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The EU Presidency: Real Impact or just a Political Ritual?

On the of the current EU Presidency system.

By Erika Marty

* This article, along with the images, was originally published by Project for Democratic Union

The Presidency of the Council of the European Union has transformed itself along with societal constraints and the debate surrounding how vital and necessary the position is in modern day politics. The initial importance of the Presidency can be found in political and societal contexts during its establishment, and its drawbacks have been highlighted by amendments and continuing reforms to the position. While the position of “EU President” may have been a good idea given its implications at the time of its establishment, the need for national representation in European governance today is less important. Today it is essential to have a focus on effectiveness, efficiency, and the legitimacy of continent-wide political action.

Establishment and Reforms of EU Presidency

What today is the EU Presidency was first established in 1958 under the European Economic Community. During the first year, the position was held first by Belgium and then by West Germany, for six months each. The EU and its presidency have primarily been affected by two amendments, the Maastricht Treaty and perhaps more importantly the Treaty of Lisbon. The Maastricht Treaty solidified the European Union as it is known today, when its organizational name changed from the prior European Economic Community in 1993.  The Treaty of Lisbon then altered the structure of the EU Presidency substantially. It established a long-term President of the European Council, as well as a post of Vice-President dedicated solely to foreign policy. This move addressed the constitutional framework of the EU, required majority voting in several policy sectors in the Council of Ministers, and legal rights and procedures to leave the EU if desired.

The President position is not held not by an individual, but rather by a national government. During the establishment of the EU Presidency, there were only six member-states and the system was set up so that the position was rotational and with six month terms. The original six members were called the Inner Six – Belgium, the Netherlands, Italy, Luxembourg, France and West Germany.

As the number of states within the EU increased, problems with a lack of coordination among member-states quickly emerged. In order to address this problem, the idea of trio presidencies was implemented in 2007 and finalized in 2009 by the Treaty of Lisbon, whereby three separate presidents would cooperate on the same political agenda.  During the initial years of EU creation, the EU Presidency held political power and responsibility in all sectors of integration and decision-making.  Following the Treaty of Lisbon which came into effect in 2009, centralized power was greatly reduced as new positions addressing foreign affairs and security were created along with the division of the European Council and the Council of the European Union into two separate entities. The development of the Treaty of Lisbon was necessary for three reasons according to its supporters. Those three reasons were the need for greater efficiency in the decision-making process, an increased role for both the European and national parliaments, and greater cooperation and coordination internally within the organization.

Problems with the Current System

The inability of the current system to work effectively has been analysed and debated extensively over the course of its existence. One of the main critiques of the current system and the EU Presidency is that the parallel presence of a permanent presidency alongside the rotating national chairing of individual Council compositions inhibits European governance. Another weakness is the system’s lack lack of legitimacy, as the President is chosen by national governments that have to find a common denominator. This led to the surprise nomination of Herman Van Rompuy as the first permanent President of the European Council.

Others have criticized the EU and its presidency as one where only strong nations preside and weaker nations have little say or influence in the political and economic agenda. The current system of the EU Presidency contains a lack of administrative capabilities and experience demonstrated by the smaller, newer member-states and the expenses in both time and finances in running such a complicated administrative organization. The Council Presidents have also largely encountered difficulty in trying to promote their own national interests and the amount of time to reach consensus is simply not available due to the rotating nature of the system. The Treaty of Lisbon is widely cited as the turning point in the necessity of the European Presidency as it fragmented the position by creating competing presidency positions and competition between the Commission President, the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and the President of the European Council.

Diverse leadership and national presidency inhibits European governance in several ways.  Following the Treaty of Lisbon and the fragmentation of the organization into several sectors, competition between leading branches has emerged. The creation of a European Council President has put him or her in direct competition with the rotating President of the European Council of Ministers. The extra institutional layers have simply led to a more complicated leadership process and one that leaves the EU Presidency without a formal institutional outlet for their policies. Nationalism has also largely affected the ability to govern within the current system as diverse member-states have opposing views on key topics such as immigration. A stark example of this was the spike in support for far-right parties, particularly France’s National Front, in this year’s Parliament elections.

The lack of legitimacy in the current system and problems with coordination plague the efficiency and credibility of the union. The legitimacy problem stems largely form the length of time the Presidency serves.  Many argue that the six-month term lengths are too short for leadership to establish legitimacy. As Professor Vernon Bogdanor describes in the 2007 Federal Trust Report, “legitimacy depends ultimately on the individual citizen feeling that he or she is part of the polity under which he or she lives”. This idea demonstrates the difficulty for citizens to feel part of the larger EU polity due to the fragmented nature of the leadership organizations. The struggle for legitimacy was also outlined during a European Parliamentary Conference in January 2014 when the Greek Parliament President Vangelis Meimarakis, whose country was in control of the EU Council Presidency, stated that “[i]t’s not just to make things effective but to get acceptance” when policy decisions are made at the EU level.

Why We Need a Real Presidential System

While the EU presidency has lost a significant amount of political power and responsibility following the Treaty of Lisbon amendments, the need for effective, efficient, and legitimate continent wide political action has never been greater.

The many and varied difficulties facing the EU Presidency position have led to a debate regarding the necessity of the EU Presidency.  The problems of nationalism within individual member-states translate over to common EU policy agendas and complicate the process. The difficulties in promoting common policy agendas among the different branches of government within the EU have led to the need for a credible EU image as a unified entity, especially when addressing foreign conflicts. According to Professor R. Daniel Kelemen at Rutgers University, “the EU has the necessary minimal attributes of a federal system and crucially the EU is riven with many of the same tensions that afflict federal systems”. The potential for the creation of a true presidential system in the EU is present along with much of the political and democratic framework.

The need for a strong presidential system is evident in the various problems facing the currently fragmented leadership in the EU. The focus needs to be on strengthening the presidential role while also limiting the effects of national influences and enhancing the ability of weaker and smaller member-states to play a role in shaping policy objectives. A federally-unified Europe under a strong presidential leadership that represents the constituents of all member-states is necessary to promote a strong image of the EU to the rest of the world and thus increase political, economic, and social influence. The current state of fragmented leadership does not allow the EU to respond to foreign crises and conflicts in an efficient and swift manner. Under a real presidential system, the EU would more effectively be able to pass and promote policies aimed at advancing all member-state ideals while also creating greater legitimacy for the leadership.

In-text Image: “President Van Rompuy” courtesy of President of the European Council via Flickr, released under Creative Commons.

Cover Image: “European Business Summit, Brussels, 19 May 2011” by President of the European Council, released under Creative Commons 2.0


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