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In a roundtable discussion on 20th April 2016, Wolfgang Wessels (University of Cologne), Giuseppe Buccino (Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation), Sergio Fabbrini (LUISS School of Government) and Mario Monti (former Italian Prime Minister, 2011-2013) held a most controversial roundtable discussion on the European Council’s (EuCo) performance in policy making. The discussion was chaired by Ferdinando Nelli Feroci (Instituto Affari Internazionali) and was attended by 40 participants.

Nelli Feroci introduced into the debate by describing the EuCo as a ‘main actor’, whose role has changed substantially with the Lisbon Treaty and the economic and financial crisis. The EuCo would have evolved from a body providing broad orientation to a decision maker and crisis manager. However, questions regarding leadership, the functioning of the body and differences between member states would remain mysterious.

Wolfgang Wessels referred to the question of whether the European Council is fit to govern by introducing a checklist containing package deals, the facilitating role of the Presidency, internal and external pressures, the power of smaller and larger member states, leadership and an ‘esprit de corps’ (see more here). He emphasised the enforced difficulty of finding a compromise in crisis situations. In the refugee crisis, for example, package deals were more difficult because member states were not concerned in the same way. As regards the role of small member states, he reported that these often welcomed a Franco-German initiative as the two countries usually took on opposing positions. A compromise between these two was therefore likely to be acceptable to smaller member states. Moreover, he pointed to the fact, that no European Council member had ever missed a session. This showed the institution’s importance.

Wessels considered it surprising that the European Council had regularly strengthened supranational institutions. However, a possible merger of the offices of the Presidents of the European Commission and the European Council seemed unlikely to him as the Heads of State or Government would not favour other powerful members in the institution.

Sergio Fabbrini held a more critical view on the European Council by questioning the institution’s importance as a decision-making body which contradicted its role prescribed in the treaty. This contradiction, he emphasised, should be important for students of European Studies. In the context of this development, the negotiations on the Maastricht Treaty formed a critical juncture: the Maastricht compromise reflected interests of both those favouring the community method and those supporting state power. In order to balance an evolving power of Germany, France had for example argued for a method based on policy coordination instead of law. As a result, the European Council had become a decision-making institution.

Out of a scholar’s perspective, Fabbrini criticised that the European Council de facto could take decisions while the accountability of the institution would not be clear. Although, with the Lisbon Treaty, the European Council has become an official body of the EU, the question of accountability remained for deals that are decided outside the formal institution. Moreover, he criticised that decisions could be taken without debates in the European Parliament. The European Council would be accountable to national parliaments instead. However, Fabbrini doubted their capacities to control the European Council as their main tasks contained national issues. In the context of this ‘legitimacy vacuum’, Fabbrini feared a process of ‘centralisation without legitimisation’.

Giuseppe Buccino also criticised the European Council’s decision-making procedures, for example as regards decisions related to BREXIT. However, he emphasised that everybody had an interest in keeping Great Britain inside the EU – a context against which he considered such unorthodox procedures as a minor price. In general the European Council would play an important role in foreign policy such as defence and asylum policies. However, in the migration crisis the European Council might not be the right forum, as it lacked operational capacities to have decisions implemented. As an example he mentioned the European Council’s decision of a relocation system against which some countries had planned to appeal to the court. Buccino pointed to the risk of falling into an intergovernmental gap. Therefore the institution had to overcome inconsistency and a lack of coherence as under current conditions the system was not able to work.

Finally, former Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti again emphasised the risks of an increasing weight of the European Council. Drawing from his experiences as a member of the Prodi Commission and as a member of the European Council he referred to the problem of a ‘de-naturation of the European Council’, i.e. an European Council that rather takes detailed decisions instead of giving a general impetus. 

As an example he reported from his time in the Commission that European Council members took actions, neither on the basis of a serious discussion among the members nor on the basis of the respective Commission proposal. Moreover, during his time as a member of the European Council a series of sessions had been devoted to how to get out of the crisis. However, Angela Merkel had postponed the topic, although Monti and other members felt it was important to devote a session on nationalism and populism in context of the crisis.

In general, Monti characterised pushing integration through the European Council as difficult since decisions taken by the institution often came late. Moreover, the process was complicated as Germany, as the most powerful member, often referred to restrictions of the German Bundestag. However, he emphasised that all Heads of State or Government were accountable to their Parliaments. He himself had deliberately visited his Parliament before Council sessions in order to tie his hands.

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