Mon Feb 11th, 2008 at 04:59:42 AM EST
The attention being paid to whether or not Blair wants or will be given the job of President of the European Council created by the Treaty of Lisbon provides me with a good excuse to take a look at the bigger institutional picture and how the appointment or not of Tony Blair fits with the direction that EU reform is taking.
One of the problems with the European Council is that it represents the political class only. This explains partly why the Council is the least trusted European Institution (source: Eurobarometer). The situation is so bad that Commissioner Wallström even accused this political elite of being a male chauvinist clique.
EUobserver.com: Margot Wallström fed up with EU 'reign of old men' (08.02.2008)
EU communications commissioner Margot Wallstrom has said she is fed up with the "reign of old men" in Brussels corridors, saying public opinion in Europe will not take lightly to the backroom scheming between EU hot-shots.
Promoted by DoDo
If one looks at the conditions for EU treaty reform, the EU remains an intergovernmental organization, that is, constitutionally it's not even a confederacy. In order to change that one would have to shift the power to reform the treaties from the Member States to the European Parliament, and that is not likely to happen.
The Council has, in fact, made a great big mess of the Treaties (and the Eastward expansion) since the ill-fated Nice summit at the end or the previous French Presidency in 2000. It's, in a way, their mess; it's taken them all this time to fix it and it's not clear that they have succeeded.
To make a long story short, the EU is basically going in the direction of giving more powers to the Council, which I reiterate is the least trusted European Union institution consistently Eurobarometer after Eurobarometer.
But turkeys don't vote for Christmas, and given who negotiates the treaties, this state of affairs is not likely to change.
We're finally getting the concession that the deliberations and votes in the Council will be made public, which will prevent ministers from voting at the Council to approve a policy that is unpopular at home, and then blaming the European Commission ("Brussels") for it. Some transparency in the work of the Council was needed, and it will be had.
The full name of the European Commission is the Commission of the European Communities. Note the plural! This refers to the European Coal and Steel Community (1952-2002), the Euratom, and the European Economic Community, which was all there was before the Single European Act and the Maastricht Treaty. It was, for instance, the EEC that Spain and Portugal joined in 1986.
The Commission is therefore in charge of the Single Market (the soon-to-be-former "First Pillar") and is also the "Guardian of the Treaties". I say "soon to be former" because the Three-Pillar structure established by the Maastricht Treaty is going to be dissolved into just one European Union with separate legal personality by the new Treaty. However, when thinking about the division of powers within the EU it still helps to keep the three pillars in mind.
The other two pillars are the Common Foreign and Security Policy (yes, we have had one since Maastricht, believe it or not) and Police and Judicial Cooperation in Criminal Matters.
So, the EU has had a placeholder for a common foreign policy for aboout 15 years now, but the Council can't stop bickering and, since unanimous agreement is required, no actual Common Policy exists to speak of. The CFSP is, then, a confederate foreign policy - foreign policy remains with the Member States and any common policy would be agreed collegiately.
The Second Pillar is, therefore, a Council competence. However, the Commission has long had a (technocratic) Directorate General for external relations. The (political) position of Commisioner for External Relations will be merged with the High Representative for the CFSP and become one of the four top jobs in the European Union. This, IMHO, weakens the Commission by explicitly reducing its foreign relations to Trade relations and taking political issues closer to the council.
Now, Blair as president of the Council would want to usurp these attributions of the HRCFSP. That is what the whole Blair row is all about. A move of foreign relations from the Commission towards the Council, to a position somewhat in the middle of the two. But Blair has hinted that he only wants the job of Council President if he can also take over some of the attributions of the HRCFSP, as well as those of the Commissioner for Trade.
Guardian Unlimited Politics: I'll be president of Europe if you give me the power - Blair (February 2, 2008)
Tony Blair has been holding discussions with some of his oldest allies on how he could mount a campaign later this year to become full-time president of the EU council, the prestigious new job characterised as "president of Europe". Blair, currently the Middle East envoy for the US, Russia, EU and the UN, has told friends he has made no final decision, but is increasingly willing to put himself forward for the job if it comes with real powers to intervene in defence and trade affairs.
(my emphasis) Compare this with the description of the Council President in the Lisbon Treaty Article 1
6. The President of the European Council:
(a) shall chair it and drive forward its work;
(b) shall ensure the preparation and continuity of the work of the European Council in cooperation with the President of the Commission, and on the basis of the work of the General Affairs Council;
(c) shall endeavour to facilitate cohesion and consensus within the European Council;
(d) shall present a report to the European Parliament after each of the meetings of the European Council.
