Learning from Herman: A handbook for the European Council president

Learning from Herman: A handbook for the European Council president

Agata Gostyńska-Jakubowska
21 August 2014

When member-states reconvene on August 30th in Brussels to decide on the remaining top EU posts, they should agree on candidates who not only have the right party affiliation, nationality or gender, but who can also respond to the EU’s mounting challenges. This applies to the President of the European Council, whose role is to forge a consensus among EU leaders — a difficult task these days. But the appointment of a successor to Herman Van Rompuy has so far been overshadowed by political squabbles around Federica Mogherini, the Italian foreign minister and candidate for the post of High Representative.

Many still believe that the job of the European Council president is nothing more than European ‘master of ceremonies’. This is wrong. The sovereign debt crisis elevated the European Council to the primary forum for EU discussions on economic governance. It also increased the importance of its permanent president. Van Rompuy has had his hands full ever since, trying to reconcile the divergent interests of debtor and creditor countries. The bar has been set high for Van Rompuy’s successor, who is expected to take over on December 1st. One of Van Rompuy’s last tasks will be to find a candidate able to get the European Council working as a team. Van Rompuy would do well to look in the mirror, draw up a list of his strengths and weaknesses, and seek a successor with some of his own best characteristics.

Efficient chairman. Despite a reputation for having the “charisma of a damp rag”, as Nigel Farage once put it, Van Rompuy made European Council meetings more efficient. He used concise conclusions to set out a strategic direction for the EU. The strategic agenda which EU leaders endorsed in June is a case in point. It identified priority areas which the EU should focus on in the course of the next five years. But the European Council has not always remained at the strategic level. It suggested deleting two articles from a draft regulation on the creation of unitary patent protection, despite in theory exercising no legislative powers. Not everyone liked Van Rompuy’s agenda management either. He pushed for the most sensitive and technical issues to be discussed over meals. This has been a headache for advisers, who had limited contact with their leaders at mealtimes. But trying to build consensus in the informal setting of a meal may have helped to overcome impasses, for example on the question of imposing a ‘haircut’ on holders of Greek bonds in order to reduce its debt. As there are still decisions to be made about euro governance and a settlement with the British to negotiate, a new president should keep Van Rompuy’s tactics up his or her sleeve.

Sensitive to concerns of euro ‘outs’ and ‘pre-ins’. Van Rompuy is an economist by profession, and this helped him to keep the European Council in the driving seat in discussions on the Economic and Monetary Union (EMU). Deliberations among all 28 EU leaders have limited any shift in the centre of gravity towards decision-making in the format of eurozone only. Van Rompuy, who initially gained a reputation for leaning too much towards Franco-German views, has developed a sensitivity towards the concerns of member-states that are not in the eurozone. In particular, the ‘pre-ins’ who are yet to adopt the common currency have a vital interest in long term arrangements in the eurozone. Member-states such as Poland therefore welcomed the decision to have the president of the European Council also chair euro summits as a small step towards greater transparency in the eurozone. But one might wonder if this arrangement can continue if Van Rompuy’s successor does not come from a euro ‘in’ country. It could well serve as an invitation to the French to renew their advocacy of the eurozone-only format.

Moderate on macroeconomics. The eurozone failed to register growth in the second quarter of the year and Italy slid back into recession. This will almost certainly bring the debate on ways to provide economic stimulus back to the EU leaders’ level. A new European Council president will find it very difficult to bridge divergent views on eurozone matters; anyone with strong views on either side of the stimulus debate will not get the job. The best that Van Rompuy can do is to focus on candidates who do not come from a major debtor or creditor country and are not closely associated with a particular view on macroeconomic policy.

Assertive towards the European Parliament. On paper, the European Council president should only report to the members of the European Parliament (MEPs) after EU leaders' meetings. But Van Rompuy understood the importance of nurturing relations with MEPs, who together with the EU Council exercise EU legislative powers. Yet he avoided setting any precedents which might give them even more power. He firmly resisted calls by the President of the European Parliament, Martin Schulz, for a seat at the European Council. Now that the European Council, by endorsing Jean-Claude Juncker as Commission president, has effectively accepted the Spitzenkandidaten process, the European Parliament is hungry for more influence. The European Council, and its deliberations on EU economic governance, is next on the menu. But the Parliament has its own legitimacy problem: fewer and fewer people vote, and support for Eurosceptic movements is on the rise. It is a bad time for the Parliament to demand more power. The next European Council president should, like Van Rompuy, keep the MEPs at arm’s length. Instead, he or she should champion a debate on how to plug national parliaments better into EU policy-making.

