3 February 2011

European Council conclusions (and the rotating presidency)

Right now diplomats and journalists in the Brussels bubble are either looking for or looking at the latest draft of the European Council (EC) conclusions for tomorrow. Yours truly are no exception.

Though even if we weren’t looking at them, we would already pretty well know their content from the many calls we get from journalists and lobbyists, asking to confirm this or explain that in the EC conclusions. (And I will explain later why, even after Lisbon, the Presidency still has some role to play there.)

Citicisms regularly come up in these discussions. For example, some see EC conclusions as too vague to be useful and containing conflicting, or at least incoherent bits and pieces. Or, they either seem to repeat earlier conclusions or (to some extend) cancel them.

So it may be a good idea to ponder a little over what these conclusions really are and how they matter for our work.

EC conclusions are certainly not precise, technical documents. On this level of decision making, you don’t necessarily need to say how many electric cars should circulate on the EU’s roads in 5 years, or how much solar energy we want to have as opposed to hydro, for example.

Neither are these conclusions written for eternity. As Keynes once famously quipped “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?” Similarly, EC conclusions should be viewed against the backdrop of current issues, which provide the political impetus for decision making.  

What EC conclusions really do, then, is twofold: they affirm, and reaffirm, EU leaders’ commitment to certain objectives on the one hand, and they task the sectoral councils and the Commission on the other. (One could argue that what is not in them is the most important, but let’s not go down that road for now.)

So, if the European Council believes that what was said a few years ago still applies, they can repeat it. Governments come and go (thankfully, as we live in democratic states), the facts change, as noted above, and it’s a good idea to discuss what the current leaders believe to be the defining issues.

Incidentally, that is why they are important to the Presidency, too, and that is where we come back to the post-Lisbon role of the rotating presidency at the Council. The leader of the rotating presidency, after all, is still the boss of the chairpeople of the other councils, whose work is defined to some extent by the European Council.

This is even more obvious if, as is now the case, the President of the European Council decides to devote a Council to sectoral issues. For tomorrow’s Council, the preparatory work was done in the sectoral councils, and those are chaired by the rotating presidency – including their respective working groups and Corepers.

So the Prime Minister of the rotating presidency will be discussing, with his colleagues, the results of the work done by his or her “subordinates”, if you will. And he will have to take the conclusions with him back to those councils for further work. 

- Kovács & Kováts

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