The External Action of the European Council: In search of a coherent and effective global role

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Tors 3.12.2015 kl. 14:00-15:30
Finnish Institute of International Affairs
Kruunuvuorenkatu 4, 2nd Floor

The European Council, which summons the EUís heads of state and government, plays an essential role in determining the Unionís overall external strategy. In foreign policy, it is often described as an institution that assumes strategic leadership and offers political guidance. Yet the recent years of crises have highlighted its role as a key decision-making body. Some close observers even claim that it exercises a role as Ďcollective head of stateí. Others however suggest that the European Councilís impact is relatively limited, as it is merely responsible for rubber-stamping and formally upgrading documents produced at lower levels. How has the role of the European Council and its relationship with other key EU institutions in the field of external action developed in recent years? To what extent has it been able to provide leadership, and increase coherence and efficacy of the EUís external relations? What are the main challenges this institution is facing?

This roundtable is organised in collaboration with the Jean Monnet project SUMMIT which aims to contribute to the promotion of European Union studies by providing the latest research-based knowledge about the European Council. The idea of the SUMMIT roundtable series is to enable a debate with academics, practitioners and the general public on a European Council topic in selected European cities.

Speakers:

Wolfgang Wessels, Jean Monnet Professor, University of Cologne and Chairperson of the Trans European Policy Studies Association (TEPSA)

Eikka Kosonen, Ambassador, Former Permanent Representative of Finland to the EU and Former Head of the European Commission Representation to Finland

Comments: Linda Dieke, Project Manager, Studying the European Council (SUMMIT) Project, University of Cologne

Chair: Juha Jokela, Programme Director, the Finnish Institute of International Affairs


SUMMARY of the roundtable

Juha Jokela - Programme Director for the European Union Research Programme at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs

Dr Juha Jokela opened the discussion by stressing how the roundtable brings together two strands of EU research. First of all the Lisbon treaty has brought the European Council to a prominent role as an EU institution. Secondly the developments in the EUís neighbourhood have highlighted the European Councilís role in the EUís external action.

Wolfgang Wessels Ė Jean Monnet Professor, University of Cologne and Chairperson of the Trans European Policy Studies Association (TEPSA)

Professor Wolfgang Wessels remarked that the European Council provides both a fascinating and frustrating object of research for EU studies. According to Professor Wessels the European Council is a key institution to understanding the EU. Ever since The Hague Summit of 1969 the European Council has been instrumental in creating the direction and the architecture for the EU. Thus the European Council should be seen as a constitutional architect of the EU. This can be seen for example in the role the European Council played in the creation of the Lisbon treaty. The European Council is also an important policy making forum since it makes key decisions that are then implemented by other institutions. According to Professor Wessels, even though the European Council should not hold legislative powers according to the EU treaties Ė this is not the case in reality. Thus one cannot understand the functioning of the European Union without understanding the role of the European Council.

Looking at the European Councilís role in the EUís external action, Professor Wessels noted the way in which the European Council through the external economic relations and the CFSP is linking the intergovernmental and the community pillars of the EU. However, the European Council is less active in the field of external relations than in other areas such as the Justice and Home Affairs (JHA) or the Economic and Monetary Union (EMU). This is especially due to the prominent role of the member states in the EUís external action and the differing foreign policy priorities of the member states.

Regarding the record of the European Council so far, Professor Wessels considered the way in which the European Council has taken several important steps with regard to external action from The Hague Summit in the 1960s up until the Lisbon treaty. Although the European Council was the important constitutional architect in the EU it remained an intergovernmental forum. The EUís Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) is subject to specific rules and procedures and the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) should not have power over these arrangements. These arrangements should also not have an effect on the national foreign policy.

Professor Wessels stated that the European Council should set targets for both pillars of the EUís external action. At the moment the high representative has the two pillars under her control. The CFSP and the other policies like trade remain distinct from one another. There are at the moment two ways of dealing with the External Action. The European Council has not succeeded in breaching the two pillars.

