On January 1st 2010, Spain will take over the rotating Presidency of the European Union. José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, the socialist President of Spain, will, with his government lead the European Council for the next six months. Spain will set the agenda in Council, preside over Council meetings, lead negotiations and attempt to broker compromises between the member states on current European Affairs and a set of predefined priorities.
And yet, we also have – thanks to the implementation on 1st December 2009 of the Lisbon Treaty – a permanent President of the European Council in the person of former Belgian Premier, Herman van Rompuy, whose job it is to chair the European Council, which consists of the Heads of State of the EU’s 27 Member States. The Lisbon Treaty was meant to bring about more consistency in policy-making at the centre of the EU decision-making machinery; so why does the EU persist with its six-month Presidency where each Member State has Buggin’s Turn at the top of the table?
National capitals have to prepare their priorities well in advance of the start of their turn at the Presidency (Spain has been preparing for over a year). For some, the Presidency is an opportunity to show-case their government at the European level; for others, it’s just a distraction. National ministers are required to spend more time in Brussels and much of the civil service becomes pre-occupied with matters that are not necessarily core to their department. Rotating presidencies do not make for consistent policy-making. Often the priorities of one Presidency are completely at odds with those of its successor.
For now, at least, it will be business as usual for the rotating Presidency system. Herman van Rompuy has no administration that he can instruct to run the constituent parts of the Council. The European Council will continue to be assisted by the General Secretariat of the Council, and as such, the President will depend on the advice and support of the staff of the General Secretariat.
The new foreign affairs council will be chaired by the High Representative – another position created by the Lisbon Treaty. Former European Trade Commissioner, Baroness Ashton will perform this function. Unlike the President, she will have her own department – the European External Action Service (EEAS) - which is expected to be operational in April 2010 and will act as the EU diplomatic corps, drawing advisers from Foreign Ministries across the European Union. Already, President van Rompuy has made the point of keeping foreign ministers out of the European Council meetings now that they have a dedicated Foreign Affairs Council. There are signs that a turf war is about to break out between the Foreign Affairs Council and the General Affairs Council, which since its split from External Relations Council (when it was known by the acronym, GAERC – General Affairs and External Relations Council), focuses mainly on co-ordination across policy areas or preparation for the European Council. It is rumoured that trade policy and enlargement will fall under the remit of the Foreign Affairs council, despite the General Affairs Council’s attempts to keep the policy areas within its own mandate.
The Foreign Affairs Council is unique in that it is chaired by the High Representative rather than the Presidency. The High Representative will also appoint her own representatives to chair the constituent parts of the European External Action Service, such as the Political and Security committee. All other Councils – such as the Economic and Financial Affairs Council made up of 27 Finance Ministers - will continue to be chaired by the relevant minister from the rotating presidencies. The Committee of Permanent Representations (COREPER) which comprises of the EU 27 Ambassadors and deputy Permanent Representatives) and the Council working groups, made up of national officials based in Brussels - will continue to be chaired by the rotating Presidencies too.
The role of President of the European Council is very new and the job description provided by the text in the Lisbon Treaty is deliberately vague. It can be as elastic as the office-holder wants it to be. If Tony Blair had been appointed, there is no doubt that he would have set to work straight away on building a power-base, very much modelled on Baroness Ashton’s EEAS. President van Rompuy is much more limited in his ambition. Nevertheless, it is not inconceivable that the remit of the permanent President’s role (and accordingly that of the General Secretariat) will, at some point, expand to the point where it rivals the rotating Presidency in setting the Council agenda and pushing through legislation on behalf of the 27 Member States.
The Lisbon Treaty and its implementation impose a complex political balancing act on the Spanish Presidency. Mr Zapatero has been careful to work closely with the new President of the European Council to avoid potential friction over the two presidential roles. They agreed in mid-December to create a working group to coordinate their activities for the next six months. Mr Zapatero told Mr van Rompuy; “Mr Council President, the rotating presidency is at your disposal to support you in taking up appropriately the role of leadership and political steering of the European Council”. However, it seems unlikely that Spain will handover the fruit of months of preparation to someone appointed just last November. It appears that Messrs Zapatero and Van Rompuy have already agreed that Madrid will Chair the EU-US and EU-Latin America Summits, which in principle are to be led by the Council President. So far so good. But what about the implications for the long term future of the Presidency?
The Council President could evidently fully replace Country Presidencies, yet one could argue that rotating presidencies add specific expertise and funding that a single President could not deliver. There’s a case to be made for either system but as events unfold and turf wars break out, as they inevitably will, it will be hard to make a case for both.