To fully appreciate the position of the European Council within the European Union we first took a brief look at how the European Union came about. The European project first started soon after the second world with the creation of the ECSC (European Coal and Steel Community) to harmonise relations between the Nations of Europe and to prevent any further conflicts of the scale of the wars that had preceded its creation. The new spirit of cooperation aimed to bring about a new era of peace and prosperity across Europe. The founding nations were Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Netherlands and Luxemburg.
The first enlargement came in 1973 when Ireland, Denmark and the United Kingdom joined the EU. Since then a further 18 countries have joined the Union making the European Union a family of 27 nations. There have been many treaties along the way which have shaped and formed how the European Union is today. We are going to be looking at the evolution of the European Council as an institution within the European Union. We will be examining the treaties and policies that were made that shaped the roles and responsibilities of the European Council. We will also examine how the actions of the European Council itself brought about their powers as an institution. Furthermore we will discuss and examine the responsibilities the European Council now has and the role it plays in the governance of the Union. In addition we will discuss where the balance of power now lies within the Union or indeed if there is a single dominant institution. Evolution of the European Council
The European Council first convened in 1974 as an informal discussion forum that heads of state or governments could meet to discuss issues regarding the direction of the European Community, although these meetings did take place from the late 1960’s on, it wasn’t until 1974 that the council was created. The European Community felt that it was necessary for the heads of state and governments to meet in a more informal setting because the other institutions where handicapped by red tape. For example the European Commission was weakened by the Luxemburg Compromise of 30 January 1966 which placed more emphasis on inter-governmental decision making; the Council of Ministers was handicapped by sectoralism and its policy of only proceeding on the basis of unanimity. The European Council gives the union the drive it needs to developed and defines the general political directions of the Union although it does not exercise any legislative functions. The European Council evolved outside the framework of treaties but the most recent treaties have made provisions the Council to inform or consult with the European Parliament.
Over the years a process of constitutionalisation began with regards to power and position of the European Council, this happened in six steps. Step 1 was declarations which the Euro Council made which gave them more power, such as the declarations made in London and Stuggart in 1977 and 1983 respectively. These declarations were made with the purpose of clarifying their role but failed to do this to any great extent. Step 2 was the SEA (Single European Act) of 1986 which gave the European Council legal recognition for the first time and also clarified membership, and also reduced the number of meetings from three meetings a year to two meetings through two short paragraphs in the Act. Step 3 came in the shape of the Maastricht Treaty which expanded on the SEA and also gave the European Council more powers and responsibilities. It had 3 sets of references with regards to the European Council. Within the Maastricht Treaty the TEU (Treaty of Establishment of the European Union) was amended and the European Council was assigned responsibility for deciding the general direction of the European Union and also given important powers in relation to the CFSP (Common Foreign and Security Policy).
The final set of reference came within the TEC (Treaty Establishing the European Community) which was amended to give the Council certain duties and decision making powers involving the EMU (European Monetary Union). Step 4 came in the shape of the Amsterdam Treaty which reaffirmed the powers and responsibilities given to the Council within the Maastricht Treaty. It then extended these powers and responsibilities with regards to the EMU and CFSP. The Nice Treaty was step 5 wherein it gave the Council the power to nominate the person to be put forward for the position of President of the European Commission. The final and sixth step came in the form of the Lisbon Treaty when the European Council was established as a fully-fledged institution of the European Union. The Lisbon Treaty stated “The European Council consists of the Heads of State and Government of the Member States and is an official institution of the Union (Article I-21)” (Europa.eu, 2012). This treaty changed the structure of membership of the European Council. Before the Lisbon treaty the membership was a two tiered system.
The first tier consisted of the heads of state or government of the member states and the president of the commission. The second tier consisted of the foreign ministers of each member state and one other member of the commission. Before the Lisbon treaty only two members per delegation were permitted to attend meetings of the council. This was to promote a more relaxed and informal atmosphere than that in council of ministers. Since the Lisbon treaty there is just one tier of membership consisting of heads of state, the European council president and the commission president. The Lisbon treaty also reformed the system for assigning the role of president of the European council. Before the treaty the position of president was rotated between the member states every six months. This meant that each state had its opportunity to contribute to meetings at the highest level. The disadvantage of this system was the turmoil and disturbance to the running of the European council that this turnover of presidency caused on a biannual basis. Since the treaty the president is appointed and done so on a semi-permanent basis.
The position of president is held for two and a half years and is renewable once, the position is elected by a Qualified Majority Voting method within the members of the European Council. This system of election tends to favour the larger nations within the council as they have more votes than the smaller nations hence given them more power, although it could also be argued that this system is the fairest system as the heads of state or government from the larger nations represent a larger portion of the population of the Union. The current president of the European Council is Herman Van Rompuy a former Belgian prime minister, his roles and responsibilities are however somewhat vague. For example, within the treaty provisions on the president of the European council it states that he shall chair and drive forward its work, this is unclear as to what his roles are as the statement could be interpreted in different contexts.
