The New Semipresidential Europe
This is a revised version of my contribution to the EUDO Café, forum for discussing ideas at the European University Institute. Comments are welcome both here and at the EUDO Café site: CLICK
The current economic crisis in Europe can be a great opportunity to advance towards further integration and institutionalization. With the recent enforcement of innovative institutional provisions in the Lisbon treaty, a new figure has appeared: a permanent, full-time and long-term Presidency of the European Council, which is likely to become the actual presidency of the Union. The traditional tension between the Councils, on the one side, and the Parliament and the Commission, on the other, may have ceased to imply a choice between two qualitative different institutional models: intergovernmental and parliamentary. It could rather produce a dual executive formed around the Presidency of the Council and the Presidency of the Commission. The new European Union would have adopted an intermediate formula between American presidentialism and European parliamentarism, close enough to certain traits of the semipresidential formula, as established, most prominently, in France.
Some crucial elements of this discussion emerged during the deliberations of the European Convention gathered in Brussels in 2002-2003. Two basic proposals were expressed. First, there was the proposal for a parliamentary regime, mainly supported by the parliamentarians of federal parliamentary Germany and the small and peripheral states, by which the chief-executive would be the president of the European Commission elected by the European Parliament. It logically implied a politically weak, rather ceremonial chair of the European Council, which was just an unregulated meeting of the heads of government or state.
The second proposal was more presidentialist. It was promoted by the chair of the Convention, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, who had been president of semipresidential France and the actual creator of the European Council. The president of the European Council would become the “highest authority of the Union”, while the president of the Commission would become a secondary, subordinate figure, to be appointed by and made responsible to both the Parliament and the European Council.
The Convention considered several formulas at different stages. The turning point was the Franco-German agreement in January 2003 by which Germany accepted a long-term president for the European Council in return for France backing a Commission president elected by the European Parliament. In order to limit the Council president’s powers, and in contrast to Giscard’s initial proposal, it was agreed that this president would not have his own cabinet. At the same time, the president of the Commission would be elected by the European Parliament “taking into account the elections” for a period of 5 years. As Giuliano Amato, vice-president of the European constitutional Convention, expressed it on the last day of their work, “I have defended the two-headed Europe, but no animal can live with two heads for too long.”
For many years, the Parliament and the Council had different political party majorities due to the tendency in elections for the former to vote against the incumbent domestic governments and the latter’s composition based on those governments. This ‘cohabitation’ induced the formation of broad coalitions, with some variation depending on the subject matter, but in many cases including the Socialist, the Liberal and the People’s groups. However, since the elections in 2004 and 2009 there is a center-right majority, which is basically made up of members of the People’s and the Liberal groups, in the Parliament, the Council of Ministers, the Commission, and the European Council. The typical situation of ‘divided government’ or ‘cohabitation’ has been replaced with a consistent dominion of the center-right through the institutions. In this context of ‘unified government’, as usually happens in France and other semi-presidential regimes, the most concentrated figure, that is the Presidency, tends to become dominant. In the new institutional framework of the EU, the new figure of the European Council President might take a stronger role of political initiative, somehow making the Commission and its president his collaborator, rather than an independent figure, and reducing the role of the Parliament, at least for a while.