THE EUROPEAN COUNCIL AND COUNCIL

The European Council has grown in importance since its creation in 1974, not least under the Treaty of Lisbon. It has general powers to provide strategic direction to the Union – a duty that, on the whole, it performs well. Donald Tusk, President of the European Council, has worked to promote its agenda-setting role. Less clear is the role of the European Council in law making, where it is officially prohibited from enacting legislation [21].  But the European Council has some specific powers to arbitrate as a court of appeal in cases where the junior Council of ministers is deadlocked [22].  Formally, it sets the legislative agenda in justice and home affairs [23].  It is often tempted to trespass on the legislative work of the Council, and frequently intervenes, contrary to a strict reading of the treaties, for example to define the Union’s own resources and set the multi-annual financial framework [24].  In 2012 the European Council peremptorily altered a draft law on unitary patents. Arrogating executive powers to itself, the European Council has set the EU’s energy emission targets, laid down peremptory fiscal policies for countries in excessive deficit, and made a pact directly with Turkey in the matter of refugees. 

The rise of the European Council has prompted recurring questions about its democratic legitimacy. Its President has to report back to the European Parliament after every formal meeting of the European Council [25].  We recommend that he appears more frequently at the Parliament – and not just in plenary and at the closed meetings of the Conference of Presidents but at open meetings of parliamentary committees [26].  The European Council President should also agree to answer oral and written questions from MEPs about the work of his institution [27].

We accept the logic of how the European Council is evolving and suggest removing the essentially fictive prohibition on law making. Instead, the European Council should be charged explicitly with bringing direction, coordination and consistency to the work of the ministerial Councils. The General Affairs Council (GAC) should play a critical role in this respect. 

It would be logical in these circumstances to abolish the rotating six-monthly presidency of the ordinary Council. This system had its rationale in the early years of the European Community, but has outlived its efficacy and has led to confusion in the matter of agenda setting and to error and inconsistency in terms of law making [28].  By way of reform, in a more meritocratic process, each Council formation – as well as the informal Eurogroup body of eurozone ministers   should elect its own president from among its number for a period of two and a half years. The President of the European Council (or a deputy) should chair the GAC (without a vote).   

Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the Commission, has proposed to fuse his job with that of the President of the European Council. He argues that the concurrent existence of the two presidencies is confusing, not least for third countries and international organisations. Merging the two posts, possibly one day directly-elected, would create a super-president. 

President Tusk, however, fears that the reform favoured by Juncker would weaken the autonomy of the heads of government. The Spinelli Group believes, conversely, that a merger of the two posts would offend the separation of powers and lead to a virtual take-over of the Commission by the European Council. It would certainly compromise the Commission’s classic role as guarantor of the treaties. The logic of our intention to strengthen the executive authority of the Commission, on the one hand, and the legislative authority of the European Council, on the other, militates against the merger. 

[21] Article 15(1) TEU. The heads of government have to meet from time to time in the composition of the Council in order to take legally binding executive decisions. 
[22] Articles 31(2) TEU and 48, 82(3), 83(3) TFEU.
[23] Article 68 TFEU.
[24] Articles 311 and 312 TFEU, respectively.
[25] Article 15(6)(d) TEU.
[26]  The Six Pack legislation already requires the President of the European Council to appear before the Economic and Financial Affairs Committee of the Parliament, although this has not happened. 
[27] Herman Van Rompuy, European Council President 2009-14, agreed to answer written questions from MEPs, but only with regard to his personal agenda and not about meetings or decisions of the European Council. 
[28] Article 16(9) TEU.

 

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