DEN HAAG (PDC) - In a roundtable discussion on May 5th, fellow Petya Alexandrova presented her analysis of her research on the Agenda Setting in the European Council in the period between 2009 and 2014, a study commissioned by the European Parliamentary Research Service (EPRS).
Between December 2009 and November 2014, 35 summits took place, five of which were informal and another five extraordinary. This extensive level of summitry continued a trend which had begun several years earlier, and offered increased opportunities to address sensitive issues and focusing events. It ensured relative stability with respect to the annual output of the European Council as measured via its conclusions.
The most prominent topics on the agenda were macroeconomics, foreign policy, and business and finance. While the first two have always been substantially addressed, the latter is an exception, clearly brought about by the global financial crisis and the need to find solutions to its negative effects on the EU. The crisis also enhanced attention to macroeconomics – a domain which was even more prominent than usual. Meanwhile this had an impact on other areas, either by causing a spill-over in attention (e.g. on employment) or constraining the leeway for attention to other topics, even foreign policy.
In the post-Lisbon period, the European Council took a predominantly reactive approach to foreign affairs. Attention to both general foreign policy matters and specific domains with an external dimension (e.g. defence, civil rights, or immigration) was activated foremost by focusing events. The institution confirmed its inclination to react to conflicts in the neighbourhood (Arab Spring, Ukraine crisis, Syrian Civil War, Israel-Gaza conflict). Among these, the unrest in Ukraine with escalating violence and the Russian annexation of Crimea dominated and made the parties to the conflict the most prominent third countries mentioned in the conclusions over the entire five-year period.
Another key force behind the composition of the agenda relates to ‘rolling dossiers’, recurring themes or files in progress that feature issues for which political agreement between the Member States has to be reached at European Council level. Such matters belong to different sectors, and in the post-Lisbon period included the Multiannual Financial Framework (with a focus on agriculture and regional policy), political appointments and energy policy. The development of a comprehensive energy policy for the EU began in 2006, and discussions in the recent period were driven by a desire to conclude plans on which work was ongoing (in particular to complete the internal market in energy).
The European Council’s pattern of attention follows the punctuated equilibrium model, in which relative stability is interspersed by large and erratic changes. The post-Lisbon agenda is notable for its comparatively more punctuated nature. This was the result of three phenomena. First, some very low-key topics suddenly gained prominence as a result of budgetary negotiations. Second, the preoccupation with finding solutions to the economic and financial crisis in 2010 constrained the space for less urgent topics (like immigration), which reappeared the year after, further boosted by focusing events in the neighbourhood. Last, the overcrowding of the agenda with urgent matters made exclusion of topics more common.
While de jure responsible primarily for setting goals and identifying broad interests, the European Council in the post-Lisbon period was also much involved in operational matters, and this was only partially related to the delegation of tasks to other institutions. This is likely to be an effect of the economic and financial crisis as operational language dominated particularly in the micro- and macroeconomic domains. However, attaching an urgency status to strategic priorities could also trigger operational discussions, as attention to energy demonstrates. In the areas of foreign policy, external trade and defence the strategic share of the agenda was larger.
Interactions with the Member States and the EU institutions, in particular the Commission, the Council and the Parliament, were quite common. The European Council received input for its meetings primarily from the Commission, except in foreign policy, where the Council had a leading role. The Commission was also the actor most associated with expectations for future input, except in macroeconomics, where the Member States had an equal stake. Delegation occurred on multiple levels simultaneously, with differences across policy fields. Higher stress was put on the Council in macroeconomics, the Council and the Parliament in business and finance, the Member States in employment and the Commission in energy. The Council was primarily requested to act in foreign policy, although the High Representative and the Commission followed closely.
The first five years after Lisbon were full of crises, which required involvement from the top political level in the EU. This made issue attention more uneven than usual, elevated the economy to the highest priority level, and reduced the space for strategic thinking. Overall, developments in this period emphasised the decisive role of the European Council in many policy areas, governed both intergovernmentally and by the Community method.