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Who leads the EU?

Who leads the European Union – or even “Europe”? A weighty question indeed – and thankfully not one that preoccupies only the members of this particular panel. Indeed, as well-regarded and experienced a figure as former MEP Richard Corbett has recently asked it again (Corbett, “Who Leads the European Union?” European Voice, January 6, 2011). Corbett’s hardly masked indignation, which arose over the same outlet’s reporting on Hungary’s beginning tenure of the rotating Council Presidency under the heading “Hungarian Presidency of the EU”, illustrates two things: one, clear and present inter-institutional sensibilities over roles and perceptions; and, two, that the question of EU leadership is far from settled, even after the Lisbon Treaty.

“There is, of course, no such thing” as a Presidency of the EU, as he quite rightly informs the reader, and “Hungary merely chairs one of the EU institutions, not the EU as a whole”. In this post-Lisbon EU, one might argue, it does not even fully do that, since certain formal (Foreign Affairs Council) and informal (Eurogroup) parts of this institution are beyond its remit. But Corbett goes further to dismiss the rotating Council Presidency as an “always … over-rated function”, “short-term, without executive powers” and heir to “a pre-set agenda” – and all this before the Lisbon Treaty took away the incumbent Prime Minister’s right to chair the European Council and reduced the incumbent Foreign Minister to just another member of the Foreign Affairs Council, now chaired by its new quasi-permanent President/aka the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy/aka the First-Vice-President of the Commission. (Digression: Given the interesting inter-institutional entanglements that result from this, the question comes to mind of what happens if the Commission President asks his First-Vice-President to resign? Does he thereby also dismiss – woe betide him – the President of the Foreign Affairs Council? Or does the incumbent merely take off one of her three hats? What do the lawyers think?)

Needless to say, generations of Council Presidents would object to Corbett’s description of the rotating Council Presidency no less strenuously than would the Presidents of European Council, Commission and the European Parliament (EP), in his view, to those who may “wish to elevate the Council (and its president) above all the others”. And, much more humbly, so would I. But the question of the role and relevance of the Council Presidency – both rotating and quasi-permanent, both pre- and post-Lisbon – remains open, or at least disputed, among both practitioners and academics. Because it is central to the question of leadership in the EU as a whole, it is hard to see how the latter can be answered without the former.

Perhaps it may alleviate some of the pressure on the panel that the question of the leadership of and, more particularly, the roles played by individual member state Council Presidencies in “the baffling latter-day Byzantium of the European Union” (Peter Hennessy) has even reached the West End. It is the question pondered by David Haig’s Prime Minister Jim Hacker and Henry Goodman’s Cabinet Secretary Sir Humphrey Appleby (one shudders to think what Malcolm Tucker would have to say on the matter) at the beginning of Antony Jay’s and Jonathan Lynn’s production of “Yes, Prime Minister” (until recently at the Gielgud Theatre, on tour from February 3rd). The British PM insists that as the (current) President – and there is some discussion of what, exactly – a big conference he’s putting on must be a success, and he goes to extraordinary lengths to make it so. To my ears, at least, this is evidence of the Presidency effect in action.



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