The European Council should not have a president
As Europe’s has-beens, failures and nobodies start lining up to become the new European Council President next year, it’s time to admit that this role created 14 years ago is not working out as hoped.
This week, former Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi floated the idea that he should become the next President of the European Council - the body of 27 EU national leaders - following the EU election next June. That Renzi continues to be so self-confident years after blowing up his center-left party and his own political career (ushering the far right into power in the process), drew laughter from many quarters in Italy. But considering the post he’s eyeing, his idea is perhaps not so out of line. When it comes to delusions of grandeur, he would be following in some very well-trodden footsteps from the post’s current occupant, Charles Michel.
Michel, a former Belgian prime minister who many in his home country view as a nepo-baby whose early life was spent riding the coat-tails of his influential father, does not command huge respect in the EU capital. It’s been a rocky road for him since taking office in 2019. He’s been the subject of frequent mockery from Le Chou, Brussels’ version of The Onion, which paints him as an empty-headed but fiercely ambitious buffoon. But the more he is disrespected, the more he seems to crave respect and validation. The result has been an awkward and often embarrassing four years of Michel’s attempts to be a statesman. As one EU diplomat put it to me once, “his ambition greatly exceeds his talents.” That ambition has led him to a now notoriously bad relationship with the other EU president, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, with whom he has seemed to be competing for attention. His efforts to outshine her, perhaps manifested in the infamous “sofagate” incident in Turkey, have only resulted in her looking more respected and in control.
Off to a bad start
In a way, it isn’t Michel’s fault. This is a poisoned chalice. The job description of President of the European Council has been nebulous and contradictory since the role was created by the Lisbon Treaty in 2009. At the time, there was talk of this being the first “EU President”, created alongside the EU’s first foreign minister (“high representative for foreign affairs”) and finally answering Henry Kissinger’s famous question, “Who do I call when I want to talk to Europe?”. Europe would have a president to go tete-a-tete with the US President. Big names were being considered, including Tony Blair. But in the end, EU national leaders chose two people nobody had heard of for these new roles: a British woman with very limited foreign policy experience named Catherine Ashton for high representative, and a mild-mannered former Belgian prime minister named Herman van Rompuy for president.
The choice of these two unknowns (van Rompuy was famously ridiculed to his face as a “bank clerk” by Nigel Farage in the European Parliament shortly after the appointment) after such a build-up of expectations left many people bitterly disappointed. But the national leaders had made a very conscious choice. They did not want to appoint anyone with enough name recognition or political skills to challenge their own power. Despite creating the president position themselves, as they designed and approved the EU constitution-turned-treaty, they demurred at the last moment and instead chose someone who would set the expectation that this would be an administrative role. Van Rompuy was, after all, only known for his quiet but successful efforts at consensus-building within his famously complicated and fractured country. The new five-year president role replaced the former rotating presidency of the European Council which saw a different national leader getting a turn at the helm every six months (a system which still exists for the Council of the EU Ministers).
But the problem since 2009 has been that the position sets expectations of pomp but a reality of administration. Van Rompuy may have been content to be a quiet negotiator letting Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso have the limelight, but his successors were not. There have been three Council Presidents so far: the two former Belgian prime ministers, and former Polish prime minister Donald Tusk. When he was selected in 2014 by national leaders, Tusk could barely speak English and it was assumed he would be a pliable president who would not step out of his boundaries. However, Tusk made good on his promise to “polish his English” and came to master the language in a short period of time, becoming a skilled and (most unsettling for the national leaders) famous face of the EU. He often ruffled feathers for overstepping his remit, particularly on the issue of Brexit as he was sentimentally an anglophile. So when it came time to select a new president in 2019 the national leaders wanted to make sure they didn’t pick anyone with any hidden talents. On that, Michel did not disappoint.
But Michel hasn’t let his lack of talent stymie his political ambition, and that’s where the problem has arisen. He has insisted on attending all international engagements alongside President von der Leyen, and has even done some of his own freelancing foreign policy such as in the very poorly-timed visit he made to China by himself last November (a visit that yielded no result). Many complain that Michel has been so focused on raising his international profile and speaking for the EU that he has neglected his organizational duties. This discontent exploded out into the open at a contentious European Council summit earlier this year, where Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen reportedly accused him in front of all the other leaders of mishandling his job of organizing summits, for instance with the frequent impromptu visits of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in person or by video repeatedly disrupting the agendas.
The criticism is that “Michel spends too much time on the road and too little time on the core function of his job: preparing and running European Council summits,” Politico wrote earlier this year. He is “a politician whose sharp rise carried him to the top of his country’s politics, but who now finds himself isolated at the apex of the European Council, his relationship with the national governments he’s supposed to serve at rock-bottom.”
What’s in a word
Resolving the problem could be as simple as changing the job title, which comes from French. ‘President’ in French is a word used very loosely. It can apply to a head of state or head of a company, but it can also apply to a chairman or simply an organiser – someone who “presides” over a meeting. This is why the EU, on paper, has so many “presidents”. There’s the “president” of the European Parliament, whose role is actually just ceremonial and administrative, the equivalent of the speaker of the house in the UK. There’s also the “president” of the European Central Bank, and “president” of the Eurogroup.
