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Session 5: The European Council - Centre of the institutional architecture?

The panel was opened with a legal perspective on the European Council’s role in the institutional architecture given by Christophe Hillion. As a first central point Hillion confirmed the European Council’s central position in the institutional architecture by referring to competences referred to it by the Lisbon Treaty. The European Council could for example decide who sits at the table - at the micro level by choosing main protagonists like the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy or at the macro level by including or excluding Member States (Art. 7 TEU). Due to Article 15 TEU, the European Council was both a policy initiator and a generator for change taking guiding decisions on topics of different natures. Nevertheless, as a second point Hillion emphasized that the European Council – since Lisbon being listed under Article 13 TEU – is fully part of the system of checks and balances. Thus, it would not only have to exert its powers in a cooperative manner but can also be sued by the Court. Hillion therefore concludes that the Lisbon treaty did not lead to a new intergovernmentalism by conferring new powers to the European Council, but did rather constrain the European Council. Yet, this was only formally, Hillion demonstrated by asking ‘Who would sue the European Council?’.

David Schäfer discussed the European Council’s inter-institutional position by analyzing the practice of venue shopping to or from the European Council. In his research on EU actions to solve the financial crisis he found some evidence for venue shopping suggesting that both the European Council and the Council were strategically used by member states depending on their interests. Northern Countries for example had preferred discussions in the Council where Wolfgang Schäuble played an important role in the negotiations. Southern countries instead had preferred the venue of the European Council where, apart from Angela Merkel, also Mario Draghi and Mario Monti exerted influence. Schäfer then identified venue changes during the negotiations of the Banking Union. As a new instrument, Herman van Rompuy introduced it in in the European Council to use its Agenda-setting capacity. When Merkel vetoed the proposal, it was passed down to the more technical level of the finance ministers until it was finally lifted to the European Council again on the initiative of Mario Draghi and Mario Monti. In Conclusion of such venue changes, Schäfer suggests that textbooks should no longer have separated chapters on the European Council and the Council of Ministers. 

Sergio Fabbrini took on a critical position of the European Council’s inter-institutional role. Looking at the institutional evolution since the Maastricht Treaty, he criticized that since then the Union had supranational structures and the community method had suffered in favor of a monopoly of intergovernmental decisions. In this context, the Heads of State or Government would want control over new issues and those of domestic importance. However, the system would lack controls on the European Council in a way that ‘Montesquieu would despair’. When coping with the financial crisis, the intergovernmental consensus paradigm turned to a problem as the European Council’s different ideas among the Heads of State or Government hindered common solutions. He concluded by demanding that legitimacy was not a taxi driven from capitals to Brussels, but legitimacy needed to be in Brussels. Considering the rise of populist candidates a firewall between Brussels and the capitals was needed, since when populists were elected to the capitals they would also get into Brussels. 

Sebastiaan Princen summarized the session by first recalling the European Council’s influence on key positions and membership in the Union. Then, he elaborated again on  interaction of the European Council and the Council as it was pointed out by David Schäfer. Princen added that the different perceptions of Schäuble and Merkel were not due to their different personalities but positions. Schäuble could afford to be a tough bargainer on his resort, while Merkel had to consider interests of various resorts when negotiating. 

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