Prague, 14.04.2016

In light of the 700th birthday of the Charles University’s founder, Charles IV, Professor Lenka Rovná welcomed the participants of the roundtable ‘Dynamics of decision-making inside the European Council: Surprising results under the rules of consensus’. She underlined the relevance of studying the power constellations of national leaders within the European Council, being the key institution for the EU’s integration and global action.

Professor Wolfgang Wessels then opened with the impression that decisions in the European Council are often surprising: ‘How and why do national, tough and basically egoistic Heads of State or Government (HoSG) agree on actions, that affect national sovereignty, although each Member State has a veto right?’One explanation would be the institutional arrangement of exclusivity and confidentiality within the European Council: Debates should be open among national leaders and not just based on documents prepared by civil servants.  Secondly, the permanent presidency – currently in the person of Donald Tusk – would try to build consensus among the states, although he does not have specific incentives to offer. Due to this situation, Professor Wessels underlined the importance for the person in office to have the trust of the HoSG. Accordingly, he should preferably not be elected by qualitative majority voting. As regards the role and introduction of the permanent presidency, Rovná added that during the convention in the 2000s especially large MS were in favour. The smaller states in contrast would have feared they would lose their chance of visibility. Finally the HoSG could agree on a relatively low profile of the chairperson. A third explanation for consensus in the European Council are package deals or so-called ‘horse-trading’ arrangements.Prof. Wessels then turned to a power dimension inside the European Council where it could be observed that the big players – or the ones being more influential at a certain point – have more speaking time than others. Conversely, Wessels argued that the European Council is an instrument against the ‘directoire’ or leadership of big Member States, because smaller states are present at important decisions and are given a voice opportunity. Considering the British case, this might become a disadvantage for the UK when leaving the EU. Moreover, no permanent coalitions could be observed. There would rather exist a political culture of an ‘esprit de corps’ within the group, because HoSG were not competing for the same position, but apparently had a feeling of responsibility of political leadership in Europe. At least statements of former participants, as the previous president Herman van Rompuy, would indicate this. However, Wessels indicated that data on power constellations is still on ‘shaky ground’, and encouraged students to do more research on this issue.

As third speaker Prof. Ivo Šlosarčík presented his view on the European Council out of the perspective of a citizen from a new and medium sized country. He described the institution as a principally nice compromise between the Council, where simply the size of Member States matters for decision-making, and the European Commission, which shall not be favouring national, but common European interests.  However, he named examples of an ambivalent experience of the Czech Republic with the European Council: For instance, the Czech Republic could not take part in de facto meetings of the European Council, especially in Eurozone summits, which however also affected the Czech in the common market. As another example, he referred to the negotiations on the fiscal compact with the idea of changing the EU treaties: When the UK expressed its opposition, the Czech joined them. The treaty then was passed as an intergovernmental treaty without the UK and the Czech Republic, who might be incorporated in a few years. Here, the Czech Republic would have learnt how difficult opposition in the European Council actually was. A third example of his perception of decision-making within the European Council was the Czech opt-out from the Charta of Fundamental Rights: The Czech Republic did not ratify the Lisbon Treaty even after all others had agreed, as Czech president Klaus in the last minute refused to sign. In the European Council, the Czech Republic then asked only very late for a respective opt-out to be included in the conclusions. This would ultimately have weakened the Czech position in Brussels. 

The debate finally was commented by Johannes Müller Gómez. He queried whether the European Council was really able to find solutions in a long term perspective, as it seemed not capable of finding satisfying consensus for recent crises. Another topic of discussion was the role of President Tusk, who for example was not involved in organising a summit with Turkey which was instead done by Angela Merkel and Jean-Claude Juncker. It was considered unlikely that there would be a more charismatic president in the future, although it was too early to assess Tusk’s performance. The same would apply to the possibility of having the two posts of the European Council President and the President of the European Commission combined.

Further questions from the participants pointed for instance to the Franco-German engine, and whether it was still there or has evolved to an asymmetric hegemony of Germany. Wessels did not see an end of the Franco-German engine but argued that HoSG were sometimes the driving forces, but often also driven - for example by the current crises. Therefore, differing coalitions and dynamics of decision-making arise in the European Council.