Monday

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.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Support quality EU news

Get instant access to all articles — and 18 year's of archives. 30 days free trial.

... or join as a group

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."

Investigation

The most dangerous pesticide you've never heard of

Scientists say there is no acceptable dose to avoid brain damage. Its use is banned in several European countries. Yet its residues are found in fruit baskets, on dinner plates, and in human urine samples from all over Europe.

Agenda

Top EU jobs summit dominates This WEEK

A summit in Belgian capital this week will host heads of government and state to discuss top EU institutional posts. But before they meet, the jockeying for the Commission presidency will have already started among the European political groups.

EP parties planning 'coalition agenda' ahead of jobs summit

Political bosses of the European Parliament's groups, hoping to assemble a majority coalition, are eyeing putting forward an political agenda - and possibly a name for the commission top job - before EU leaders gather in Brussels.

MEP blasts Portugal over football whistleblower

Ana Gomes, a socialist MEP from Portugal, has accused national authorities of erring on the side of corruption by detaining a whistleblower who helped expose tax evasion by some of Europe's biggest football stars.

Interview

Meet the lawyer taking the EU migration policy to the ICC

Juan Branco is a lawyer and co-author of a legal document submitted to the International Criminal Court (ICC) accusing EU officials and member states of crimes against humanity for their migration policies. "Some people should have to go to prison."

Opinion

Catalonia MEPs are a judicial, not political, issue

Carles Puigdemont and Toni Comin currently live outside Spain. They were prosecuted for the serious crimes, and they have fled justice. It is not possible to judge in absentia in Spain, where the justice system protects the rights of defendants.

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersNo evidence that social media are harmful to young people
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersCanada to host the joint Nordic cultural initiative 2021
  3. Vote for the EU Sutainable Energy AwardsCast your vote for your favourite EUSEW Award finalist. You choose the winner of 2019 Citizen’s Award.
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersEducation gets refugees into work
  5. Counter BalanceSign the petition to help reform the EU’s Bank
  6. UNICEFChild rights organisations encourage candidates for EU elections to become Child Rights Champions
  7. UNESDAUNESDA Outlines 2019-2024 Aspirations: Sustainability, Responsibility, Competitiveness
  8. Counter BalanceRecord citizens’ input to EU bank’s consultation calls on EIB to abandon fossil fuels
  9. International Partnership for Human RightsAnnual EU-Turkmenistan Human Rights Dialogue takes place in Ashgabat
  10. Nordic Council of MinistersNew campaign: spot, capture and share Traces of North
  11. Nordic Council of MinistersLeading Nordic candidates go head-to-head in EU election debate
  12. Nordic Council of MinistersNew Secretary General: Nordic co-operation must benefit everybody

Latest News

  1. Erdogan mocks Macron amid EU sanctions threat
  2. The most dangerous pesticide you've never heard of
  3. 'Russian sources' targeted EU elections with disinformation
  4. Top EU jobs summit dominates This WEEK
  5. EP parties planning 'coalition agenda' ahead of jobs summit
  6. MEP blasts Portugal over football whistleblower
  7. Catalonia MEPs are a judicial, not political, issue
  8. Meet the lawyer taking the EU migration policy to the ICC

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Platform for Peace and JusticeMEP Kati Piri: “Our red line on Turkey has been crossed”
  2. UNICEF2018 deadliest year yet for children in Syria as war enters 9th year
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic commitment to driving global gender equality
  4. International Partnership for Human RightsMeet your defender: Rasul Jafarov leading human rights defender from Azerbaijan
  5. UNICEFUNICEF Hosts MEPs in Jordan Ahead of Brussels Conference on the Future of Syria
  6. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic talks on parental leave at the UN
  7. International Partnership for Human RightsTrial of Chechen prisoner of conscience and human rights activist Oyub Titiev continues.
  8. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic food policy inspires India to be a sustainable superpower
  9. Nordic Council of MinistersMilestone for Nordic-Baltic e-ID
  10. Counter BalanceEU bank urged to free itself from fossil fuels and take climate leadership
  11. Intercultural Dialogue PlatformRoundtable: Muslim Heresy and the Politics of Human Rights, Dr. Matthew J. Nelson
  12. Platform for Peace and JusticeTurkey suffering from the lack of the rule of law

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us