Thursday 16 July 2009

A strong President of the European Council?

There's been a sudden burst of activity across the EU-Bloggosphere over the re-emerging story that Tony Blair might run for the Presidency of the European Council (which is not the presidency of Europe) after Lady Kinnock slipped up by saying that the UK government is giving Blair full backing in his bid - as Charlemagne explains, Blair's not actually running (yet). There are many reasons why Blair should not get the job; they've been covered by Child of Europe, and very comprehensively by Crystals and Gaish.

But there's another issue here: should the post of President of the European Council be a weak or strong one? A weak one would be a "chairman" role, where the president merely organises the agenda and the meetings/summits and represents the positions that the Council makes to the world and the other institutions. A strong president would have more input in agenda-setting and he or she would have a more decisive role in setting the EU's agenda as a whole.

Do we want a strong presidency? We shouldn't. A strong presidency would strengthen the most intergovernmental institution of the EU while simultaneously weakening the intergovernmental flavour of the politics in the Council. Such a president may be able to give some good and strong leadership, but he or she would be less legitimate than the Commission: the president of the European Council will not be subject to the scrutiny of the European Parliament, so if this office becomes the leading office of the EU, accountability and transparency will suffer. For small states, a strong president would weaken their position in the same way that strengthening the Council tends towards weakening the smaller states: if you make a forum where state interests are the focus, and where the power of those state interests have the weight of their states behind them, then the bigger states will strengthen their position versus the smaller ones and can seek more privileged positions. Where positions and policies are debated and set along ideological right-left lines and states cannot get privileges due to their size, the set up is more equal.

At the same time, it's hard to see how a strong presidency would be possible. The president can't promise what the Council won't give him/her, and the president would have few political weapons to force the Council his/her way - political skill and reputation would be the most obvious weapon, but it weakens as things stop going exactly their way in the Council. The power of the president will be based on the Council, so there is little the president can do to counter the Council if it refuses to play along. So even with a strong candidate as president, they can only do what their office permits them to do. They will not be able to bestride the world stage like the US president or even the Russian president and the Chinese and Indian premiers. There may be moments when the president can provide Europe with a loud voice - but it will only be when, and if, the Council is united. The president won't be able to unite the Council because the presidency won't have the institutional power or democratic or political legitimacy to bludgeon the Council into following.

The European Council needs a permanent president who can provide a focus and organisational coherence that the Council has lacked for years. Having a president will strengthen the tendency to argue along the left-right dividing line and will make debate within the Council more "normal" in political terms (the need for more openness and transparency will be as great as ever). These are good changes. But we should not expect nor want a strong president in the Council. I don't think that it's remotely politically possible though - this is the same organisation that picked Barroso, after all.

What the European Council needs is a good and respected "Speaker of the House", not a strong executive figure.

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