The opening speech was given by Herman van Rompuy, the former President of the European Council. He began by emphasising that, on his appointment to that position, he was aware not only of what the Lisbon Treaty provided for as regards the role of the President of the European Council, but also of what it did not provide for, and what would therefore have to be organised on a more informal basis.
Herman van Rompuy also stressed the need for cooperation between the EU institutions. He explained that, as President of the European Council, he had met the President of the Commission on a weekly basis, and had also had an excellent relationship with all 10 rotating presidencies. He considered the relationship with the European Parliament (EP) to be very special, and had always enjoyed good and open relations with the EP President. He stated that, even though the President of the European Council was not accountable to the EP, he had nevertheless to brief the EP after every European Council meeting. On the other hand, he considered the relationship between the President of the European Council and the High Representative to be a ‘work in progress’. In his view, the presence of third persons at European Council meetings depended on circumstances, perceived needs and political necessity (e.g. the head of the International Monetary Fund was always present during Euro Summits).
Herman van Rompuy also stated his view that the European Council cannot function properly without the Commission, and that very close relations with the member states are essential (he visited all the capitals once a year).
The European Council is a ‘club’ of 28 heads of state and government. However, as its former President pointed out, this ‘club’ is ‘not a homogeneous group’ (since it comprises a wide range of identities or categories, such as north/south, east/west, EPP/S&D, small member states/big member states, euro area/non-euro area member states, and Schengen/non-Schengen member states). In his words, ‘the role of the President of the European Council was to keep the club together’.
Herman van Rompuy explained that he was not in favour of merging the roles of the Commission President and the European Council President, as the Union must continue to be a duet between member states and institutions. The two Presidents reflect this. He added that the treaty is likely to remain unchanged for a long time.
He also rejected the notion that the agreements reached during European Council meetings were ‘pre-cooked’, and explained that many sensitive points had to be addressed at these meetings.
In conclusion, Herman van Rompuy stated that both the euro area and Schengen were designed to function in periods of stability but are not necessarily adapted to function well during crises, which is why it is important to come up with creative solutions on the spot.