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The European Council: What to take away for research and teaching?

The summarizing session was chaired by Wolfgang Wessels who gave the word to the chairs of each session in order for them to elaborate on possible future research strands surrounding the European Council. Regarding this, he asked contributors to propose ways in which academia could approach this institution in order to ‘study the unstudyable, teach the unteachable’.   

Christine Neuhold took the floor by bringing forward that, primarily, the particularities of the European Council required carving out. Naturally, the answer to this question would depend on the perspective one took. Further, different metaphors would bring along specific implications – especially for the research agenda. As a general characterisation, she put forward that the European Council operated as an intergovernmental institution with supranational features. Further labels for this institution could be the ‘Über-Vater’ providing adults with supervision or a crisis manager taking also routine decisions. Besides, she added two further research objectives, beginning with the issue of accountability. As another field demanding further academic recognition, she identified the role of the institutional memory of the European Council as well as the role of bureaucracies regarding the dynamics between EU and national level. 

As second contributor, Funda Tekin drew upon two threads continuously brought up during the conference, serving essentially for further research. First, the aim to study the European Council, as an institution defined as ‘unstudyable’, and second the lacking internal information surrounding the European Council as such. Former challenges could be met by conferences allowing insights behind the scenes. Concerning the lack of internal information, it was up to academics to close this gap. As to substantial matters, she proposed to study party alliances in a forward-looking analysis as well as national endeavours to prepare for European Council meetings. In addition, she listed the role of mini-summits and the EU institutional balance as further fields for research. 

Lenka Curillova then focused on teaching approaches and tools to make the European Council accessible to students. Further, she emphasized that it was not only vital to teach this institution but also to present the European Council to the public. 

According to Sophie Vanhoonacker, four points deserve further attention. The first one was to study the European Council by putting it into context and analyse its impact on other institutions. Here, dynamics between intergovernmentalism and supranationalism were essential. As a second point she mentioned the role of political leaders and expectations placed on them. The momentum between smaller and larger member states and the question as to which people and institutions matter would be of importance in this frame. A third aspect was the issue of capacities and coordination. Hereof, the European Council’s capacity to deal with crises, as well as the different types of roles attributed to it, were subject of analysis. Lastly, she pointed to foreign policy and its role in the financial crisis as a further sphere for research. 

Mathias Jopp finally identified five further strands. First, studies approaching the European Council in a task-oriented way by looking at its high/strategic politics as well as at its guidelines. Second, the analysis from a members-states path would demand the study of dynamics between consensus and acceptance, with a special emphasis on the role of smaller member states. A third research path would be the role of public opinion. As a forth field requiring further research, Jopp recognized policy fields and, as to that, case-oriented inquiries. Lastly, the lack of rules and its deficiencies needed further attention. 

In summarizing all contributions Wessels detected both frustration and fascination. Research on the European Council as one – if not the – key institution taking ultimate decisions would be vital. Hence, there was a necessity to label the European Council in order to grasp its particularities and functions. For this purpose, the relations between persons and institutions as well as agency and structure were crucial dynamics asking for academic attention. In addition, it was necessary to apply theories of evolution to the European Council and its increasing supranational elements. Lastly, on a normative level, it would be vital to bring the European Council’s big politics to citizens and make it approachable for them.  

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