Delicate balance of power leads to institutional caution

Beatrix Boonekamp
The Lisbon Treaty came into force on 1 December 2009. Its institutional innovations have been largely debated in France, but more so the appointment of Catherine Ashton as the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy than the appointment of Herman Van Rompuy as the first President of the European Council. Valery Giscard d’Estaing, former French President and former President of the Convention on the Future of Europe, was among the first to announce his scepticism, arguing that the nominations to the new top jobs do not inspire much confidence, and do not help clarify a confused institutional situation. He argued that there is the impression that the role assigned to Van Rompuy is that of a mediator within the European Council, whereas nobody expects Ashton to provide the EU with charismatic leadership in the international arena.[1] The same criticism was voiced in the weekly news magazine l’Express, with an article entitled “Duet for a Discount European Union”, underlining that the choice of the two new executives could undermine all collective ambition on the international scene, and breaks all hope for a communitarian dynamic.[2] Michel Rocard, former Socialist Prime Minister, also considered that “the political Europe was dead” – but that the responsibility is to be found in the nomination procedure: the lack of transparency and/or contradictory debate has allowed the “big states” to negotiate their arrangements.[3] Nevertheless, other analysts underline the fact that the nomination of two unknown individuals to the leadership of the EU seems to be the inevitable consequence of the complexity of the new institutional architecture as set out in the Lisbon Treaty. It was inevitable that the 27 should opt for institutional caution at the nomination phase, given the delicacy of the balance of power that needs to be maintained in order for the new institutional mechanism to function smoothly. “And it is not necessarily a bad thing”, concludes centre-left daily Le Monde.[4]
European Union: too many presidents?
The coexistence of the rotating presidency with the new President of the European Council has generated some incomprehension and criticism. The Green Member of European Parliament (MEP) Daniel Cohn-Bendit has argued that the continuation of the rotating presidency is the “great weakness of the treaty”.[5] L’Express also stresses the fact that there are now “too many presidents”, adding ironically that “the Union’s presidency is permanent, but it rotates at the same time.” For others, the innovations of the Lisbon Treaty are considered relevant, but their concrete application will be complicated. In this regard, the attitude of the Spanish Head of Government José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero is considered crucial. His minimalist lecture of the Lisbon Treaty – announcing, for example, that he will accompany Van Rompuy in all the bilateral summits held between the EU and third party countries, as well as in the international summits, is seen as a risk of slowing the progress of the EU and making its new institutions even more indecipherable.[6] This is why Le Monde underlined the fact that the new President of the European Council needed to control and “override” the rotating presidency, and improve cohesion among the 27 heads of state and government.”[7] So far, Van Rompuy seems to be succeeding, as stressed by economics daily Les Echos: “His skills in mediation and consensus-building among the 27 could strengthen his authority to the point of allowing him to compete with Barroso and Ashton, competition which could encourage activism. What if the Union, almost by accident, ended up with a ‘real president’?”[8]
Catherine Ashton, “scapegoat for all the problems in and around Brussels”
The new High Representative, Catherine Ashton, has been quite harshly criticised for several “mistakes” she has made since the beginning of her mandate: for her bad management of the Haitian crisis or for choosing to take part in the investiture of the new Ukrainian president rather than attending a ministerial meeting on European defence. In France, it is the nomination of João Vale de Almeida to the post of EU ambassador in Washington without a consensus from the member states that generated the greatest disapproval. “European interests are becoming increasingly conflicting and Ashton appears to be unable to find the key to defuse tension between capitals”, says left-wing daily Libération.[9] Nevertheless, some observers stress the fact that she is nothing but a victim of the institutional confusion between the rotating council presidency, the President of the European Council, and the Commission President. The division of roles is very delicate, and she is paying the heaviest price for the confusion. “Her main role appears to be that of scapegoat for all the problems in and around Brussels”, concludes right-wing daily Le Figaro. “Aside from her own direct responsibilities, the storm which has erupted around Ashton probably offers the clearest confirmation of the fact that the Lisbon Treaty will not solve all of Europe’s problems”.[10]
The European External Action Service, generating covetousness and rivalries
As far as the European External Action Service (EEAS) is concerned, French authorities have underlined the fact that this new diplomatic tool is strongly needed to allow the Union to act in a more efficient, understandable, and coordinated way, and have therefore repeatedly underlined their willingness to act quickly in favour of its definitive adoption.[11] They have been strongly advocating for a powerful Secretary General, “façon Quai d’Orsay”, and it appears that a Frenchman is likely to be part of the EEAS triumvirate – with the name of Pierre Vimont, French ambassador to the USA, coming out repeatedly. This apparent consensus has not been easy to reach though, and the French media have repeatedly underlined the fact that this new diplomatic tool has generated covetousness, rivalries and fights for domination, mostly concerning the nominations of the top positions.[12] This new service has also been criticised, mostly because of the lack of certitudes, concerning both its exact competences and its composition. The euro-sceptic leftist leader Jean Pierre Chevenement considers that the multiplication of structures that it implies (EEAS, the Commission and the council services) will lead to very time-consuming consultations, and that so many different authorities can only generate paralysis. He therefore advocates for a minimalist service, both in its ambitions as in its format.[13]
The European Citizens’ Initiative: overcoming the EU’s democratic deficit

