The Presidency of the EU does not exist

Shortcut of a misgiving terminology

, by Translated by Elena Montani

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The Presidency of the EU does not exist

The majority of the newspapers, and even of the policies, speak regularly about a Presidency of the European Union, that France would hold during the second half of 2008. They also discuss – by anticipating the entry into force of the Lisbon Treaty – the name of the future President. The problem is that the “Presidency of the European Union” does not exist.

The European questions are complex, quite simply because the European integration as such is a progressive, difficult process, which respects the complexity of the realities of our continent. This complexity is at the same time inevitable and even desirable. However, it damages the image of the European project in the opinions of the European citizens, it makes it impossible to explain the issues within those 45 seconds that the television news can devote to them.

It is thus comprehensible that one seeks to simplify things when tackling these questions, in order to be able to speak to all, and not to a few initiates. Therefore, I do not see it as a disadvantage, when one speaks of “European laws” instead of regulations, or of “framework European laws” for designating a directive. This creates an analogy with terms that are more familiar to the citizens. The susbstitution of the vocabulary shows the nature of what we are talking about.

It is on the other hand much more problematic to speak about the “Presidency of the European Union”. Indeed, not only the treaties do not mention such a function, but the very expression is likely to introduce major confusion on the nature of this function, in particular in France, where a presidential political system is in force.

The presidency of the Council

« The Council shall consist of a representative of each Member State at ministerial level, authorised to commit the government of that Member State. The office of President shall be held in turn by each Member State in the Council for a term of six-months in the order decided by the Council acting unanimously» [1].

What we are talking about, thus, is not actually the Presidency of the European Union – as the role of President of the French Republic in France – but the Presidency of one of the Community institutions, the Council, exactly as there are a President of the European Commission and a President of the European Parliament.

The new Lisbon Treaty provides for the creation of the function of President of the European Council. It will be a person elected with qualified majority by the European Council, which brings together the Heads of Government of the Member States, for a duration of two and a half years. On the contrary, the EU Council, also known under the name of Council of Ministers of the EU, will preserve the current system of rotating presidency.

Presidency of the Council and President of the European Council: eventually, nothing is said on a Presidency of the European Union. This confusion is not only a language shortcut ascribable to journalists in a hurry or to editors trying to squeeze a lot of information in a title. The erroneous expression is present even on certain official sites. Thus, the French official information site “” feeds this confusion by alternating both expressions. When the exact heading appears in the body of the text, titles retain the erroneous formulation. Finally, the online encyclopaedia Wikipedia appears more correct, as it devotes an article to the Presidency of the Council of the European Union.

Who governs the European Union?

Precision on this point brings forward many open questions.

Indeed, erroneous analogy evokes among auditors the idea that the European Union actually includes a Presidency having a political role. The image of the President of the French Republic and even more of the President of the United States becomes a reference. Obviously, the Presidency of the Council of the European Union does not involve this type of function.

The role of those who bear this responsibility is much more modest. Still, according to the new Lisbon Treaty, which does not bring any change on this issue:

 a) shall chair and drive forward the work of the European Council;
 b) shall ensure the preparation and continuity of the work of the European Council in cooperation with the President of the Commission, and on the basis of the work of the General Affairs Council;
 c) shall endaevour to facilitate cohesion and consensus within the European Council;
 d) shall present a report to the European Parliament after each of the meetings of the Council.»

Lastly, the new function is added to the various ones contemplated within the European foreign policy, the High Representative and the European commissioners competent for the matter: “The President of the European Council shall, at his level and in that capacity, ensure the external representation of the Union on issues concerning the common foreign and security policy, without prejudice to the powers of the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy.” What phone number shall we dial for Europe? The question will remain for long without answer, or in any case, it cannot be answered by reading the current treaties.

The journalistic shortcut tends to make us believe that Europe is governed, while it is not. Believe that Europe is governed implies, on the one hand, noting that it is badly governed (and wrongly, since it is not governed at all) and, moreover, to give up demands for it to happen.

On the whole, among numerous stereotypes circulating around the European Union , this does not seem to me the most innocent one.

This article was already on published on 13 February 2008.


[1Article 203 of the Treaty on the European Community (pdf).

Your comments
  • On 30 December 2008 at 13:24, by Rudolf Misset Replying to: The Presidency of the EU does not exist

    On the same subject I published in the Netherlands, in the newspaper NRC Handelsblad of 27-28 december 2008. I added: There is no ’EU president’ like there is a US president. Europe is no America. The EU neither is, nor will be, a federation . She is a union of souvereign states with five supranational institutions. With my remarks about confederation - souvereignty - subsidiarity.

  • On 2 January 2009 at 19:47, by valery Replying to: The Presidency of the EU does not exist

    You are misunderstanding the point of the article. The fact is that there is no such thing as an EU president nowadays does not mean at all that there should not be at some point a stroinger EU leadership, on the contrary.

    A part of the reason why the Union is not as popular as it should be these days is that many citizens are disappointed and believe that it should do more. Pretending that there is a leadership when there is not can only strengthen that disappointment.

    But indeed we do need a federal Europe. Netherveless I believe that the US presidential system is not appropriate for the Union and that a parliamentary system is better.

  • On 3 May 2009 at 11:53, by Rudolf Misset, Amsterdam, the Netherlands Replying to: The Presidency of the EU does not exist

    A strong Europe is a supranational Europe. However, it should be made clear that ’supranational’ does not mean ’federal’ . On the contrary, federations like Germany or the USA are not, and cannot be, supranational. They are just national states. Europe will be a confederation , i.e. a union of national states with supranational institutions; where subsidiarity means that the national level of the sovereign state comes first, the supranational level of the union comes in everywhere the national level is insufficient. Europe should become not only a supranational economic union, but as well a political and military one.

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