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20th Feb 2020

Van Rompuy faces difficult power balancing act

  • Mr Van Rompuy starts his duties on 1 January (Photo: Council of the European Union)

New procedural rules being considered by member states show that EU president-designate Herman Van Rompuy will have to manage a delicate power balancing act with the country holding the rotating presidency when he takes up his duties on 1 January.

Potentially the draft rules, seen by EUobserver, could give the Belgian politician, known for his discretion and negotiating skills, real clout as president of the European Council.

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They give him the power to call special summits of EU leaders, draw up the agenda of the meetings, decide on whether to hold a vote, and whether EU summits should be attended by countries beyond the EU or other personalities.

However, the more immediate test of his skills is likely to be how he gets along with Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, who will take on the day-to-day running of the bloc in all areas except foreign policy on the same day.

The draft rules show that the monthly general affairs council, which will be chaired by Spain, will be extremely powerful.

The ministerial meeting will "prepare the European Council meetings and ensure their follow-up with the president of the European Council and the commission," says the French language document.

"The council is responsible for the general co-ordination of policies, institutional and administrative questions and horizontal dossiers affecting several policies of the European Union," it continues, saying this includes multi-annual financing and enlargement.

The rules, to be discussed by member state representatives today, also closely entwine the rotating presidency and the president of the European Council, Mr Van Rompuy, in several other ways.

They, along with the European Commission President, are supposed to have "regular meetings" while the presidency country will also chair discussions on the draft conclusions and draft decisions ahead of meetings of EU leaders.

How this works in practice is likely to come down to the personalities of both Mr Van Rompuy and Mr Zapatero and their willingness to make it work - with Spain setting the template for other presidency countries down the line.

Mr Zapatero has previously made it clear that he does not want Spain to be sidelined during its six-month tenure and is already making plans for how to lead discussions on the EU's plans for a new long-term economic strategy, to be discussed by EU leaders in March.

Mr Van Rompuy for his part has let it be known that he believes that all countries should be "winners" in negotiations and that a government losing face will be detrimental to EU discussions as a whole.

Meanwhile, the internal rules also make it clear how powerful the secretary general of the council - Frenchman Pierre de Boissieu - will be.

Referred to by the Swedish EU presidency as the person who "oils" the EU's machines, Mr de Boissieu was until now the deputy secretary-general of the council and will assume his beefed up role on 1 December, when the Lisbon Treaty comes into force.

The Frenchman will attend the EU summits, "take all the measures necessary for the organisation of proceedings," and prepare the minutes of the meeting. He is also supposed to work closely with the presidency country on ensuring the coherence of the work and putting in place the 18-month programme of the trio of presidencies, as well as support the new EU president and foreign policy chief.

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