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What’s Left of the EU’s Rotating Council Presidency? Small State Influence After Lisbon

By Chris Klein

When the Nobel Committee announced that the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the European Union (EU) in recognition of “over six decades [working toward] peace and reconciliation, democracy and human rights in Europe,followers of European Affairs couldn’t help but wonder who will show up to pick up the gold medal in Stockholm on December 10th. European Commission President José Manuel Barroso and European Council President Herman Van Rompuy must be considered the favorites to collect the prize; however, the debate highlights that despite considerable efforts and multiple treaty changes, the EU’s dense and multi-layered institutional framework continues to prevent the emergence of a “collective face” that can speak for Europe. At this point, only one thing appears certain: it won’t be President Dimitris Christofias of Cyprus—the country that currently presides over the Council of the European Union—who will travel to Sweden in December.

The Rotating Presidency – Designed to Maintain Small-State Influence

The Rotating Presidency of the Council of the European Union is one of the many structural anomalies of the European project. Since the 1957 Rome Treaties, national governments have chaired Council meetings in a six-month rotation. During their rotation, the President is responsible for setting agendas, communicating decisions, and generally speaking for the EU’s key decision-making organ. Rotation was designed to ensure non-hierarchical and decentralized leadership of the Council that prevented the emergence of a single power center. The structure was the result of a sensitive bargain between small and big states. The Council Presidency provided the office holder with important leadership functions and opportunities for shaping policy outcomes. As a result, EU’s small member states highly valued the Presidency.

Until the Lisbon Treaty, which entered into force on December 1, 2009, these functions have remained essentially unreformed. In an attempt to make the EU more democratic, efficient, and open—as well as to prepare for the accession of ten new Member States in 2004—Lisbon amended the Rome framework and provided the most fundamental changes to the rotating presidency to date. These changes severely circumscribe the leadership role that the Rotating Presidency provided for national governments in the past.

After Lisbon – from CEO to Middle Manager?

Making the EU’s institutional framework ever more dense and confusing than before, Lisbon disconnected the European Council—a meeting between the heads of member states and the Council President, which is often described as the EU’s main political driving force—and its presidency from the presidency of the Council of the European Union (Council), the EU’s main legislative decision maker. Instead of national leaders, a permanent European Council President now prepares the EU summits, sets the agenda, chairs the meetings, and represents the European Council vis-à-vis the other EU institutions, intergovernmental organizations and non-member countries. This arrangement leaves the rotating presidency in charge of fleshing out legislative details at the ministerial and working-group levels.

Lisbon also created a permanent chair for the EU’s Foreign Affairs Council. The High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy (HR) is now appointed as the EU’s “secretary of state” instead of the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the country holding the rotating presidency. This represents a serious demotion of the rotating presidency, stripping the country in the chair of the ability to present itself as the “collective face” of EU foreign policy and to pursue its own initiatives on the international stage.

Moreover, Lisbon further increased the power of the European Parliament (EP) at the expense of the Council by requiring almost all EU legislation to be adopted by both institutions. This changed the EP into a second legitimate legislative body and the EU into a de-facto bicameral legislative system.

In addition, the European Commission’s right of legislative initiative—the legal monopoly on proposing new laws—was expanded to areas that traditionally had been the Council’s responsibility, and the introduction of the “trio-presidency” now requires three subsequent presidencies to work together on the basis of a common program. These changes have made coordination between the EP, the Commission, and other countries holding the presidency even more important than before and severely limit the presidency’s scope for shaping EU policy.

The Lisbon Treaty represents a serious curtailment of the rotating presidency’s political leadership at the EU level. Unsurprisingly, the agreement was highly contested during the reform process, particularly by smaller member states. Some critics argue that Lisbon reduced the rotating presidency from a source of political leadership to a mere service provider to the European Council:  a political “middle manager.”

Just How Bad is it?

At first sight, these changes look like a big blow to the ambitions of individual member states, especially smaller ones. The precedent set by the first rotating Council presidencies under the new rules indicates more top-down decision-making, with the new European Council Presidency dominating the big-picture agenda as well as the headlines.

Both Belgium and Hungary faced profound domestic challenges upon assuming their presidencies in the second half of 2010 and the first half of 2011, respectively. Belgium did not have a functioning government at the time; Hungary had to be bailed out by the EU, IMF and World Bank, and Prime Minister Victor Orban’s administration was under fire for controversial changes to the national media law. Unsurprisingly, both countries assumed a low profile on the European stage. This left European Council President Herman Van Rompuy and the new HR Lady Ashton with space to consolidate the agenda-setting power in their newly created institutions without being challenged by national leaders.

Nonetheless, despite their low-profile approaches, both Belgium and Hungary were able to advance some initiatives close to their national priorities. The Belgian presidency successfully negotiated legislation related to financial oversight, as well as the extension of the Security Sector Reform mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Hungary oversaw the adoption of the Danube Regional Strategy and a European framework for integration of the Roma minority. The invisibility of national politicians did not seem to hinder Belgium and Hungary in their pursuit of key national pet projects. Therefore, there seems to remain some potential for entrepreneurial leadership at the legislative level, even for small countries.

How Did the “Bigs” Do?

Contrary to Belgium and Hungary, the Polish Council presidency in the second half of 2011 was politically much more ambitious. Prime Minister Tusk and Foreign Minister Sikorski did not accept lower visibility in European affairs, but attempted to publicly influence the agenda throughout the Polish term–with mixed results. Poland advanced a number of its policy priorities, such as the Eastern Partnership initiative and engagement with North Africa in the wake of the Arab Spring. The Polish presidency, however, was largely side-lined from negotiations over economic matters (Poland is not a member of the Eurozone), and its attempts to extend the Schengen area to Bulgaria and Romania failed. Overall, there is no indication that the Polish presidency “outperformed” the Belgian and Hungarian presidencies in terms of legislative output or policy outcomes. The Official Journal of the European Union lists that 183 pieces of legislation (or amendments) were adopted during the Belgian presidency, 172 during the Hungarian presidency and 177 during the Polish presidency.

Not all Bad News for Small States – or is it?

Undoubtedly, the Lisbon Treaty represents a serious curtailment of the rotating presidency’s political leadership functions at the systemic level. Yet the rotating presidency retains the ability to shape EU legislation through its influence over legislative dossiers in the lower council configurations. Skillful navigation still leaves room for entrepreneurial leadership to shape policy outcomes in line with national preferences, even for small member states.

55 years after the Rome treaty, leadership in the EU appears ever more dispersed, its institutional framework even more convoluted and the need for close cooperation between the different actors ever more important. Neither the new European Council President, the HR, the Presidents of the Commission, nor the EP—and certainly not the downgraded rotating presidency—have provided the EU with its long-sought public face. Indeed, with the ongoing Euro crisis, all eyes have turned to Germany rather than any of the EU institutions, which might prove problematic in a political system that derives its legitimacy from a deliberate diffusion of political authority.


This article is based on:

Simone Bunse and Christopher Klein, What’s left of the Rotating Presidency? The Future of ‘National’ Presidencies, forthcoming inFrançois Foret and Yann-Sven Rittelmeyer (eds.) (2012) The Commanding Heights of the European Union. The European Council, the rotating presidencies and the new figures for Europe: competition or collaboration? (London: Routledge).

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