This paper serves the purpose of meritoriously elucidating (through research of EU legislative affairs and political philosophy) the operations of the European Council within the EU project. Accordingly, it seeks to constructively identify the role and rationale of the European Council within the EU ambit, and to evaluate its added value as the most politically prominent EU Institution.
Initially introduced as an informal series of meetings of the Member States respective heads of government in the 1960s, the European Council was subsequently institutionalised in the Paris summit of 1974. However, the institution of the European Council was only incorporated in the EU Treaties by virtue of the Single European Act. Concurrently, the institutionalisation of the Lisbon Treaty was under way, following the explicit granting of its current status (the European Council’s competences are enumerated into Article 15 of the Treaty of the European Union). Throughout the development of the European Council, the EU underwent some major fluctuations and changes. The most significant inter alia change, in my humble opinion, was the EU decision to maintain its previously intergovernmental elements in the current concrete supranational institutions. In a sense it could be stated that the EU promoted supranationalism through an intergovernmental prism. Nonetheless, this opinion is quite contested.
In particular, as P. Craig & G. De Burca highlighted: ‘The European Council was the outcome of a change in the original institutional structure of the EU Treaties in order to accommodate political reality’. Notwithstanding, does the European Council facilitate EU legitimacy in the long run, or does it pose another threat in its use to question the EU project? This could be a reasonable concern in studying the varied chronological phases of the evolution to the current European structure.
European Council: Role & Rationale
Leaving this discussion aside for the moment, a brief description of the rationale, role and composition of this highly esteemed EU political organ may prove useful. The European Council is a series of ad hoc regular meetings of the ‘Heads of State or Government’ (as Pr. L. Van Middlelaar was juxtaposed in the past, the rule of thumb dictates that the Head of the executive branch of each Member State participates), or ‘chefsache’ discussion forum where emphasis is placed on general strategic matters. The peculiar nature of the European Council in combination with its evolving and increasing necessity for an ultimate political executive order is vividly reflected in an institution that essentially aims to bridge the gaps and reconcile differences between other EU Institutions. Moreover, this institution could expedite (mostly) legislative agreements in the EU and attempt to incorporate diverging domestic opinions by means of its powerful impetus. After all, the European Council is lauded and applauded for its decisiveness, and the aim of this paper is not to criticise the role of the Council, but to highlight its methods of operation and their outcomes. The current composition of the European Council underscores its peculiar nature and is quite illustrative of its highly political nature. Namely, the President of the European Council, the President of the Commission, the High Representative of Foreign Affairs and the Heads of State are guaranteed a seat on the ‘oval table’. This EU Institution is comprised of, and represents the highly intergovernmental dimension of the EU, and creates a clear-cut threat to the supranational elements of the EU. Nevertheless, the former President of the European Council, H. Van Rompuy, stresses the European Council’s capability of substantiating and corroborating the difficulties faced by the EU in a pivotal manner. An illuminating example of Van Rompuy’s position is illustrated by the mere fact that the supranational EU institutions were not suitable to adequately and cordially address the crises faced by the EU, especially in the past year (mostly referring to the financial crisis and the refugee/immigration crisis). In the past, the European Council has proved that it has the power to steer the EU towards safer policies, set strategic guidelines, and grant EU decisions higher legitimacy (its influence extends to the Council of Ministers and the Commission). Hence, it is no wonder that Westlake and Galloway commented that: ‘it is no exaggeration to say that, since 1975, most of the major political decisions of the European Community have been taken in the European Council’.
Conversely, the extensive involvement of the European Council and its tremendously intergovernmental character may cause some concern. Notably, such involvement may bring to the surface past dilemmas such as that of Kissinger ‘If I want to call Europe, who do I call?’. This question is effectively being addressed in the post-Lisbon era with the establishment of the High Representative of Foreign Affairs, but still leaves some aspects open to discussion. Such dilemmas illustrate the clash of interest between the EU Commission and the European Council and stresses the need for these two significant institutions to constructively interact, smoothly co-exist and withstand confrontation. Ergo, it may be argued that a more ambiguous assignment of executive power in the EU is deemed desirable. Understandably, the EU does not desire to grant increased political power to the European Council, given the fear that the EU would be unable to contain European Council powers once they are given.
What about fora of the EU and European Council?
All in all, it appears that the European Council could either be cherished for its powerful political impetus in crises, or criticised due to its undermining of the supranational elements of the EU, and its potential creation of a veil of uncertainty on EU authority (an element which undermines past EU efforts to create and establish supranational institutions). However, it should be emphasized that the role of the European Council is a controversial one, and may raise concerns in regards to future outcomes. Essentially there is no black and white interpretation in regards to the aforementioned issues raised about the European Council. Ergo, the reader is invited to draw his/her own conclusions. This article simply seeks to articulate concerns and lead to a constructive discussion and analysis of EU fora. Thus, only following Brexit negotiations, the upcoming White Paper of the Commission, and the outcome of the (informal) Council Meetings, could we foresee developments in EU fora. Given recent controversial developments in the EU, the only certainty is the maintenance of European ideals.
Vasileios Rovilos (1995) is a LL.B. alumnus of the European Law School of Maastricht University and currently pursues his post-graduate legal studies in European Union Law at Leiden University. Alongside his studies, he was a student-assistant at the Department of International & European Law of Maastricht University, a trainee at Maastricht Centre for Human Rights and a fellow-student in METRO Institute. Additionally, alongside four fellow students, Vasileios co-founded FAMoS (Foundation Against Modern Slavery) and operates as the NGO’s Treasurer. He is currently engaged into EU Institutional and Migration/Asylum Law research at Leiden University.
- Paris Summit 1974; see also: J. Fairhurst (2016), ‘Law of the European Union’ (11th Ed. – Pearson), pp 92-93.
- P. Craig & G. De Burca (2015); ‘EU Law: Text, Cases, and Materials’ (6th Edition – Oxford University Press), pp. 48-49.
- Van Middelaar (2015), ‘Taking decisions or setting norms? – EU presidencies between executive and legislative power in a Crisis-driven Union’ pp.13-21.
- Van Rompuy (2014) ‘Europe in Storm – Promise and Prejudice’ (Davidfonds Uitgeverij)., pp. 123-124.
- Van Rompuy (2014) ‘Europe in Storm – Promise and Prejudice’ (Davidfonds Uitgeverij), pp. 127-128.
- M. Westlake & D. Galloway (2004), ‘The Council of the European Union’ (Harper 3rd edition) pp. 177, 179-180
- Henry Kissinger’s famous remark in the 1970s, “If I want to call Europe, who do I call?”; See also: J. Meek (2004), “What is Europe” (The Guardian, December 17, 2004). Retrieved by: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2004/dec/17/eu.turkey1 Last accessed: 27-9-2016.
- Bressand (2010). ‘European Integration and the Development of a European External Energy Policy in Eurasia’ (Global Public Policy Institute), p. 1. Retrieved by: http://old.gppi.net/fileadmin/gppi/GPPiPP7-EU_Integration_and_Energy.pdf Last Accessed: 28-9-2016.