The Convention on the Future of Europe: The Council of Ministers

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The Convention on the Future of Europe: The Council of Ministers

The need to reform the Council of Ministers and the European Council is widely recognised. The Seville European Council has made some first steps on this path but more far-reaching proposals require Treaty changes and will therefore be a matter for the Convention.

The institutions of the European Union are ill suited to fit into the traditional categories used to describe the institutions of its Member States. The European Parliament is a democratically elected law-making body but lacks many of the prerogatives usually devolved to the legislative power. The Commission has undoubtedly important executive powers but these do not cover all policies. However, the Council of Ministers is arguably the Union institution that is most remote from the usual concepts of national politics. If one includes into its remit the European Council, which gathers the Heads of State and Government, the ‘Council’ has a leadership function, a co-ordination function, a legislative function and implementation function. In other words: at the same time, the Council exerts powers of a legislative and of an executive nature.

This duality is often felt as an ambiguity and an obstacle to transparency and democratic accountability. Indeed, most European citizens are probably not aware that the Council of Ministers goes much beyond any traditional meeting held at ministerial level. When it passes pieces of legislation, it functions in a way that is broadly similar to the upper chambers of fully-fledged federal states – the model being closer to the German Bundesrat, where regional governments are represented, than to the US Senate, where the State Senators are directly elected by the people. However, on many subjects, decisions are made by unanimity, which is widely recognised as a serious obstacle to efficiency in a Union of 15, and may lead to permanent stalemate after the next enlargement, when the Union will have 25 members.

Therefore, most visions presented over the last two years by European leaders have addressed the necessary reform of the Council. Essentially all of them agree on the need for change, and most point out that transparency and democratisation are the compelling reasons for this. Nevertheless, these common principles have led to substantially different proposals. Recently, the debate on the role of the Council has accelerated with the draft report by its Secretary General, Javier Solana aimed at improving the institution’s functioning without changing the Treaties. Simultaneously, since the launch of the Convention’s work at the beginning of the year, the fundamental debate on the future government of the Union has been constantly present. Some fears have been voiced by Convention members that the European Council in Seville may force this item off the Convention’s agenda by restating the predominance of the European Council and the Council of Ministers vis-à-vis the Commission.

Opening the debate on the future of Europe with his landmark ‘Humboldt speech’ in June 2000,Joschka Fischerhad outlined a project where the existing structure of the Council was completely dismantled: a bicameral legislature, the second chamber being formed along the Senate model, with directly elected senators from Member States. This chamber would thus perform the tasks that are currently dealt with by the Council when it acts as a legislator. In order to clarify who is the executive of the Union, the German foreign minister proposed that either the European Council or an elected President of the Commission should take over that role. In both cases, the current dual nature of the Council would be abolished.

Though not all proposals have been as far-reaching, a significant number of major players have advocated a fully-fledged federal system, where the law-making tasks of the Council are entrusted to a Chamber of States “placed on an equal terms with the European Parliament” (Wolfgang Clement). The Commission should receive all executive functions. This proposal was taken on board by many leaders, notablyJohannes Rau, Gerhard Schröder, Edmund StoiberandGuy Verhofstadt. All of them insist that the Commission should become the sole European executive and the Belgian Prime Minister goes as far as calling it a “European government”.

While this federal option would deprive the Council of Ministers of its current executive functions, many suggestions have been less ambitious. TheChristlich-Demokratische Union(CDU), for instance, accepts the federal model for the Community, but stresses that a different framework should apply to the so-called second and third pillars. In this context, an “Executive Council” should co-operate with the Commission to ensure policy consistency in the areas of justice and home affairs and external relations. Along similar lines, theBelgian French-speaking Socialist Partyhas called for the Commission to become a stronger executive and the only initiator of policies, including in the second and third pillar. At the same time, it deems necessary that the Council retains its function of coordinating national policies.

This is still too ambitious a proposal for some leaders. TheDanish governmenthas forcefully restated that it should be clear that it is the Council of Ministers that develops EU policies. Nevertheless, the creation of a separate legislative Council is a subject that commands broad support – also among people who defend the executive functions of the Council. TheBenelux countriesunderline the idea that the work of the Council could be rationalised by drawing a distinction between legislative, political and deliberative functions.France and Germany, in a common declaration, have deemed the clarification of the executive and legislative functions worth considering. Acknowledging the parliamentary nature of this new body would entail that all formal decisions and votes are taken publicly (European Liberal Democratic Reform Party –ELDR-, CDU, European Commission). Commissioner Michel Barnieralso advocates this solution and stresses that the clear identification of a legislative Council would also be useful in terms of policy consistency. TheCDU-Christlich-Soziale Union(CSU) has gone a step further by insisting that the legislative Council should meet as a fixed formation. Hinting that it would support such a move, theDanish governmenthas spoken of a more open and transparent functioning of the Council of Ministers. Tony Blair has first denounced the slow and secretive decision-making in the Union and then, together withGerhard Schröder, rallied to the view that the legislative Council should meet in public.

