On 6 November, the European Parliament’s committee for Constitutional Affairs held a workshop on the constitutional challenges for the EU in the new term (have a look at the workshop papers here). On the fringe of the workshop, we had a chance to exchange views with prof. Uwe Puetter of Budapest’s Central European University, around his new book The European Council and the Council: New Intergovernmentalism and Institutional Change. We touched on the European Council, its history, its past and next Presidents, and what the emerging deliberative intergovermentalism (emphasis on deliberative) means for European democracy. No doubt un vaste programme…
Here are our revised notes from the Q&A with the author. As usual, we add some links to background resources from the Council library and elsewhere.
A long journey from 1974
Library: Your book looks at the comeback of intergovernmental politics in the EU, a development which you trace back to the Maastricht treaty and which is especially embodied in the European Council. Do you see a strong institutional continuity with earlier stages, or is today’s European Council markedly different from the one ushered in by Giscard d’Estaing in 1974 with the words le Sommet est mort, vive le Conseil européen?
Uwe Puetter: There are parallels and differences. Obviously the idea of the European Council as a forum for face-to-face discussion between leaders still applies. But its role has evolved. The early European Council promoted integration in areas still outside Community law, such as the coordination of exchange rates agreed between Giscard d’Estaing and Schmidt. In the 80s, decisions on key steps in integration were made or prepared at the European Council, think of the internal market, the EMU, or the preparations for the Maastricht treaty. With Maastricht, new areas of EU policy were added, but excluded from direct legislation. The European Council, while keeping its function as a key ‘constitutional’ player, started engaging in day-to-day policy-making in economic governance, employment, external relations. Empirically, this can easily be seen from the agendas, where economic governance and foreign affairs dominate since the second half of the 90s. By economic governance I mean implementation of the Economic and Monetary Union but also jobs, see for example the 1997 ‘Jobs Summit’ in Luxembourg.
Consensus and Confrontation
Library: Does this daily policy-making imply a search for consensus and compromise, or is it more a confrontation between leaders on the pure basis of State power?
Uwe Puetter: in fact, open confrontation and consensus-building typically coexist in the European Council. After Maastricht, we see national governments becoming more assertive and wanting to show they are in control of integration (which partly explains the difference between what is said at press conferences and what happens behind closed doors).
But, perhaps paradoxically, this does not mean that there is less integration, quite the contrary. To move forward and remain in control of integration, Member States need to achieve consensus, especially in areas such as foreign policy or economic governance, where the equation is fairly simple: no agreement, no policy.
Mediating is a core function of the European Council, and it has indeed been consistently so over the past 15 years, despite highly confrontational moments. Indeed, the European Council has always been able to mediate and often chose to come back to divisive issues.
Intergovernmentalism is bad for integration – or is it?
Library: You highlight a paradox: the re-centralization of decision-making in the hands of the Heads of State and Government is not necessarily a setback for European integration, is it?
Uwe Puetter: Indeed, Maastricht reflected fundamental reservations by national governments against the Community method, i.e. integration driven by supranational institutions. But at the same time national governments see that their policies are inter-dependent and need further integration. If we look at the work done – this time at Council level and by the Eurogroup, i.e. the unprecedented extent to which economic policies for the euro area were coordinated there, we can fairly say that there has been a progress of integration, a more direct impact of the EU on domestic policy, achieved through a deliberative intergovernmental method.
Primus inter pares
Library: What has been the role of the permanent President of the European Council in this?
Uwe Puetter: Herman van Rompuy as the first President focused on the internal proceedings of the EUCO, facilitating consensus rather than speaking strongly on behalf of the EU towards the outside, as some had expected; in fact, brokering consensus probably precludes a strong external role. I would be surprised if the next President, Donald Tusk, took a different approach, although he could afford a more political agenda since he no longer needs to establish the credibility of the office. In any case his designation clearly reflects the European Council’s wish to appoint someone who can overcome differences:
at the height of the crisis it would have been unthinkable for a non-euro area member to preside over the EUCO, and there were even speculations about a separate Euro-area European Council. But Donald Tusk confirmed that he wants Poland to join the euro and insisted that non-euro States should have a say in euro-related policies. His designation, also as president of the Euro summit, is decisive, I think, in bridging this potential gap between euro-ins and outs.
A delicate institutional balance
Library: How does the new inter-governmentalism impact other fora and institutions?
Uwe Puetter: we see the consolidation of a new ‘hierarchy’, so to speak. The European Council has always been a sort of presidium of EU integration, but it also increasingly directs the work of Council formations such as Ecofin, the Eurogroup or the Foreign Affairs Council, sometimes even entering into the specifics of legislative acts, as in the case of the banking union, the six-pack and two-pack. This also applies to the Commission, even to the arguably more politicised Juncker one. As I recently wrote, the Commission acknowledges that it needs the European Council’s endorsement to play its own role, which is far from irrelevant, especially in economic governance. Therefore this aspect of inter-institutional relations will be fairly stable in the new term.
Relations with the European Parliament are more difficult, as the EP is the most independent actor: it does not ‘owe anything’ to the European Council, it cannot use its legislative powers in some of the key new areas of EU policy, but can challenge the European Council’s new role by stepping up public scrutiny or by making legislative approval in other policy areas conditional on certain policy decisions in the field of coordination.
However, and I’m speculating, I do not foresee major institutional clashes like the budget crisis of the late 1970s and 1980s. After all, European Council members, through their national party affiliation, do have the backing of the main political groups in the EP.
I rather see a trend towards a ‘presidentialization’ of the EP, with its President becoming a privileged interlocutor of the European Council; we’ve seen evidence of this during the crisis, but it is something that in turn raises issues of transparency.
…and what about accountability?
Library: What does this all mean for European democracy? Is intergovernmentalism a sort of ‘leadership without politics’? Is it sustainable?
Uwe Puetter: This is one of the major challenges for the EU in the years to come. On the accountability of the European Council, I think we are far from exploiting the potential of national parliaments, mainly because they until now assumed that the European Council did not interfere with budgetary policy, or with foreign policy. The crisis has been a wake-up call for national parliaments, and we see attempts at establishing strong mandate- or even veto models, as is the case in Germany, but this is far from uniform and requires changing a lot of national procedures.
Library: prof. Puetter, thank you for this conversation.