17th Jun 2019

Big EU states gaining power despite enlargement

  • EU council chamber: size, and what you do with it, both matter (Photo: EU Commission)

Despite recent enlargement, the biggest EU states - France, the UK and Germany - have increased their power over EU decision-making, a Swedish study suggests. But Italy is punching below its weight, while sheer charisma helps some small EU countries boost their influence.

The overcrowded negotiating table in the European Council - EU leaders' meetings which normally take place four times a year - has made the bloc's big players more eager to pool their powers in coalitions and bilateral agreements where size really matters, the report "Bargaining power in the European Council" says.

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The study by Jonas Tallberg, professor of political science at Stockholm University, was launched in Brussels earlier this week, featuring interviews with past and present European Council participants - prime ministers and presidents - as well as European Commissioners, foreign ministers and national ambassadors in the EU.

In the report, interviewees draw from their experiences of EU high-level negotiating, and try to answer the question on which countries have most powers in the European Council, and why.

Despite the two recent enlargement rounds, France, Great Britain and Germany have grabbed more influence over EU decision-making, although formally, all member states have equal say, the report concludes.

"The European Council is a rather inhospitable environment for small and medium sized member states," the study's author stated in Brussels, explaining that the nature of the European Council, with negotiations carried out behind locked doors, offers greater leeway for power politics than any other EU institution.

"The presidency gets together with the large member states and settles the matter among them, and then they ask the other states if they are in or not," Mr Tallberg explained.

The report quotes Luxembourg prime minister Jean-Claude Juncker as saying that "greater member states have a greater say. We never admit it, of course, but one has to acknowledge that geography and demography are playing a role."

Former Danish prime minister Poul Nyrup Rasmussen describes the changing role of EU heads of state as follows: "In the old days, they just met and spoke about things. Today, they spend considerable time on the phone preparing with their colleagues...we are talking about strategic networking."

One small-state representative describes the growing importance of networking as coming at the expense of smaller states. "It is obviously the bigger countries [who are benefiting]. Their relative weight is always bigger in any bilateral discussion."

Exceptions to the rule

The report also points out exceptions to the general rule, however, naming Italy - the EU's fourth largest member state - as being weaker than other similar-sized states due to an unstable domestic politics and, until recently, due to the "unpredictability of Silvio Berlusconi as prime minister."

"Italy is not one of the four great member states. Spain is trying to replace Italy, but it is not successful, and Poland will have to admit that it is not part of these great member states," one official states.

Likewise, Germany has relatively little say in matters of defence, due to its limited military capacity despite its position as the largest EU member state.

In specific cases small countries can "punch above their weight," as with Nordic states in matters of employment policy and environmental policy or as with "particularly involved states" such as Cyprus on the Turkey issue.

Interviewees agree that the six-month rotating presidency system benefits small states, giving them rare chances to set the agenda and showcase their diplomatic skills.

"Even small country presidencies, if they are successful and do their homework, can have a lot of influence. The presidency is always number one," Finnish foreign minister Erkki Tuomioja is quoted as saying.

In the disputed EU constitution, one of the provisions is to strengthen the European Council as a body by establishing a semi-permanent president, a measure that could see smaller member states lose the extra influence given by the current system.

Personality counts

Finally, an important factor for gaining bargaining power in the council is the personal qualities of EU leaders and their ability to generate authority, respect and trust among their European colleagues.

French president Jacques Chirac is by interviewees described as a "clever and persistent" yet arrogant "political animal," while former German chancellor Gerhard Schroeder is portrayed as "surprisingly silent, without an interest in the political game, often detached from the debate."

British prime minister Tony Blair's influence is seen as "less extensive than his spin doctors make it seem," while Mr Berlusconi earned a reputation as a "maverick leader" with a self-assumed role as the EU club's comedian.

Speaking about the Luxembourg leader, one fellow head of state said "How many times do you need to multiply Juncker's weight because of his personal and human attributes? Juncker probably weighs more than countries with 12 to 14 million inhabitants."


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