Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Van Rompuy as the European Council's First Extended-Term President

“In a sense, Europe seemed to be living down to expectations. Earlier, the foreign minister of Sweden, Carl Bildt, warned against a 'minimalist solution' that would reduce the European Union’s 'opportunity to have a clear voice in the world.'"  Olivier Ferrand, president of Terra Nova, a center-left research institute in France, said, “It is quite astounding. . . . It is jaw-dropping. It is the end of ambition for the E.U. — really disappointing.”

I think these are rather extreme positions on the selection of Herman Van Rompuy on November 19, 2009 as the first non-rotated president of the European Council.  Moreover, I don’t think the E.U. is going the way of the dinasaur just because Van Rompuy was not well known at the time of his selection.  He has written six books, is a writer of Japanese poems, has consensus-skills, and seems humble enough.  Would popular election have yielded a better candidate? As the election would have been E.U.-wide, it is doubtful that a high proportion of the voters would have been sufficiently familiar with him to make an informed decision. 

The New York Times continues, “The deal that produced the two choices emerged as a result of backroom negotiations among leaders jockeying for future and more important economic portfolios that could be more powerful in the enlarged European Union, which is still more of an economic union than a political one and looks to remain so.”  However, the E.U. includes a popularly-elected Parliament. Is a parliament not political? Is a parliament not a government body?  Perhaps, moreover, we should simply say that transfers of sovereignty are now economic in nature.

One might ask: who would have a vested interest in perpetrating such a subterfuge wherein governmental institutions, whether intergovernmental (e.g., the European Council) or national (e.g., the E.U. Parliament) are to be portrayed as solely economic in nature? According to The New York Times,  “The leaders of Europe’s most powerful countries, France and Germany, did not want to be overshadowed. Nor apparently did their foreign ministers.”   After the European Council elected Van Rompuy, Gordon Brown, the then-current British Prime Minister who had been pushing for Tony Blair (his precursor), told reporters that the posts are only ceremonial anyway since the state governments are still in control.  However, is Van Rompuy's role in presiding over the European Council merely for show? Is there not power in chairing a political institution? Furthermore, are the heads of the state governments in charge of the E.U. Commission, the E.U. Parliament, and the European Court of Justice? Even within the European Council where the governors of the states sit, qualified majority voting on most issues means that any given state government is not in control. We can conclude that E.U. level officials are not mere gloss on a window, and that the member states have indeed transferred some of their governmental sovereignty to the E.U. Government. Lest is be thought otherwise--that the E.U. does not have a government, there is a saying in English: If it quacks like a duck, walks like a duck, and swims like a duck, odds are it is a duck.  It might be useful to ask why it is in the interest of some that the obvious conclusion be withheld.

My only caveat concerning the selection of Van Rompuy is that the consensus maker was not the sort to make transparent the "duck" subterfuge and denial, which had gone unchecked at the expense of greater European integration. In other words, the E.U. needs its own leaders who can garnish attention for the E.U. itself (i.e., apart from its state governments) because if integration falters, the danger will be dissolution unless or until more governmental sovereignty is transferred to the E.U. As for Van Rompuy's low name recognition outside Belgium at the time of his selection, let’s not forget that few, if any, presidents of the U.S. Senate (the Vice President of the U.S.) have been known at the beginning of their respective terms. Of course, outside of breaking tie votes, the president of the U.S. Senate (whose members are the member states of the union) is more ceremonial than is the president of the European Council.  In fact, senators regularly stand in for the presiding officer when the U.S. Senate is in session, whereas Van Rompuy himself presides over sessions of the European Council.  Also, the European Council is possibly more powerful among E.U. governmental institutions than the U.S. Senate is in the U.S. This is probably so because the state governments in the E.U. have more power at the E.U. level than the American state governments do in the U.S. This could explain why Van Rompuy's position, the President of the European Council, is powerful (because the Council he chairs is powerful) even if Van Rompuy had been an unknown outside of Belgium and was not an attention-getter in the media (e.g., unlike Tony Blair).


Stephen Castle and Steven Erlanger, "Low-Profile Leaders Chosen for Top European Posts," The New York Times, November 19, 2009.