Decision-making rules in the Council have also proved to be a major concern. Those who mention the need for amendment usually support a more systematic use of qualified majority voting (QMV). TheEuropean Commissionhas clearly stated that QMV must become the single procedural rule for decision-making in the Council, including on foreign policy – with the possible exclusion, however, of security and defence. This evolution has been supported byGuy Verhofstadt, Jacques Delors, Edmund Stoiber,theEPPand, at least as far as legislative matters are concerned, theBenelux countries. France and Germanyhave mentioned in a common declaration the extension of QMV as part of the “constitutionalisation process” that is going on in the EU.

Simplifying the way QMV is defined was already the goal of some players ahea d of the Nice summit (December 2000). The President of the Commission,Romano Prodi, spoke in October 2000 in favour of a reweighting of votes that would make it possible to adopt decisions which have the support of a majority of Member States representing a majority of the population. Given that the Nice Treaty further complicated the calculations of the majority, this move towards a simplified QMV (‘simple double majority’) has been restated by theCDUafter the signature of this treaty.

Beyond the debate on the future role of the Council, much attention has been devoted to its internal organisation. It is often felt that the existing rotating Presidency will not survive the next enlargement.Tony Blairfirst mentioned the idea of team presidencies and has also explained that there should be greater use made of elected chairs of Councils and their working groups. TheDanish governmentalso supported a presidency made up of several Member States.Jack Strawrestated the position of the UK government on the election of chairpersons, specifying that a rotation would ensure equality between big and small Member States, with each chairperson serving for two and a half years. These chairpersons would collectively form a “steering group”.Tony BlairandGerhard Schröderalso agreed that the number of Council formations should be reduced.

The reform that has probably received most support is the reorganisation of the Council around a new General Affairs Council.Michel Barnierwould call it a “European Affairs Council”.Göran Perssonhighlighted its coordinating function, notably in preparing the European Council but also stresses that Member States should be able to decide who they send to such a Council. Other voices have gone further.Jacques Delorssupported very frequent meetings (twice a month) of this Council formation. TheELDRrecognised that it should be made up of senior Ministers for Europe spending much of their time in Brussels.Pascal Lamyinsists that Member States representatives should be Vice-Prime Ministers andLionel Jospin, also speaking in favour of a permanent Council of Ministers, supported the idea of a status “tantamount to that of a Vice-Prime Minister”.

Different views have emerged concerning the future role of the European Council. It is almost undisputed that it should provide the Union with strategic direction and political leadership. As it decides unanimously, enlargement will show that it is ill equipped to fulfil this role. Therefore,Gerhard SchröderandTony Blairhave proposed that decisions referred to the European Council under treaty bases subject to qualified majority voting should be decided by qualified majority. TheCDU-CSU, however, underline that the European Council should, as the highest decision-making body, decide unanimously. ForTony Blair, the agenda-setting function of the European Council should be enhanced by the adoption of an annual agenda, based on a proposal by the Commission President, which would be debated, modified and endorsed. TheELDRalso recognises that the European Council, together with the President of the Commission, is at the centre of the “EU federal system” and therefore requires institutional and democratic constraints, particularly when dealing with the legislative and budgetary processes. The most far-reaching reform of the European Council has been advocated byJosé Maria Aznar. He calls for a President of the European Council with a longer mandate of between 2.5 and 5 years, who would no longer hold any other political responsibilities. S/he would receive the help of a 5-to-6 people strong presidential team, m ade up of heads of state or government.

Another issue that has raised much attention recently is the role of the Council in foreign relations.Paavo Lipponenregretted the trend away from the Community method in external affairs and the weakening of the Commission in relation to the Council. In his view, that would prevent the Union from playing a convincing role in international affairs. TheBenelux countriesalso mentioned the urgent need to increase the consistency and efficiency of the EU’s external representation andTony Blairdenounced the“overlapping responsibilities in developing CFSP”. While the High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) is currently also the Secretary General of the Council, the merger of this function with that of the Commissioner for External relations has been a widely supported move towards more consistency, notably by theCDU-CSUandGuy Verhofstadt. In this perspective, theCDU-CSUalso believes that the Commission should take over the role of the Secretariat General of the Council on CFSP matters. TheCommissionhas recently come out in favour of this idea, followingRomano Prodi’s earlier proposal that the High Representative’s function should be “integrated” into the Commission. A similar proposal was made by theEuropean Parliament(Mendez de Vigo – Seguro), which suggested that the responsibility for CFSP should be placed in the hands of a Commission Vice President“with specific obligations vis-à-vis the Council”.

Though he was the only one to address the issue,Jacques Delorshas repeatedly put the question of the Council in the context of an “avant-garde” that he deems unavoidable. In his view, there should be a single Commission but two Councils of Ministers (and two Parliaments): one for the Union and one for the “Federation” he calls for.  

Guillaume Durand is a Policy Analyst with The European Policy Centre

For more analyses see The European Policy Centre’s


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