28th Oct 2016

EU presidency trio lays claim to political power

Leaders of the countries next in line to take on the day-to-day running of the European Union have made it clear that they do not wish to be sidelined by any future EU president.

Gathered in Brussels last week to present a common logo for 18 months of co-operation beginning in January, the prime ministers of Spain, Belgium and Hungary were keen to emphasize the importance of "institutional balance" - an oblique way of saying they do not wish to get elbowed out of the political picture by a powerful new president of the European Council, a post created by the almost-ratified Lisbon Treaty.

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  • Spanish PM Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero will lay down the foundations for how the system will work in the future (Photo: The Council of the European Union)

"The future of Europe does not depend on one person ...the future of Europe depends on institutions," said Belgian leader Herman Van Rompuy.

His Hungarian counterpart Gordon Bajnai said "more time" is needed to "decide the role of the president and his relation to the rotating president." He also said that one of the three prerequisites for the future president should be that the person "is someone who is ready to live with the already existing institutions of Europe."

With the Lisbon Treaty now likely to come into place within the coming few months, focus has turned to the uncertainties contained in the document.

One of these includes how the six-month rotating presidencies and the national leaders of the moment will rub along with the permanent president.

While the president, who can hold office for up to five years, is supposed to drive forward the political agenda of the EU through the regular meetings of EU leaders, the rotating presidency will manage the daily policy-making including chairing monthly ministerial meetings in all areas, bar foreign policy. The set-up, with its undefined hierarchy, could lead to damaging turf wars.

The problem of the proliferation of chiefs with potentially overlapping job descriptions under the Lisbon Treaty - it also introduces a beefed up foreign policy post - has practical implications too, such as who will take part in EU summits with third countries. EU attendance at these events is often a crowded affair, a problem the union's new set of rules is supposed to fix.

Who will be the first president of the European Council is still unclear, with member states unsure about whether they want a powerful global figure, or someone with a more administrative job description. The EU parliament will discuss the role of the new president on 11 November, while the appointment itself is expected to be decided at an extraordinary summit later this month.

The type of person who gets the job is set to strongly influence how the EU will make a go of the new Lisbon Treaty system - a fact acknowledged by the Hungarian leader.

Mr Bajnai said it was the three countries' "noble task" to "prove it is a better solution."

Spain, which is likely to be the first country to operate a presidency under the Lisbon Treaty beginning on 1 January, will face the challenge of setting the terms for how successive countries manage the relationship between the national leader and the EU president.

A still greater challenge to the system is likely to come when one of the most powerful EU countries, Britain, France or Germany hold the rotating presidency. But this is not foreseen until 2017.

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