Good mediator with a small ego. Van Rompuy proved to be an efficient honest broker. In 2013 he managed to reconcile the interests of net contributors to and beneficiaries of the EU budget, and strike a fair deal on the long-term financing of the Union. But seeking consensus among EU leaders is a difficult balancing act, even for a president who is held in high regard and who has the ability to keep personal ambitions in check. The European Council in December 2011 illustrates it. Ultimately, Van Rompuy could not prevent David Cameron, the British prime minister, from vetoing a revision of the EU treaties to introduce stricter discipline on member-states’ budgets. Cameron arrived in Brussels with a wish list, on which he would not compromise. Van Rompuy's successor will have to deal with failures he cannot be blamed for and broker deals without claiming credit for them.

Critical but understanding of the British. If Van Rompuy were asked what made his job particularly challenging, he would probably point to the ‘British question’. In his Bloomberg speech in January 2013, David Cameron announced a radical redefinition of the UK’s relationship with the EU. Should the UK seek a renegotiation of its membership after the next general election, in May 2015, the European Council will be the primary forum for deciding whether to revise the EU treaties and consider Cameron’s wish list of reforms. The contenders for Van Rompuy’s job should have a good understanding of the dynamics of Britain’s engagement with Europe, and where to look for common ground with other member-states.

Finding a candidate that matches this profile will not be easy. It will be even harder because of competing demands for ‘balance’. The European Council will be expected to give one of the two top jobs to a representative of the Party of European Socialists (since Juncker is from the centre-right European People’s Party). The centrist Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe, despite losses in the May elections, would like a reward for their pivotal role in the EU legislative process. There will be criticism if none of the top posts goes to a woman. And Van Rompuy will also have to deal with the insistence of the Central European countries that they are no longer junior partners and should hold one of the top posts. The EU, beset by crises, has no time to train a novice, so Van Rompuy’s successor should ideally be a current or former European Council member.

Names that would fit most of the criteria and are probably on Van Rompuy’s list already include Donald Tusk (Poland), Helle Thorning-Schmidt (Denmark), Valdis Dombrovskis (former Latvian prime minister) and Andrus Ansip (former Estonian prime minister). Dombrovskis and Ansip have now been nominated by their countries to be Commissioners. This does not rule out the possibility that one of them could emerge as a late compromise candidate, but it suggests that the Latvian and Estonian governments do not expect them to be chosen.

That would leave Tusk and Thorning-Schmidt. The fact that neither comes from a euro ‘in’ country counts against them. Some member-states may fear that it would be harder for them to insist on keeping the eurozone discussions at the level of the 28 rather than the 18. These concerns are not shared in London. And David Cameron feels that Thorning-Schmidt would be more responsive to British concerns than Tusk.

Tusk’s advantage is that Poland is committed to adopt the euro in the future, whereas Denmark has a permanent opt-out. His appointment would also recognise Poland’s rapid economic and political progress since joining the EU. Tusk enjoys friendly relations with Angela Merkel. On the other hand, the German chancellor values him as a reliable counterpart in neighbouring Poland, and as such she may prefer that Tusk stays at home for now. Merkel also wants to keep the UK in the EU. She will support a candidate who can best tick the ‘British question’ box. These two points tip the balance towards the Danish candidate.

If Denmark’s euro ‘out’ status makes Thorning-Schmidt unacceptable to some member-states, Van Rompuy should be ready to twist some more arms, like that of Enda Kenny, the Irish taoiseach. He comes from a euro ‘in’ country, and enjoys good relations with the British. Ireland has completed the financial assistance programme and has a liberal economic outlook, but needs policies that will boost growth. This may make Kenny acceptable to both the southern and northern blocs.

One final complication for Van Rompuy: he will have to secure unanimous support for his successor. The EU treaties allow a vote on the European Council president, but leaders will probably resist this way of breaking the impasse. A lack of unity would damage contenders’ credibility at home and in Brussels, a risk that active politicians are unwilling to take. So brokering a consensus among the 28 over his successor is likely to be the final and biggest test for Van Rompuy’s conciliation skills.

Agata Gostyńska is a research fellow at the Centre for European Reform.