Yet another EU president

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The role, duties and power of the newly-elected president of the European Council are only vaguely defined in the Lisbon Treaty and will thus be clarified by the first incumbent, notes Dominik Hierlemann, a researcher at the Bertelsmann Stiftung, in a November paper.

“Although much will be expected and demanded of the forthcoming president, his tasks have been described only in rather vague terms. The extent to which he can in fact introduce changes will not become apparent before he begins to interact with the other players,” Hierlemann notes. 

His paper presents three possible scenarios for developing the institutional role of the president of the European Council. Firstly, he could be seen as a facilitator. “A case can be made for a conciliatory president because there is a need for someone who is able to reconcile the increasingly diverse interests within the EU,” the author notes. 

Secondly, he could be seen as Europe’s president in the world. “If Europe at long last wishes to be taken seriously by the US, Russia and the other burgeoning world powers, it will need a president who is capable of adroit partner management,” Hierlemann writes. 

Thirdly, he could see himself as president of Europe’s citizens. “If this was the case, his main task would be to explain the EU to its citizens in a rather more lucid manner […] A problematic feature is the fact that, since he has not received the assent of the European electorate, he lacks legitimacy,” he writes. 

The author notes that no matter what path the new president tries to take, if he wants to make his role relevant, he will have to battle with a host of leadership candidates surrounding him. 

He will face competition from the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and there might also be frictions with the president of the Commission on promoting ideas and priorities to move Europe forward. 

The president of the European Council will also have to ponder his relationship with heads of government, Hierlemann says. Since they represent his power-base, he should not try to outshine them on the European scene. 

Another problem is the continued presence of rotating presidencies, which will still chair Council meetings other than those for external relations. This relationship will require fine-tuning: “the forthcoming Spanish EU Presidency […] will mould the operational style of the future,” Hierlemann notes.

“Cooperation is essential because the structure of the new leadership architecture, more than in the past, now requires a greater ability on the part of leading politicians to engage in teamwork and promote integration,” Hierlemann concludes. 

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