Europe's revolving door

Europe's revolving door

Bulletin article
Ben Hall
03 April 2000

The rotating presidency of the Council of Ministers is one of many issues not on the agenda of this year's inter- governmental conference. But the EU's forthcoming enlargement will gravely weaken the presidency. The system whereby member-states take it in turns to manage EU business for six-month stints is already an inefficient way of running the Union. When the EU has grown to 27 or more members, the endless rotation could bring the organisation to a halt.

Since the 1970s the presidency has taken on more and more responsibilities. It manages the day-to-day business of the Council and brokers legislative deals between the member-states. It negotiates with MEPs on behalf of national governments, which is an important job since many decisions on laws are taken by both the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers. It represents the EU abroad and steers the Common Foreign and Security Policy, since last autumn with the assistance of the new High Representative, Javier Solana.

The rotating presidency supposedly bolsters the popular legitimacy of the EU. Each country, large or small, is seen to have a go at the helm and thus an equal stake in the running of the Union. This is particularly important for small and new member-states. Finland's successful first presidency during the second half of 1999 was a source of national pride and a boost to its self-confidence. Voters see that their leaders are "in charge" of Europe. The meetings of the European Council – the quarterly jamborees of EU leaders hosted by the presidency – are one of the most visible facets of EU policy-making. Furthermore, the responsibility of having to manage the Council of Ministers obliges national bureaucracies, at least periodically, to think and act European, and to get to know European dossiers, procedures and personnel. In theory, the rotation of presidency duties can also add impetus to decison-making. The presidency can inject new ideas and energy into stagnant policies.

Yet this ceaseless rotation is the source of much administrative inefficiency and wasted political energy. It undermines continuity and harms the quality of law-making. The whole of the EU suffers if a government crisis or a general election disrupts one country's presidency. In most countries, especially the larger and older members, the rotating presidency adds little to the EU's popularity. It will have even less relevance when, in a Union of 27 members, it comes round only once every thirteen-and-a-half years.

Some fear that many of the small countries applying to join the EU will not have the capacity or authority to manage the presidency. In fact, small countries can organise successful presidencies, just as large countries can run bad ones. But smaller member-states do have more difficulty representing the EU effectively in the rest of the world. Indeed, it is in foreign policy that the rotating presidency system reveals its greatest flaws. America and Russia do not take the EU seriously when it is represented by the foreign minister of a tiny, neutral member-state.

On occasion, the big EU powers and the Americans have chosen to bypass the presidency. It is no coincidence that the five-nation "contact group" – through which Germany, France, Britain, the US and Russia sought to end the war in Bosnia – was set up during the presidency of the relatively pro-Serb Greece in the first half of 1994. Could Europe rely on a Maltese presidency to handle another crisis in the Balkans? And what would happen if a neutral country holding the presidency opposed the use of military force by the EU, even though such action had the support of all other member-states?

The six-month rotating presidency should therefore be reformed. The tidiest solution would be for the member-states to divide into four teams. The teams would take it in turns to run presidencies lasting two-and-a-half years, thus coinciding neatly with the terms of the Commission and European Parliament. The member-states in the presidency team would share out responsibility for broad policy areas – such as the single market or immigration – at the beginning of each 30-month term. They would also decide which prime minister should chair the European Council. The allocation of functions would be approved by a simple majority vote of all the member-states.

The members of the team would together set the work programme for each policy area. In doing so they would follow the line of a five-year political strategy defined by the European Council – similar to that agreed at the October 1999 Tampere summit on migration and the fight against crime. The team presidency would work closely with the Commission to ensure that the strategy was implemented.

This solution would improve continuity and encourage greater co-operation between governments. It would allow the EU to play to the strengths of individual member-states. But in certain cases, the EU should delegate presidency tasks to a separate office.

The High Representative or "Mr CFSP" should chair the Political and Security Committee of senior national diplomats. In the longer term, Mr CFSP should become the EU's foreign policy president, displacing the rotating presidency altogether, although he would, of course, still report to the member-states. Mr Solana will not be considered a serious negotiator in, say, Russia if he is forced – as under current rules – to travel to Moscow in the company of the presidency foreign minister, the future presidency foreign minister and a commissioner.

The EU cannot be governed if its leaders are stuck in a revolving door. Unfortunately, politicians are prone to avoid difficult decisions until they have no choice. So Europe will probably have to put up with the inefficiency of the rotating presidency until the next treaty revision, perhaps in 2005.

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