The Council’s broken chain of command and what can be done about it

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

The division of labour between the president of the European Council (Herman Van Rompuy) and the rotating presidency of the Council of Ministers (currently Poland) since the Lisbon Treaty has divided EU leadership and led to the "European Councilisation" of EU politics, argues Piotr Maciej Kaczy?ski in an exclusive commentary for EURACTIV.

Piotr Maciej Kaczy?ski is a senior research fellow at the Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS).

This commentary was authored exclusively for EURACTIV. It is based on a longer paper published recently by CEPS, entitled 'The General Affairs Council: The Key to Political Influence of Rotating Presidencies'.

"Some decision-makers of former rotating Council presidencies are worried. They signal that the fact that the rotating presidency has lost political importance is worrisome. This is nothing new; the Council's rotating presidency is the institutional loser of the latest treaty reform.

Their argument, however, goes further: the chain of command in the Council has been broken and the rotating presidency lost not only visibility, but also is losing control over the decision making process.

On the one hand, this is just another dimension of an ongoing process labeled as 'European Councilisation' of European politics. On the other hand, the core of the problem is not necessarily that the European Council [chaired by President Herman Van Rompuy] dominates the landscape of policy making, but that the two institutions, the European Council and the Council [of Ministers, chaired by the rotating presidency] have not worked out yet a sustainable cooperation model.

In the pre-Lisbon system both were one. Now they are separate institutions chaired by different political entities, even though they are served by the same Council General Secretariat. Actually, the more cynical voices indicate that this secretariat became a de facto General Secretariat of the European Council…

The smooth cooperation between the Council and the European Council is central for the governance of the European Union. However, in recent months the traditional bottom up Council decision-making (following the Commission's proposals, the work is channeled into the Council's working parties and committees, then to COREPER and the Councils of Ministers and in rare cases to the European Council; all in parallel to the European Parliament's procedures) is more and more complemented with the top-down approach by the European Council.

Recent visible examples include the October 2010 European Council, when the issue of the next Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF) was first discussed, eight months before the Commission laid forward its first draft proposal; and the June 2011 European Council, when the future of Schengen was addressed.

The relationship between the Council and the European Council is more difficult, not only because of the de-coupling of the two institutions' presidencies (rotating vs. Herman Van Rompuy), but strengthened by the exit of national foreign ministers from the European Council meetings. Right now there is physically nobody who would be present both at the Council level (at General Affairs Council, GAC) and the European Council to control the smooth flow of decision-making.

Furthermore, President Van Rompuy does not enjoy the same level of trust and insights into the horizontal Council formations like his pre-Lisbon predecessors. One way of addressing the challenge verbalised by the well-established officials is to strengthen the GAC, which should become the last point of reference for all difficult legal dossiers.

The role of the GAC in the next MFF talks is central: this is the only place in the system where sectoral Council formations' input can be successfully coordinated. The problem is, however, who should provide an effective coordination of rotating Council chairs? In other terms, who should sit on and chair the GAC meetings in order for this formation to meet the Treaty provisions?

Currently its composition is uneven: 50% of participants are foreign ministers, 35% are Europe ministers and 15% are the permanent representatives.

The recurring idea is for the prime minister of the rotating presidency to perform the task of GAC chair. Strengthening GAC would strengthen the Council and streamline politically the rotating presidencies. Effectively, at the European Council level, such a prime minister would become a de facto vice-president of the European Council since he (or she) would be the best-positioned individual to be the honest broker allowing for a compromise.

This would also help President Van Rompuy, who lacks capacities and political leverage to have substantial and effective coordination of various sectoral Council formations."

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