40 years of European Council as viewed by Jan Werts

The Library tries to keep track of all literature referring to the Council and the European Council; but whenever we can, we also like to engage with the authors who write about the two institutions. So when we heard that Jan Werts is working on the third edition of his The European Council, first published in 1992 by the Dutch T.M.C. Asser Instituut, we met him for a chat.

Timely coinciding with a debate on intergovernmentalism on the authoritative pages of JCMS (subscription needed, but we’ll come back to that), here is a glimpse of our conversation with this remarkable journalist-turned-academic.

As a correspondent for Dutch media, you have been watching the European Council since its birth in 1974. How have you seen it evolve over the decades?

In the 1970s the Heads of State or Government had to function as the arbitrator on crucial issues referred to them by a Council formation. Sometimes they had to delve into technical details, as in the case of milk quotas. Other examples are the reforms of the CAP in the late 1970s and early 1980s, or the arrangement for a British rebate agreed upon at the 1984 Fontainebleau meeting. At the end of the 1980s, the European Council became the agenda-setter for all matters impacting the sovereignty of Member States. Meeting by meeting, the Heads of State or Government began to check whether the specialised Councils were sticking to their brief. This shift from arbitrator to agenda-setter is ultimately mirrored in the “Rules for organising the proceedings” agreed upon at the 2002 Seville meeting.

And more recently? 

In 2010, we entered a new phase with three coinciding events: first, the Lisbon Treaty comes into force and gives a strengthened role to the European Council, which becomes an institution of the EU; second, Greece enters a debt crisis; third and last, a semi-permanent President is designated. The crisis is undoubtedly the most important and the toughest problem that the European Council has dealt with in its history. Although the European Council does not exercise legislative powers, the crisis has led it to introduce a new system of economic governance.

So what kind of institution is the European Council which emerged from the crisis?

The evolution of the European Council makes the distinction between the intergovernmental and the community method less relevant. Becoming an institution and meeting much more frequently, the European Council is shifting from a purely intergovernmental to a more “EU community” functioning: from the moment the doors close and the summit meeting starts, the Heads of State or Government are in the same boat. From that moment they operate, in my opinion, as a collective, a bargaining forum where all stakeholders work to find an agreement.

See the works by Jan Werts available at the library via our catalogue.

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