There is an interesting dichotomy between how president Herman Van Rompuy presents the European Council and how he tries to get this EU institution to meet the challenges facing Europe.
Earlier we have looked at his speeches plus some reports and reactions (here, here, here and here).
The European Council had arguably been the most influential body of the European Union, the main responsible for the EU’s advances and shortcomings. However, the Treaty of Lisbon turned the European Council into an official EU institution and gave it a full time president.
The European Council consists of the heads of state or government of the member states. Its president (Herman Van Rompuy) and Commission president (José Manuel Barroso) are also members, although without a vote. The High Representative/Vice-President (Catherine Ashton) takes part in its work (Article 15 TEU).
Herman Van Rompuy has referred to the European Council as a now official institution of the European Union, not a “summit” like the G20 and others.
Officially, the main task of the European Council is – or at least, should be – to give the EU “impetus”, strategic guidelines and priorities. It does not exercise legislative functions, but it makes certain crucial decisions officially.
In practice, the role of the European Council as the most important official institution for “deep integration” benefiting 501 million citizens is in sharp contrast with its transparency standards way below those of a municipal board somewhere in the boondocks of my country.
In addition, the participants in the European Council meetings make unofficial and unrecorded ‘de facto’ decisions, which short-circuit public debate and decent standards of transparency, even if the formal decisions are later rubber-stamped by the Council (of Ministers).
The ‘official institution’ is almost as intergovernmental as it gets, and president Van Rompuy has been careful not to improve openness and accountability.
Instead, he tries team-building, by engaging the heads of state or government in more frequent informal strategy “workshops” to create “ownership” and improve outcomes.
There have been mixed responses to Van Rompuy’s idea to hold frequent meetings. National political leaders feel important and are busy, and media have commented on lack of preparation, thin agendas and empty conclusions.
Strategy processes and “ownership” require time and effort, but they ill fit the ‘official institution’ role or outside expectations.
The latest European Council meeting was hijacked by a tempestuous Nicolas Sarkozy, so we remain in the dark with regard to Van Rompuy’s effort to infuse team spirit.
The conflicting roles and expectations leave us with some important questions.
What kind of a European Council do we need to tackle Europe’s main challenges?
How much can an official institution, especially the most influential one, dispense with decent standards of transparency, open debate and accountability?
If Van Rompuy’s vision is correct, are the national leaders willing to be guided even by the chair they selected themselves?
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