Montesquieu Institute: from science to society

Unravelling the European Council’s Conclusions

The European Council has spent most of 2010 talking macroeconomics and foreign policy. These two major topics have not only been dominant but also engaged in competition with one another. The total volume of the agenda shrank compared to 2009.

Another year  has passed in which EU leaders discussed the important issues of the day during European Council meetings. However, what was really discussed during the five formal meetings in 2010? And what can we infer from these meetings regarding the future of the Union?


The economy: still (and always) Europe’s greatest concern

The topics featured most on the agenda in 2010 were macroeconomics and foreign policy. About one third of the formal Presidency Conclusions are focused on macroeconomic issues.

In the first half year, the European Council was deliberating upon and adopted ‘Europe 2020’. It also entrusted Herman van Rompuy with the task to establish a task force on economic governance. During the October meeting the final report of the task force has been endorsed paving the way to a discussion on a limited treaty change and enabling the establishment of a permanent economic crisis mechanism, which itself captured most of the policy content in the December conclusion.


Foreign policy: sensitive and non-strategic issues off the agenda?

Almost another third of the agenda has been occupied by foreign affairs. The EU’s attempt to create a single foreign policy is clearly evident from its efforts to address different regions and countries in the world and foster bilateral relations with a number of strategic partners.

The European Council showed sympathy for the people of Pakistan after the devastating floods in the summer, and appreciated the US attempt to chair direct negotiations in the Middle East (September 2010). However, it spent no line in its Conclusions to the wildfires in Russia or the EU involvement in Afghanistan. Of course one cannot expect the European Council to have the time and capacity to speak about all prominent aspects of international affairs. Nevertheless, such an exclusive selection provokes questions as to how the agenda is prepared and decided upon. Was it only the extent of the natural disaster that triggered response or rather other strategic interests (considering that the EU Commission granted substantial amounts to both states in order to fight the crises)? And isn’t there a hidden disagreement on some topics of EU external policy, that allowed for another endorsement of the Middle East peace process but prevented a statement of the EU involvement in Afghanistan (the last meanwhile indirectly overthrew the President in Germany and the government in the Netherlands)?


Blame It on the Economy

As much as macroeconomics and foreign policy appear to be the ‘big powers’ on the agenda, hardly leaving space for other policy fields, they also seem to engage in competition. When one of the two expands, the other contracts.

In 2010 the economy has been the leading party of the two. The European Council had scheduled in advance the attention, which it could possibly award macroeconomic issues with and when these have been lower-key for a specific meeting, foreign policy has been booming. For example, the EU-Ukraine and EU-Russia Summits took place in late November and early December respectively, and yet cooperation with these countries was discussed more, not in the meeting immediately preceding the events (October) but in September, when attention regarding the economy was modest.


Light-weight agenda

Compared to 2009, when EU leaders were hurrying to agree on outstanding issues related to the Lisbon Treaty before it entered in force, the 2010 Council Conclusions’ volume is lower. Still, last year the economy and foreign relations were discussed, as were other issues. Then, how could this decreasing attention capacity be explained?

Maybe it is a simple logic of a kind of institutional fatigue. Or the Heads of State and Government were more dedicated to seeking solutions to problems domestically rather than aiming at a European dimension for preferred policies? Or the usual hot topics of the day were so controversial this year that they left limited room for other less powerful issues?


Do not underestimate the European Council

The Lisbon Treaty made it formally clear that the European Council does not have legislative power. Yet, practice has shown that its statements and suggestions are hardly ignored by the Commission, the Parliament and the Council in its different formations.

Often an idea is first pushed by the European Council before it moves down the ladder to the other institutions, that can formally take a binding decision on it. Moreover, the Heads of State and Government convene in the form of Intergovernmental Conferences to make changes to the treaties. In December this year, for the first time in the history of the EU, such a change (even if limited, as has been very much stressed) was undertaken during an ordinary European Council meeting. The European Council proved, once again, the tremendous role it plays in the power structure of the EU. Therefore, its deliberations should not be ignored but rather systematically scrutinised, both if we simply want to be knowledgeable about where we stand as a European community and if we want to have a stake in Europe’s future.


More information

These conclusions are the result of research by Petya Alexandrova on the changing role of the European Council in political agenda setting.