense to have this person something to do with the European Council than the Commission (as the Council is more powerful than the Commission, and has final say on what the EU does). Then, ran the logic, it would make sense to have someone high profile.

    But all this was thought up years back, and since then the various governments of the member states started to get cold feet about the idea, realising that such a position had the ability to become rather powerful. And so it started getting scaled back and talked down. Had they taken a little longer over redrafting the Constitution into the Lisbon Treaty, thry probably would have dropped the idea altogether. Unfortunately, they were in a bit of a rush.

    It wasn’t especially contentious, though – except where it has been blown out of proportion by a press that doesn’t understand what the position is actually intended to be. Read the comments under that Guardian article, and it’s painfully apparent that 80% of respondents envisage the role to be akin to President of the United States. It was contentious only where it was misunderstood.

    (And in any case, when it comes to the Lisbon Treaty, any number of things – abortion, neutrality, etc. – have been highly contentious even where they had nothing whatsoever to do with it…)

  3. If we don’t get an international celebrity to head the Union (like Tony Blair, for good or bad) the Council should just make Barroso the President. That way we’d set the tradition of having the President also being the President of the Commission, something I strongly support. Might as well do that because a powerless President could probably just turn into another Javier Solana (who? And does what? Exactly!).

  4. Nosemonkey,

    You are quite right, in the main. The President of the European Council has no executive powers – not even a vote.

    But chairmen can and do influence the bodies they lead, through agenda setting, persuasion, representation, reporting in public etc.

    So you may have overstated the powerlessness, possibly as an overreaction to loony columns and comments in the British press.

  5. The President of the European Council is a role that is yet to be fleshed out. It will be up to the first appointee to create. Whence the importance of who gets it.

    If the Council opt for Blair, it becomes a ‘spokesman’ role and if it is Balkenende, it becomes a technocratic ‘chairman’ of the board.

    Democratic legitimacy could be enhanced by getting the Council to select a list of candidates for President and High Representative. Then the European Council invites the 7500 or so MPs of national parliaments plus all MEPs to vote on a President and a High Representative.

    Not ideal but better than a choice by only 27.

  6. You might want to tell Senhor Barroso that the new role is nothing to worry about – he sounded distinctly rattled a couple of weeks ago.

    Perhaps he was overreacting to loony columns in the British press as well…

  7. So the “EU President” will be pretty powerless?

    He should be what the real name suggests: the president of the Council. Actually I would even like to see that he closely cooperates with the rotating presidency as well. As a sort of powerless broker between the memberstates he fits fine. Even as the “face” of the memberstates and maybe even both councils he would be fine.

    The EU President is not needed for anything more and if it should be a too powerful office it would be at the cost of either the Commission and/or the EP. Both would be a big step back in the European project.

    But luckily both the Barroso as well as the EP rather won’t let that happen. While Barroso is known for having little back bone I think he is being underestimated. He will not let it happen to see his office to be degraded in favour of the Council President. At the same time the EP has the last word on the budget of the Council President if I got it right (did I?), if this is true, only granting a small budget means also binding the Presidents arm from being too ambitious.

    The one post created by the Lisbon treaty that has a lot of potential however is the “foreign minister”. (Yes I know he has a much longer official name). I like this new figure much more. First of all he still needs the support of the EP to get and remain in office as far as I got it. After all he is a Commission vice President. Secondly he has a real apparatus to back him up, ie the EEAS. He has much more potential of doing something meaningful and at the same time does not compete with the EU Commission President for being the head of executive.

  8. This debate should be seized upon by everyone and anyone committed to the principle of democratisating European governance as a perfect illustration of the fundamental flaws within the EU’s institutional architecture.

    Question: Why is this post not subject to an electoral contest?

    Answer: Because an election on a pan European scale (involving by default a simultaneous EU plebiscite) would initiate a process leading to the emergence of an European political arena, leading in turn to the gradual but inexorable erosion of the dominant role played by individual member state administrations (as Clive succinctly points out)

    In other words the beginning of the end for the orthodoxy presented by the “Europe of Nations” geo-political template upon which closer European integration has been founded from day one.

  9. My response to your article, NM, is a composite of many of those above: it should be a chairman’s role. A chairman has the ability to react quickly to a crisis (or forecast of same) by some urgent lobbying of opinions of member heads of states. Such action should, perhaps, be within the scope of the rotating president’s role, but events have shown that some national heads of state don’t quite see it that way – and the EU is rightly criticised for slow reactions (Barroso hasn’t exactly covered himself with glory in this respect, either).

  10. PS I should add that the one person who would add authority to, and international respect for, the role – and for the EU – is Mary Robinson. With her CV I would expect her to be able to “nudge” national leaders towards the better long-term interests of the EU and the world eg in respect of commitments to environmental and human rights issues.

  11. Why on earth did they waste their time creating the office of President without doing away with the sometimes worse than worthless rotating EU Presidency! It makes no sense.

    Remember when Obama went to Prague and did a press conference with “europe”, it was barosso, the technocrat from Czech Republic, and Reinfeldt. Now their will be a 4th to meet him!

