It’s been a full year since Herman Van Rompuy started his term as President of the European Council. On 19 November 2009, Van Rompuy was chosen unanimously by the European Council, at an informal meeting in Brussels. He took office on 1st December 2009 – the day the Lisbon Treaty came into force – and his term runs until 31st May 2012. He has spent his first twelve months trying to carve out a distinctive role for himself – not easy when the Commission President Jose Barroso is on his second term - and demonstrates his experience with such a strong command of the EU’s internal affairs. And as he tries to present himself to the world as the EU’s international statesman, he is constrained by the so-called High Representative, Baroness Cathy Ashton, who represents both the Commission and the Council to the world. It is no wonder Mr Rompuy is already being written off as a lame duck President. His task looks impossible.
And yet, despite these limitations and against all the odds, Mr Rompuy is making his mark. The best way to judge his record is to measure his achievements against the expectations of the treaty that created him. The European Parliament will (and does) exploit the opportunities that the Treaty presents to them and the European Commission is pleased with a smoother decision-making system that was promised to them, it is the European Council – representing 27 Member States governments – that needs to prove more than most that the Lisbon Treaty does what it says on the tin; namely create better conditions for inter-governmental co-ordination, traditionally a weak-spot under the 6 month rotating presidency system. If Mr Van Rompuy can co-ordinate the Council and reconcile the national interests of 27 different governments, then he will have done not just what the Treaty requires him to do, but also prove to us that the Treaty can get the EU motoring again, particularly at a time of financial crisis and a mounting pressure of protectionism.
On Mr van Rompuy’s elevation, he was ridiculed in the British press as a non-entity. While some had been expecting a figure with an established international status, like Tony Blair – some-one who could stop the traffic; Mr Rompuy, they said would find it difficult to hail a cab. UKIP MEP Nigel Farage MEP caused a storm when he told Mr Rompuy that he had “all the charisma of a damp rag and the appearance of a low-grade bank clerk". The Sun newspaper simply called him Rompuy Pompuy.
The tensions between the two European Presidents are often clear enough. In most cases, the territory that has been carved out between them, is unambiguous. The Council President represents the EU abroad in foreign policy and security matters. The Commission President takes the lead role in climate change. But on energy policy, which is both a security and commission policy area, they have to agree between them who will take the floor. Both Mr Van Rompuy and Mr Barroso were present at the G8 and G20 meetings.
The Lisbon treaty was supposed to have resolved the old question of Henry Kissinger's – “when I want to phone the EU, whom do I call?” The answer wasn’t clear to President Obama as he stood between Mr Van Rompuy and Mr Barroso for the official photo-call at the EU-US Summit in Lisbon on 21st November. But the EU is (for good reason) complex and it would be disingenuous to pretend that it can be led by one person alone.
To even try and answer Mr Kissinger’s question is to ignore the dynamics between the EU institutions. These dynamics have changed a lot in the 12 months, post-Lisbon. The Council’s position vis-à-vis the Commission is stronger but it still relies heavily on the Commission. Mr van Rompuy led a task-force to propose ways of strengthening economic governance for Eurozone members – something that the Commission would normally feel responsible for. The Commission, in response pressed ahead with its own proposals, because it feared that the Council’s measures would be half-hearted. In reality, Mr Rompuy knew he would need to rely on the Commission to initiate new legislation. While this caused some friction between the two institutions, it served to demonstrate that the Council is willing to be pro-active when it needs to be. It did so again last month when the Commission was told to go back to the drawing board over its budget plans. The Council, led by Mr Van Rompuy, made it clear who was running the show.
It has taken President Barroso some time to adjust to the new power-sharing arrangements but he is now thinking more creatively about how he could work with Mr Rompuy to get what he wants from member state leaders. He also needs Mr Rompuy to help him deal with a European Parliament which has become much more strident and demanding after being bestowed with a wider scope of competences under the Lisbon Treaty. MEPs are becoming frustrated with an increasingly cautious Commission. As long as this directs their fire towards President Barosso, then President Van Rompuy is safe.
The Lisbon Treaty has changed the power landscape of the EU in just the last twelve months – and it is to Mr Van Rompuy’s credit that he has not become a victim of it. Instead, he has put the Council back in the game – at a time when neither Germany nor France are providing any effective leadership to the EU. And while he may have ruffled some feathers over at the Commission, he is credited for the way he has deftly handled any inter-institutional fall-outs. MEPs admire the way he has insisted on taking the European interest; something that had been missing at the Council which had normally followed the national interests of its most powerful members. Of course, Mr Van Rompuy has not been perfect. His low profile does not nearly match the importance of his position and he can do more to show he is a safe pair of hands (for instance, instead of adding to the sense of alarm and despair of the Euro-crisis by saying that the entire EU will disintegrate if the Euro fails, he should have kept a cool head and looked beyond the short term troubles). He is after all, supposed to provide the EU with a long term perspective – an important part of the equation when member state governments will always have an eye on the next election. The Lisbon Treaty’s objective for the President of the European Council was for some-one to provide strategy and stability. He needs still to demonstrate he can fulfill these goals. But the Lisbon Treaty is already proving to be the life-line that the EU needed. And President van Rompuy can certainly take some well-earned credit for that.