Later today we look forward to a decision by the EU Heads of Government on the appointment of the President of the Council. The first thing to note is that this person is not going to be the President of the European Union.
The European Council is the committee of heads of government. It sets long-term agendas for the European Commission to pursue and sorts out problems that cannot be agreed lower down the pecking order of the EU. Until now, the chairman has always been the head of government from the country exercising the EU presidency. Each country chairs for six months in rotation. The current President is the Prime Minister of Sweden.
The idea of the “permanent” President appointed for a renewable term of 30 months was to provide longer-term consistency for the agendas of the Council. Just like the current Prime Minister of Sweden, the permanent President will have the power to shape Council agendas, call meetings of it and broker compromises between the heads of government, the European Commission and the European Parliament. Beyond that, it is what the office holder makes of it. The treaty states that without impinging on the new Foreign Affairs Representative, the President will also represent the EU internationally.
Rotating presidencies of six months each will still apply for all of the Council formations except among the Heads of Government and the Foreign Ministers. When Spain takes over the presidency status from Sweden on 1 January 2010, the Presidents of the European and Foreign Affairs Councils will be the permanent office holders with the Spanish Prime Minister and Foreign Minister being mere members. The Presidencies of all the other councils: agriculture, environment, etc. will continue to be held respectively by the Agriculture and Environment Ministers of Spain. Whether this will create new tension remains to be seen. Will the Spanish Prime Minister insist on “barging in” on the powers of the permanent President?
One final thought: the Treaty forbids the permanent President from holding any ‘national office’. It does not ban non-national office or ‘any other office’. This leaves the door open for the President of the European Commission to be appointed as Council President in the future. Watch this space.