The European Presidency: 'Two-headed' or schizophrenic

Article published on April 8, 2003
community published
Article published on April 8, 2003

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

One President or two? The poor Union is torn between federalism and the ascendancy of States.

The diplomatic crisis over the situation in Iraq and the conflict that has followed have brought to light in, at the very least, a dramatic fashion the poverty of the CFSP and, more mundanely, the total absence of a distinctly European diplomacy. While article 19 of the Treaty of the European Union - ratified, it is worth remembering by the 15 member states - expects the representatives of the member countries on the UN Security Council to consult with the other EU member states on the diplomatic positions to be adopted, we have witnessed, powerless, the most divergent stands being taken by France, Germany, Great Britain, Spain and Italy over the Iraqi crisis, to name only the largest member states.

People frequently reproach the EU for its lack of legitimacy and indeed credibility: the crisis that we have just lived through is, without doubt, proof that these criticisms are well founded. For the EU to become and actor that carries weight on the international scene and for the Union to act as a counterweight to the American super power, it needs a single voice and a single face to speak in the name of the 380 million European citizens. Since the Laeken summit that gave the Convention on the Future of Europe the mandate to consider, and re-consider, the Institutions to make the Union more effective and to enable it to confront the immense challenge that the integration of 10 new countries from May 1st 2004 constitutes, proposals relating to the Presidency have been multiplying.

With 25 members, a country will only hold the Presidency every 13 years

In actual fact, the current system, already imperfect, cannot endure: the European Council and the Council of Ministers are presided over every six months by a different Head of State or government from one of the 15 countries of the Union. Six months is insufficient to implement ambitious tasks: the majority of Presidencies simply carry on with what had been done previously, giving impetus to particular subjects according to their priorities. But six months is equally a very long period when you consider that, as a group of 25, a country such as France would only hold the Presidency every 13 years. The principle of a rotating Council Presidency, which is already difficult with 15 members, is not even conceivable with 25. Moreover, the European people should be personified in the eyes of nations of the world by a prestigious European personality and not according to the foibles of a calendar. That being the case, the proposals aiming to overcome this deficit of legitimacy and effectiveness have multiplied.

One of the first and most well known is the so-called 'A, B, C' proposal, put forward by Aznar, Blair and Chirac. This proposal foresees the election of a European President by the European Council for a period of two and a half or five years. Besides the fact that the role of this President would be the same as that of the current President - organisation and preparation of the work of the Council, proposals on significant adjustments to Union policy - this offer was also not entirely devoid of ulterior motives since the co-authors of this proposal see themselves in the role of the aforementioned President. This proposal, coming straight down the line of intergovernmental tradition, received a rather luke warm welcome from the 'small' countries who can see themselves becoming far removed from such a Presidency.

An absolutely fantastic compromise

The other idea that has received much coverage is the Chirac-Schroeder proposal of a double-Presidency. Starting from the acknowledgement that, from the beginning of European construction, two traditions have existed, one intergovernmental and the other federal, the holders of these very different methods believe that they have reached an acceptable compromise. A few days before the celebration of the Elysée Treaty, Jacques Chirac, advocate of intergovernmentalism, and Gerhard Schröeder, fervent defender of federalism in the truest German tradition, reached an agreement: Chirac wanted a President to be elected by the European Council; Schröeder saw the President of the Commission elected by the European Parliament as the only possible European President. They agreed, therefore, on the idea of a two-headed Presidency of the Union, a proposal that obviously makes the blood of really Europeans boil. How can it be conceived that the European Institutions would be easier to understand and more effective with two Presidents at their head, whose functions could not help but overlap? Which one would have the final say?

Besides the fact that it is truly fantastic that two heads of State believed that they had found the solution to their differences with this compromise, this proposal is also frankly ridiculous. We the French, who have experienced political cohabitation and the damage it causes, wonder why you would want to transpose that to a European level? Kissinger would still have the same problem regarding a 'telephone number' for Europe. How would Europe win credibility on the international scene with such a plan?

The Presidency problem in reality forces us to consider the very nature of the EU that we desire. Being a supporter of a Union of States rather than people pushes one naturally towards a European President as the President of the Council elected by his peers, leaving the Commission the sole function of execution. By favouring an integrated community Europe one would defend a European President who is President of the Commission. We need one voice and once voice alone in Europe so that the citizens can identify with it and so that the Union can gain in terms of clarity.

As a convinced European and a supporter of greater integration, I naturally favour a European President as President of the European Commission. Clearly, it is not enough to merely say that: we must equally redraw the lines of the current institutions. I favour the progressive transformation of the current Council into a chamber of States, in the image of the German Bundersrat, which would hold the function of an upper chamber (legislative power, participation in the re-election of the European president...), a proposal that certainly will be difficult to sell to the large countries who are concerned about preserving their own prerogatives. But did we really create a European union in order to preserve the dichotomy of big/small countries?

This plan of action necessitates institutional conversion and changes in mentality. But in an era of a Convention on the Future of Europe, isn't it now or never?