The President of the European Council shall, at his level and in that capacity, ensure the external representation of the Union on issues concerning its common foreign and security policy, without prejudice to the powers of the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy.
The President of the European Council shall not hold a national office.'.
In connection with this, it may have escaped notice that there is already a person doing the job that the Treaty of Lisbon spells out for the President of the Council. This is not the HRCFSP. The job title is Secretary General of the Council and the holder of the job is the same Javier Solana that is currently HRCFSP.
The role of the General Secretariat of the Council is to provide the intellectual and practical infrastructure for the Council at four levels: working party, Permanent Representatives Committee, Council of Ministers and European Council. It carries out the practical preparation for meetings and drafts reports, notes, minutes and records and prepares draft agendas. It is more particularly at the disposal of the Presidency to assist in its tasks of finding compromise solutions, coordinating work and summing up situations. It provides the continuity in Council proceedings and has custody of Council archives and acts. Its Legal Service is available to give opinions to the Council and its committees. A large number of officials work at translation, typing, reproduction, circulation and handling of documents.
In other words, Blair actually wants to take over both
of Javier Solana's current jobs, even though the Treaty of Lisbon explicitly makes them quite distinct.
So, in my mind it is essential that the President of the Council be an unassuming personality, not chosen for their great oratory, media savvy and their ability and willingness to strut the globe representing the EU. That's what the HRCFSP is about, and that will be a separate job. The Council President has to be someone who has the ability to facilitate coalition building within the council and broker agreements. Blair is not the person for this, he has shown that in spades through ten years of experience on the Council as PM, and for six months while he held the rotating presidency. Taking a cue from redstar's latest diary, I'd say that the Council President should be a former Foreign Minister of a mid-sized country. Also note that the Council will be writing the job description this year, before filling the position, and that the Devil is in the details of how the council will define the job of its President.
Finally, the third pillar: police and judicial cooperation. It is very necessary but it will of necessity be done under the council. It's not the Commission's job (single market) to set up (say) a "federal police force" for the EU. On this I will just say that I heard a very convincing presentation [PDF: see section 8.6] by Bill Newton-Dunn MEP on the need for a federal police force. But that can only be done by the Council under the Third Pillar. Remember again that the European Parliament is legislative, not executive, and that the executive competence over the third pillar lies with the council and not with the commission. Note also that the Parliament doesn't have legislative initiative (the commission does, currently), but only the right to vote on proposed legislation within the codecision procedure.
This brings me to an interesting example of application of the Third Pillar: the airline passenger data controversy.
Under threat to commercial airlines by the US government, the European Commission drafted a directive or regulation allowing the data transfers that the US demanded. This was challenged before the European Court of Justice, who struck it down. But the reason that the regulation was struck down was not that it violated data protection: it was that it fell under the Third Pillar and so the Commission had overstepped its boundaries. Therefore, the Council got to draft its own regulation behind closed doors, and we ended up with a much worse passenger data regulation than the one we started with. This, by the way, was essentially the way the story was told to us by a guy from the Commission's US desk during a group visit to the Commission last Autumn.
Why can't we just remove the Council and make the Commission answer to the parliament's legislative initiative? Well, for two reasons. First "we" the people of Europe are represented democratically by our national governments. They compose the Council which is very analogous to a Senate (think: German Bundesrat). But as far as the structures of the EU are concerned the people are not directly sovereign. Sovereignty is delegated in the National Governments. EU treaties are entered into, in our name, by Plenipotentiaries of the member states. So, unless and until European policy at the Council becomes the number one political issue in a national election campaign, there will be no real chance of reform. Things might be different if the EU were able to raise its own taxes, but this is one thing that would be opposed more strongly by the member states than by the people of Europe, I believe.
Consider, for instance, that VAT is about 1/7 of GDP, and it is collected by the member states, while the EU budget is about 1% of GDP and it is paid by the member states from their tax revenues, rather than collected directly by the EU. This arrangement explains partly what the budget row was all about in 2006. The Commission came up with a 7-year budget framework for 2007-13, but then the Council reduced it by a lot, with the European Parliament trying to increase it. The Council also was late reaching its own common position on the budget framework. Then, once the 7-year budget famework is decided, the European Parliament actually holds the purse and decides the annual budgets.