Towards a President of the European Union

Article excerpt

ON 19 NOVEMBER 2009, HERMAN van Rompuy was elected the first permanent President of the European Council (POTEC). The expectations from this new position and its first holder varied enormously. Some have imagined a new "President of Europe"; others foresaw a mere chairperson similar to that of the Secretaries-General of NATO or the United Nations. The reality is that the powers allocated to the former Belgian Prime Minister are vague, and a lot has been left to interpretation. The nature of the relationship between POTEC and the President of the European Commission may determine the sustainability of the European institutional system. Van Rompuy's first mandate, half over as of 2010, will have lasting effects for years to come.

The purpose of this article is to explore the experiences of the first year in office of the president of the European Council by looking at his proper role in the European system of governance. POTEC's vague description of powers leaves a large margin for interpretations. The president, however, has scarce resources composed almost exclusively of his political cabinet. For all the legislative and administrative support he is assisted by the Council of Minister's general Secretariat, The president's political stance has been largely marked by demarcation of political turf vis-à-vis other actors, most notably the president of the European Commission.

The Formal Powers and Political Position

The president's powers are mentioned in only five articles of the EU Treaties. The most comprehensive is the new Article 15 of the Treaty on European Union (TEU) introduced by the Lisbon Treaty in 2009, which assigns the following tasks to the president:

* To chair and drive forward the work of the European Council;

* To ensure the preparation and continuity of the work of the European Council in cooperation with the President of the Commission, and on the basis of the work of the General Affairs Council (GAC);

* To endeavor to facilitate cohesion and consensus within the European Council;

* To present a report to the European Parliament after each of the meetings of the European Council.

The POTEC, in his capacity as President, also, "at his level and in that capacity" (Article 15 (6) TEU), ensures the external representation of the Union on issues concerning its common foreign and security policy, without prejudice to the powers of the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. Furthermore, the POTEC convenes meetings of the European Council at least four times a year (Article 15(3) TEU), and he possesses the formal power to convene a Convention to amend the EU treaties (Article 48(3) TEU).

In carrying out his functions, the President can draw upon the institutional support of the General Affairs Council (GAC), a configuration of the Council of Ministers (or "Council of the EU"), one of whose tasks is to prepare European Council meetings in liaison with the POTEC (Article 16(6) TEU). Council of the EU is an institution tasked with adopting legally binding decisions (as the European Council adopts only political guidelines). It co-decides on most issues together with the European Parliament. The Councils of the EU are composed of nine sets (formations) of national ministers responsible for a specific policy area. The tenth formation is the GAC, which deals with horizontal issues and European Council matters. The Council of the EU is presided by the member states for six months (between January and June 2011 by Hungary, and from July by Poland). Since the rotating presidency of the Council of the EU no longer chairs the European Council meetings there is space for a potential power struggle. Conflicts could arise between the POTEC and the rotating presidency as the GAC meetings are organized and chaired by the Presidency. Logistically, the General Secretariat of the Council of the EU provides support for the rotating presidency as well as the POTEC. …