Functions of the European Council
The European Council operates as a political forum or board within the European Union but does not possess any legislative powers. Although it does not have legislative powers it still carries a lot of weight in the decision making and the ultimate development and direction of the Union. It also acts as an arbitrator for resolving issues which cannot be resolved by the institutions within the union. It sets out comprises and procedures to remove the impasses blocking progression which are then taken into account by the institutions involved. Their roles have evolved since their formation in 1974 in line with the ever changing issues and challenges facing the development and progression of European project. This represents the need for such an adaptable institutional body within the union. It also represents the need for a body that can come to agreements and make decisions on policies without the bureaucracy that comes with the other institutions within the union, although these agreements need to go through other institutions within the Union ie. Council of ministers and European Commission in order to be implemented and managed.
The current European Councils functions are more clearly defined since the Lisbon Treaty, although this is likely to change in the on-going development and integration of the European Union. One of the European Councils current functions is to set overall EU policy, the policies set out by the European Council is then managed and implemented by the European Commission, this shows that although the European Commission is the body that implements and manages the policies it is actually the European Council that has the power to set the policies making it a major player within the institutions of the Union. This also shows that the balance of power between the institutions is debatable. Another of the European Councils functions as an institution is to set guidelines for the Common Foreign and Security Policy. These guidelines are then passed on to the Council of Ministers who then work towards an agreement within the guidelines set out. This again shows the grey area of the balance of power between the institutions of the European Union as although the responsibility lies with the Council of Ministers to come to an agreement, it is the European Council has an extremely influential role to play in the formation of Common Foreign and Security Policy of the European Union.
Along with the other institutions of the European Union the European Council represents the EU at an international level on certain issues. Many economic issues are not internal within the European Union but are instead of a global nature. The European Council works on maintaining external relations with other major global economic powers such as the US, China and Russia. The other institutions also play a role in international relations, such as the European Commission who represent the European Union at United Nations meetings, informal discussions between the EU and the USA over world agricultural trade, and also represents Europe in the World Trade Organisation. The economic and monetary policies of the European Union are issues that European Council has input to and responsibilities for.
There have been many summits regarding the overall economic situation in the European Union. These summits look at areas of growth, unemployment, inflation and exchange rates. The European Council is one of the political forums in relation to the running of the EMU. The area of European accession applications are dealt with at the meetings of the European Council. These applications are sometimes recommended by the European Commission. They hear reports from the European Commission regarding the progress of negotiations the European Council then decides whether the discussions have been successfully concluded. This emphasises the scale of the European Councils power and influence within the union. Conclusion
We have examined the evolution of the European Council within the European Union. From the informal meetings in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s to the Lisbon Treaty of 2009 when the European Council was given the status of an official European institution. We examined the functions of the European Council and its relationship with other institutions within the European Union. We wanted to try and assess how powerful the position of the European Council is in relation to the other institutions such as the European Commission and the Council of Ministers. We wanted to establish what the responsibilities and duties of the European Council actually are and give an unambiguous picture of what its functions in the mechanism of the system of the European Union are. From our research into and examination of the European Union and European Council we believe that the European Council has gradually gained more power and influence in shaping and running the European Union, to the extent where it now seems that the European council is now the centre of EU policy making. The freedom of the European Council to decide what it may or may not do stems from the fact that there are few treaty and other legal provisions which relate to its responsibilities and said provisions are at best vague.
This coupled with political status of its members is such as to put it generally beyond much challenge. (Nugent, 2010). There is an increasing need for intergovernmental policy coordination, which needs the authorisation of the member states to be implemented; this is why the European Council has become so influential as its members have the authority to implement these policies which other institutions do not have. The importance of the European Council was emphasised by professor Uwe Puetter of the Central European University when he stated that “…the Franco-German couple as well as all the other “heads” knew in any case that there soon will be another opportunity to sort these things out: the next European Council meeting.”(The London School of Economics and Political Science, 2012). He was discussing the recent meeting of the European Council in Brussels on the issue of the institutional framework of Economic and Monetary Union (EMU).
The fact the next European Council meeting was referred to as the next opportunity to sort things out rather than the next Council of Ministers or European Commission meetings shows that the European Council is now the main institution within the European. Although the importance of the other European institutions should not be understated as the Union would cease to function without the work and input that each institution provides. Each institution relies on each other as the sheer enormity of the work it takes to run an organisation as big as the European Union is far too much for one institute to undertake. From our analysis of the European Councils position in relation to the other main institutions of Europe we feel it has evolved from an informal meeting of heads of state or government with no direct authority in policy making to the current main institution that has the most important role to play in policy and decision making. Looking at its evolution as a whole it seems inevitable that it would gain the dominant position in decision making and advisory to the other institutions within the European Union as the members of the European Council are of the highest power within each member state.
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