A real compromise on the EU presidency, conclusion

Kalypso Nicolaïdis
8 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, Part 2, Part 3)

"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 delinking 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.

As with the current German president, 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 personalization 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 super state 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 EU body should have a single, permanent and accountable head, recognized 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, trans-national 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.

Simone.Bunse (at) incae.edu
Kalypso.Nicolaidis (at) sant.ox.ac.uk

(Note: An earlier version of this proposal was put forward in "Making it our own: A trans-European proposal on amending the draft Constitutional Treaty for the European Union" (PDF) signed by over a hundred EU scholars; as well as Paul Magnette and Kalypso Nicolaïdis, Large and small member states in the European Union: Reinventing the Balance, Notre Europe website, May 2003. http://www.notre-europe.asso.fr)

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