Tuesday 22 March 2011

EU General Affairs Council: Feeding the cuckoos?

Have you ever followed the hectic life of small birds, unwittingly having become foster parents for a gluttonous young cuckoo?

Hectic and unrewarding, the life of these unsung heroes.

How about having two of these rapacious strangers, instead of only one, as in nature?

Why do I think about the thankless task of these desperate and overworked foster parents, when I turn to the visible output from the General Affairs Council of the European Union?

More than foreign affairs

Although the European Union is much, much more than foreign affairs, the coordinating General Affairs Council (GAC) is still dominated by foreign ministers, for whom it is a sideshow.

At the same time, the foreign ministers face the enormous challenge to shape the European Union into an effictive and influential actor in world affairs, in all fields of external action. Enough of a challenge to keep the foreign ministers busy for a decade or more, I would think, even if they concentrated on this main job.

GAC role

Currently the GAC does not fulfil the expectations created by the Lisbon Treaty, which gave it a permanent and important treaty based position.

The GAC was entrusted with the vital role to coordinate Council work (other configurations). It is also the task of the General Affairs Council to prepare and to ensure the follow-up of the European Council.

The bulk of real EU powers and resources concerns about two dozen policy areas of internal action, so the challenge looks daunting enough, but consistency has been left to the foreign policy divas, as a diversion.

In addition, the spring European Council is supposed to be the crowning moment for economic governance and economic reforms for growth and employment, guiding the work towards Europe 2020 (EU2020) goals.

Treaty aims vs delivery

The principles of as much openess as possible and as much closeness to the citizen as possible are laid down in Article 1 of the Treaty on European Union.

The enhanced role and tasks of the GAC were established by Article 16(6) TEU.

Article 16(6) TEU finally separated the GAC from its then dominant Siamese twin, the Foreign Affairs Council (FAC).

In the name of openness and closeness, the GAC could and should become an important stage in public discourse just ahead of the European Council (as well as after), but what has happened?

Make your own assessment of how the aims and potential have come to fruition. Reflect on the gap between expectations, potential and delivery:

3079th Council meeting General Affairs; Brussels, 21 March 2011 (Council document 7932/11)

Concrete conclusions

Instead of reasoned proposals and supporting materials, we get these inane ”conclusions”, with regard to the issues on the agenda of the European Council:

The Council took stock of the humanitarian situation in Libya and neighbouring countries.

The Council took stock of the EU's response to the humanitarian crisis in Japan.

The Council examined draft conclusions for the European Council meeting to be held on 24 and 25 March.

This is parody, pure and simple.

The rest of the text concerning economic policy is in essence an agenda, since it presents only the issues to be dealt with at the European Council (page 8-9).

The only redeeming feature would have been the report from the presidency on progress in implementation of the European Semester submitted to the European Council (doc. 7745/11), if the link in the original had actually worked.

If the GAC actually said something worthwhile, its tasks would be a bit more rewarding than feeding the cuckoos.

European Semester: implementation

Going back, the document reference is useful, though. If we substitute the broken link by Council search, we find the presidency report in 22 official EU languages, including English:

Implementation of the European Semester - Synthesis report; Brussels, 16 March 2011 (document 7745/11; 21 pages)

Ralf Grahn

P.S. The web pages of the Hungarian presidency of the Council of the European Union are one of the important sources of day to day information about EU events, including ones less visible than formal Council meetings.

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