  12. Nosemonkey is overlooking one option when deliberating about the power of the newly-created President of the Council vis-a-vis other “presidents”. The President shall receive a huge load of media attention as can already be witnessed. In the Netherlands (where prime-minister Balkenende is continuously mentioned as a candidate)this position is the only thing newspapers are talking about, incorrectly labelling the post as the “president” of Europe (The word president can be translated in two manners, meaning voorzitter (person heading a meeting or a board)or president (in political sense like the president of France)) No other institutional invention is discussed so often, not even the orange card procedure. Which, after all, is a kind of dutch invention. This media attention can be used by the president to pursue its own agenda over the agenda of the rotating presidency.

    Why not democratically elect the president was a question asked in the above replies. This would give the President an own mandate above or alike the democratically and sovereign chosen head of states and governments. That would create a kind of disequality in an intergovernmental forum where equality, unanimity and sovereignty are the foremost principles. Furthermore it would be a hell of a job to organise fair Europe-wide elections for this post only. How should one understand the will of the voters, which subjects shall be under discussion in the campaign, Is the German vote equal to those of a Maltese or Cypriotic subject etc. etc.

  13. Introducing a general European election for the “EU President” would be as far as I can guess it possible with either a very small treaty amendment (to be ratified by all member states) or maybe even within the framework of the Lisbon treaty. I don’t know.

    Anyway, it sounds principally possible. A directly elected President would wield however an incredibly larger legitimation and in his function of president of the council may yield a lot more power due to this legitimation.

    This alone makes me pretty sure that there is little chance that the member states would agree to this, not on short term at least.

    Apart from it, giving so much legitimation to the President would seriously destabilize the power balance towards the Commission. Personally I’d rather improve the democratic legitimation of the Commission than turning the head of a legislative chamber into some sort of uber executive, elected or not.

  14. Personally, I believe President of the European Council should be more Chairman of the Board with President of the Commission as Chief Executive Officer.

    There should be a High Representative for Social Europe. Alongside the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security and President of the European Parliament, the five senior figures of the EU would provide balence and act as an inner cabinet.

    An elected President would dominate Europe’s institutions and the role would subsume all others. Better to keep the principle of First Among Equals.

    I still believe that by extending the vote to all elected national MPs would anchor legitimacy. Perhaps all senior positions could be chosen such a way. Thereby every European citizen has a say via their individual MP.

    All votes would be equal because the European Council uses a weighted voting system for its decisions and Lisbon introduces new guidelines.

    Positions would change dependent on the results of European Parliamentary Elections.

  15. I think people are missing the point of the Couincil President, they are to be the representative of the member states in Brussels. If any office needs more legitamacy, it is the Commission President, who needs to be appointed, and derive their authority, directly from the EU Parliment. This would create a clear seperation of legitimacy, the Commission head would represent the people of Europe, the Council President would represent the states of Europe.

  16. Yes, Albert, I like that idea. It would strengthen the role and place of the European Parliament at senior levels of the Union.

    It seems to me that any move towards direct election to any of the senior positions may have to wait a decade or so. The changes wrought by the Lisbon Treaty will take that long to bed down.

  17. Executive cohabitations tend to be terrible. They are inefficient or sometimes even lead to total blockade.

    Its perfectly enough when you have the two legislative chambers, one representing the people, the other the member states.

    The Commission President should be the head of the executive, as he is dependent on both chambers of legislative, ie memberstates and EP. Improving the democratic legitamecy could be achieved already by giving the EP more powers than it has under Nice and also than under Lisbon.

  18. Pingback: The European Council, the Council of the European Union, the Council of Ministers and the Council of Europe: A guide | Nosemonkey’s EUtopia

  19. @F.Spaak(The Netherlands): Why not democratically elect the president was a question asked in the above replies. This would give the President an own mandate above or alike the democratically and sovereign chosen head of states and governments. That would create a kind of disequality in an intergovernmental forum where equality, unanimity and sovereignty are the foremost principles. Furthermore it would be a hell of a job to organise fair Europe-wide elections for this post only. How should one understand the will of the voters, which subjects shall be under discussion in the campaign, Is the German vote equal to those of a Maltese or Cypriotic subject etc. etc.

    “Is the German vote equal to those of a Maltese or Cypriotic subject”


    Your words illustrate perfectly the almost robotic acceptance of a “Europe of Nations” geo-political orthodoxy amongst the European public!

    That’s also precisely why a pan-EU electoral platform (for any post of political significance) would signal a revolutionary leap forward into an entirely different kind of political environment. It would no longer be a question of how Germans or Swedes or Brits or Spaniards, et al as distinct audiences because a vote to elect a representative to act on behalf of the entire European electorate would begin to initiate a sense of European political identity, for example an elected European Council President would establish a sense of direct connection between those who voted for him/her (particularly, given the fact that it is a single post, if a preferential [1,2,3,4,5] voting system was utilised) and the political profile of the post holder.

    Currently, political discourse is automatically focussed through the lens of individual member state public viewpoints; the merits of individual candidates are, for example, debated in direct proportion to their nationality; Balkenende’s candidacy receives widespread media coverage in Nederland but virtually none in the UK and vice versa for Tony Blair.

    Unless and until this national stranglehold on political debate is breached, Europe, as a distinct entity in its own right, can never emerge from the shadow cast by respective National (Member State) discourses.

    Your response symbolises this paradox – that’s exactly why I highlighted the absence of democratic credentials attached to the post of European Council President – we have to begin somewhere on the long and winding road to a phenomenon called “A European Demos!”