Time to shake up the European Council

Time to shake up the European Council

Written by David Harrison, 01 February 2007

The European Council, the EU’s supreme political authority, is malfunctioning. Europe’s most powerful leaders meet four times a year in the Council to review the EU’s work and and give political direction to the Commission, Parliament and Council of Ministers. But the Council has lost track of its original purpose: to direct the Union’s political and economic strategies. Instead its agenda has become overloaded, with leaders having to spend their time micro-managing humdrum disputes that could be dealt with by lower levels of the EU system. The Council ‘conclusions’, supposedly a statement of the decisions taken at each meeting, are routinely long, rambling and vague. The European Council’s recent enlargements, from 15 to 25 and now 27 members, exacerbate these problems.

EU leaders discussed how to reform their summits at Seville in 2002. They agreed that the European Council presidency would be more rigorous in vetting agenda items, limiting speaking times and cutting down on formal, repetitious statements. They also agreed not to burden leaders with so many long reports. But, four years on, the governments have done little to implement these reforms. For example, the June 2006 Council conclusions ran to nearly 40 pages and were mostly a commentary on the state of the world, despite the new rules requiring brevity and decisiveness.

With the EU facing pressing challenges in areas such as foreign policy, energy security and immigration, the need for effective leadership from the European Council has never been greater. One idea in the constitutional treaty, the creation of the post of a full-time Council president, would have helped. But that treaty is unlikely to be ratified any time soon. In the meantime governments could do plenty to improve the way the European Council works without treaty change. The institution could remodel itself on the cabinet system of government, in which ministers with different responsibilities collectively agree on policy objectives and then mobilise the public resources to achieve them. What follows are some practical proposals that build on the 2002 reforms.

To govern is to choose. The Council has the power to direct the collective public resources of the European states in a particular direction. It needs to focus these resources on a prioritised set of challenges, rather than trying to solve all the world’s problems at once. Council conclusions should consist of a set of concrete decisions that governments will implement together, and guidelines for what they want the EU’s institutions to achieve. The presidency or the secretary-general of the Council should ensure that these decisions and guidelines are translated into action.

David Harrison  is an EU lawyer, and deputy director of the Council on European Responsibilities, a pro-European foundation based in Switzerland.

The conclusions themselves should be radically pruned. Instead of 30-40 pages of comment on all things great and small, they should be operational – stating clearly what the European Council has decided to do, not what it hopes will happen or notes has happened. Conclusions should be brief, reflecting only what has actually been discussed. The language should be straightforward, with the citizens of Europe in mind, rather than, as now, member-states’ Brussels delegations. A single spokesperson for the Council should be appointed to give a jargon-free account of what has happened at the summit. More also needs to be done to ensure continuity between one summit and the next. Modern developments in secure communications technology should allow European leaders to remain in touch with one another, on a more or less permanent basis. The presidency should schedule conference calls and video conferences for all 27 member-states between summits. (The Council’s secretary-general would help with the details of running these meetings, including the exchange of documentation.) Thus a kind of ‘virtual’ European Council would be created, maintaining continuity of policy from one presidency to the next. This system would also allow for rapid reaction to events that happen in the gaps between summits. The quarterly summits would become plenary sessions of the European Council.

As in cabinet government, some important subjects should be handled by smaller sub-committees: specific leaders would be mandated to work on specific issues, subject to the collective responsibility of the whole European Council. The subcommittees could consist of leaders who had the relevant expertise and the confidence of their colleagues to prepare policy proposals. In the current period, Russia, climate change and energy policy might be suitable subjects for sub-committees. When laws are proposed, the co-operation of the Commission president, a member of the European council, will be essential.

If European leaders focused their energies more effectively they could do more to mobilise public opinion in favour of the objectives they have set. Governments need to communicate major EU objectives to electorates with the same vigour as they do national priorities. The means of doing so (speeches, statements, possible use of a European Council spokesperson, and so forth) will differ depending on circumstances. Citizens should also be able to petition the European Council directly, rather than the European Commission as was proposed in the constitutional treaty. The European Council could thus play a role in responding to public concerns about the Union in a non-technocratic manner, and in reconnecting popular opinion with the major European issues.

If governments wished they could implement these reforms right away. The organisation of most European Council business is within the gift of the member-states themselves. Members of the European Council could decide to adopt more effective working methods on a trial basis by mutual consent – and then formalise these arrangements legally at a later stage in a new treaty.

The way in which the political leaders of 27 member-states, governing a population of around 500 million and an economy the size of the US, organise their limited time, resources and political capital, is a matter of some importance. The EU cannot set and carry out policy goals consistently and competently without effective collective leadership. Walter Bagehot, the 19th century British journalist, divided constitutions into two parts: the dignified and the efficient. Unless governments agree to improve matters, the European Council is in danger of falling into the first category only: a large-scale, high-profile spectacle, attracting public attention but squandering its authority and fundamentally incapable of meaningful action.