This plethora of “presidents” is a complaint that was often made, perhaps disingenuously, by British politicians and media. In English, the president is the leader. During the Sky News debate ahead of the 2016 Brexit referendum, Leave campaigner and government minister Michael Gove turned to the audience and asked “There are five presidents who run the EU – can you name them all?”
That is, of course, nonsense. But as usual in the era before 2016, almost nobody in the British media knew enough about the EU to give the context (The Guardian called Gove’s line a “superb” moment for him in the debate). Three of those “presidents” he’s referring to do not run the EU by any stretch of the imagination. It’s unlikely that most British voters could have named their three British equivalents at the time, John Bercow, Mark Carney and George Osborne. But the reality is the remaining two, the presidents of the European Council and European Commission, do claim to run the EU. And that generates a lot of confusion. Both those presidents (and only those two) attend international summits like the G7 and bilaterals with foreign presidents. It generates the consistently confusing image of one foreign president in an awkward three-way handshake with the two EU presidents (mercifully, VDL and Michel’s bad relationship has meant this practice was ended). So, it isn’t as egregious as Gove’s claimed five presidents, but two is still one too many. And it allows the EU’s enemies to exploit not only divisions between the two actual presidents, but also confusion over the overall number of presidents. For context - the Commission President position is the oldest of all, by far, having been established in 1958.
Former Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker was aware of the problem, and on his way out in 2019 he suggested that the two president positions be merged into one. He noted, prophetically, that while he and Tusk got along it was possible that the next pair would not.
But the problem with the Juncker plan is that national leaders would never accept it – and for good reason. The European Commission and European Council are two separate institutions with often competing interests. That is part of the checks and balances of the EU. Yes, the European Commission proposes legislation based on the requests of the European Council. But the Commission is then supposed to craft that legislation independently, even when it is against the wishes of some, or maybe even most, member state governments. Beyond the conflict of interest, the two different institutions do different things. How could one person do both jobs? The Commission President would need to take time out to organise a Council summit. The Council does need someone to organise the summits and coordinate joint positions, and it was the right instinct to make that a full-time position rather than a part-time rotating one. The problem was also setting the expectation that this person would be the face of the EU.
The easiest solution, which would require no treaty change, would be to simply change the title and expectations of the Council President role before the next occupant takes office. The role should be called ‘chairperson’, because that is what it is. It is a person who chairs meetings of European Council and organizes the agendas. They synthesize the views of all 27 leaders and try to find a consensus. But it can’t just be the title that is changed. The leaders need to tell the next Council Chairman that it will no longer be necessary for them to accompany the Commission President at G7 summits or, just to take a random example, on visits to Turkey.
“But without the Council president attending, who would represent the member states at these visits?” I have been asked. Well, how about the person who was appointed by the member states, who executes the requests of the member states, and who meets regularly with the member states? That’s the Commission President. I don’t really understand this idea that the Commission President on their own couldn’t represent the consensus position of the 27 member states. They already do. The attendance of the Council President in addition is superfluous, with no real added value. Had the national leaders chosen a heavy-hitter in 2009, we might be a situation today where only the Council President, by now recognised as the ‘President of the EU’, would be attending these global visits and summits. But that’s now where we are. It is quite easy to imagine these visits without Michel. But it is hard to imagine them without von der Leyen.
Stay at home
If the member states finally accept that the Commission President is the face of the EU, the actual answer to Kissinger’s question can finally be given – after a 14-year mistake. National leaders should be clear that the next Commission President, whoever it is, can be considered the ‘President of the European Union’ – for whatever that’s worth. It won’t mean that the EU suddenly becomes a federal state overnight, nor does it mean that this president can always speak on behalf of all member states. But it will end the confusion over who is the face of the EU. And this president should, eventually, be directly elected by European citizens (but that’s a whole different topic).
Brussels is, unfortunately, a town with a short memory. Journalists rotate in and out of here so regularly that there are few who know what went on just a decade ago. The structures of the EU can seem permanent to new arrivals when in fact the EU is an ever-changing project. The European Council has not always had a president. Fourteen years after its creation, the role is still not well-defined. This understanding was lacking from the sofagate coverage that focused so much on the sexism angle (which was certainly a big part of it from the Turkish side) and ignored the power struggle angle. Given the lack of clarity about who is really in charge and who is Erdogan’s counterpart, the same situation could easily have arisen with two men as EU presidents. Turkey has claimed that Michel’s protocol team actually dictated the layout of the room, something the Council has denied. It’s hard to believe that Michel’s motivations for action or inaction were about sexism. They were more likely about petty ambitions.
There are nine months to go before the EU election. National leaders will appoint the Commission and Council presidents shortly after that, in theory based on which parties performed best in the election outcome. As the election draws closer, the illusory trappings of glory and power still surrounding the Council presidency are attracting people like Matteo Renzi. Rather than covering the horserace of who the next Council president will be, maybe journalists should be questioning whether there should be a Council President at all. If the role were to be redefined as a chairman, perhaps Renzi and others like him would lose interest. And then maybe, just maybe, European Council summits might start to make sense again. At least, the person organizing summits could give them their full attention.
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