According to Professor Wessels the European Council wanted to be the voice and face of the EU. This was shown for example by the way in which the European Council was making a lot of declarations about the direction of the European Union. However there has been some confusion in the external representation of the European Union. For example in the G20 meetings the EU is represented by the President of the Commission and the President of the European Council. Thus both the community and intergovernmental dimensions are present.

Regarding the role of the European Council in crisis management, Professor Wessels took note of the often repeated claim that the European Union leaders should manage the crises of the Union. However the European Council has often been hesitant to take action. This was seen by the reactions to crises in Libya, Iraq and Syria. The crisis in Ukraine has also been a divisive issue. In addition, some issues like questions of defense policy have been taboo at the European Council. Neither foreign policy nor defence policy has been high on the agenda.

Within the European Council one can also see distinct cleavages between different groups of countries. These cleavages include the differences between large and small member states, eastern vs. southern external relations, NATO-members vs. non-aligned members etc. There are also differences between the leading countries of the EU Ė Germany, France and the UK. France does not want to involve NATO in the external relations whereas Britain is willing to involve NATO closely in this area and Germany has been largely passive. Like in many other fields of integration, the Franco-German engine has been instrumental also in terms of external relations. This is due to the fact that these two countries embody the differing interests of other member states. When they disagree then they function as an engine of integration.

Another argument that has often been put forward in the debate about the European Council is that the EC works because there is the so called big brother in the United States. This has given the European Council the ability to try and create its own policies in terms of monetary policy and external relations.

Eikka Kosonen - A Former Permanent Representative of Finland to the EU and Former Head of the European Commission Representation to Finland

In his remarks, Mr Eikka Kosonen offered several observations about the role of the European Council in the EUís external relations. First of all, he stated that the question should be seen in the wider perspective of European integration that has so far been a fascinating story. The present political cooperation can lead to deeper integration if that is wished.

According to Ambassador Kosonen, the European Council has taken several steps forward and it has placed more emphasis on external action. This has been a historical success story. One of the key issues here is that this success story has come to a point where the member states are going very close to crucial questions of their sovereignty.

The several crises that the EU has faced have resulted in a heightened role of the European Council as a troubleshooter.

Ambassador Kosonenís main argument was that if the EU is to have a coherent external action policy it can be developed only by the European Council. This is due to the fact that the European Council is the place where the central issue areas of European integration meet. This body is the final body which means the questions canít be taken to any higher levels of decision-making. The heads of state or government have to deal with the crucial questions and to face both public and political scrutiny on what the EU is doing. They have to convince the central players at home that the European Union is the body they should address.

The importance of the European Council is highlighted by the rising Euroscepticism in European countries. At the same time, smaller member states fear that they are losing their voice in the EU while the larger member states feel restricted by the EU.

According to Ambassador Kosonen, the future of the European Union will depend on several things. First of all, international events like the Paris terror attacks and the interpretation of these events will shape the agenda of the European Council. Defence issues are likely to be more prominent on the agenda of the European Council. The public opinion will also have an impact on the results of the European integration.

The bottom line is that good results depend on political will. However, major treaty changes are not timely at the moment. Coming back to the EUís external action, it should be noted that it offers more opportunities than threats.

Linda Dieke - Project Manager, Studying the European Council (SUMMIT) Project, University of Cologne

In her comments on the previous speakers, Ms Linda Dieke offered some criticism of them. First of all she stressed that at the moment the European Council is much less focused on any long-termplanning than on short-term crisis management. Most of the recent meetings of the European Council have dealt with crisis management. There has been some strategic planning, for example in the June 2015 European Council on Common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP) and the EUís Global Strategy but these are not central.

The foreign policy topics take a lot of the attention of the European Council Ė however it remains unclear what is the added value of the crisis meeting of the European Council. The Foreign Affairs Council is still the central body dealing with external relations. Ms Dieke also noted that after the European Council meetings, there are always different statements coming from the heads of state or government of the European Union. At the European Council, the Heads of State or Government are also informed by 28 different services, which leads to quite a lot of chaos in terms of forming a coherent understanding of the situation.

The European Council has not been able to reach consensus in the field of external action. According to Ms Dieke, there seems to be a mismatch between the tasks and the expectations from the European Council and its real capabilities to actually respond to these demands.