October 17, 2017
Guest post by Corey Cooper, Europe Fellow at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy (YPFP). He is also a Research Associate in US Foreign Policy at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Last month, European Commission President Jean-Claude Junker delivered his third and most important State of the European Union address. His remarks to the European Parliament included several ambitious proposals, chief among them—the creation of a single EU presidency. Junker rightly asserted, “Europe would be easier to understand if one captain was steering the ship.” Such a move would amplify the European Union’s collective voice on the world stage, while also streamlining the institutional structure in Brussels. It is a necessary and feasible step that the European Union should complete sooner rather than later.
Junker specifically called for a merger between the presidencies of the European Commission and the European Council, which are currently held by Junker and Donald Tusk respectively. Junker heads the European Union’s bureaucratic arm, whereas Tusk serves as an advocate for and mediator between the interests of the member states. The European Union essentially has two chief executives, and although their roles are distinct, they represent different and competing forces in Brussels. If the European Union were to consolidate these two positions, it would produce greater cohesion and symbiosis between the two most powerful EU institutions.
The proposal caught many off-guard with most of the criticism coming, predictably, from national leaders who are wary of ceding more power to Brussels. The Dutch and Danish prime ministers both voiced their opposition to the idea. They are protective of the European Council’s presidency because it is viewed as the voice of national governments in Brussels. The tug-of-war between Brussels and national capitals is as old as the European project itself and has not been mitigated since the Lisbon Treaty created the presidency of the European Council in 2009. The creation of a single presidency could, however, allow one dignitary to champion both supranational and national interests by serving as the bridge between the European Commission and European Council.
Junker did not elaborate on this bold but necessary consolidation, which has caused many to assume the worst. However, constructive debate and imagination could make a single presidency a reality and transform the European Union so that it is better equipped to tackle its current challenges and those that lie ahead. The creation of a single presidency should be conceptualized and implemented as a true merger between the two current positions. Having one president head both the Commission and the European Council would enhance cooperation between the two institutions. It would also improve institutional processes by having one person guiding policies from fruition to implementation.
The European Union is a major geopolitical player, especially in the realm of trade, and many of its aspirations lie outside of its external border, which makes having more than one president a recipe for disaster. Junker and Tusk both attended the G7 Summit in Taormina this year. Both regularly comment on foreign affairs, meet with global leaders, and travel overseas on behalf of the European Union. Earlier this year, US President Donald Trump reportedly confused Tusk for Junker. While many played it off as just another gaffe from America’s new president, it is also indicative of the European Union’s often confusing leadership structure. A single presidency would clarify who is the point of contact for the European Union, and, as a result, elevate the European Union’s stature on the world stage.
The biggest question moving forward will be how exactly this significant change to the European Union’s existing structure can come to fruition. It is debatable whether or not such a consolidation would require a new treaty. It is unclear whether or not member states would endorse such a move. It is also uncertain who would be eligible for this office and how they would be selected. During the 2014 European elections, the party that scored the most seats in the European Parliament also had their candidate chosen as the president of the European Commission. It would not be unreasonable to consider a similar mechanism for choosing this new president, thereby creating greater unity between the European Commission, the European Council, and the European Parliament. The ambiguity around the proposal spells challenges, but also opportunities. Actors at the supranational and national level can engage in a robust debate about what kind of future they want to see and how a single presidency could embody and achieve that vision. The creation of such a position does not have to be a victory for some and a loss for others. It is not overly optimistic to think that constructive discourse and the subsequent creation of this new role could mend age-old rifts and result in more efficient governance and a stronger, more unified European Union.Guest contributor