The European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI) has generated high expectations in France. Catholic daily La Croix welcomed this breach opened in the Commission’s legislative initiative, stressing the fact that the era of the “areopagus of technocrats, stateless and irresponsible”, once denounced by General de Gaulle, is now over.[14] The Permanent Conference of Associative Coordination considers that the ECI will consolidate the participative aspect of the European democratic model, without any doubts.[15] Nevertheless, a few associations and civil society organisations stress the fact that some rules and procedures could have been less constraining, so as to allow the citizen participation to be easier. The Human Rights League believes that the ECI should only require the participation of 0.1 percent of the EU population (instead of 0.2 percent in the actual project), coming from one quarter of the EU member states (instead of one third), and that the legal age to participate should be 16 years old (instead of 18).[16]

[1] Giscard d’Estaing, V.: Traite de Lisbonne: un Jour dans l’Histoire Européenne, Le Figaro, 01/12/2009.

[2] L’Express: Duo pour une Union européenne au rabais, 24/11/2009.

[3] Rocard, M.: Interview to France Inter, 20/11/2009.

[4] Mangenot, M.: Les fausses illusions de la Présidence Française de L’union, Le Monde, 03/12/2009.

[5] L’Express: Trop de présidents pour l’Union européenne?, 03/01/2010.

[6] Quetramer, J.: Lisbonne: grincements de dents et tentative de sabotage, Libération, 11/12/2009.

[7] Ricard, P.: Trois défis attendent le président du Conseil européen, Herman Van Rompuy, Le Monde, 05/12/2010.

[8] Moisi, D.: Si l’Europe avait un vrai président, Les Echos, 18/01/2010.

[9] Quatremer, J.: Halte au feu entre Catherine Ashton et les Etats Membres, Libération, 05/03/2010.

[10] Rousselin, P.: Lady Ashton, Bouc émissaire de l’Europe, Le Figaro, 03/03/2010.

[11] Déclaration de B. Kouchner, 26/04/2010.

[12] La Croix: Le Service Européen d’Action Extérieure se constitue, 22/03/2010.

[13] Chevènement, J. P.: Le mille-feuilles européen: l’exemple du Service européen d’action extérieure, intervention lors du débat au Sénat sur le Conseil européen des 29 et 30 octobre 2009, 27/10/2009.

[14] La Croix: L’Europe définit les règles du droit d’initiative citoyenne, 31/03/2010.

[15] Conférence permanente des coordinations associatives, 23/03/2010, available at: (last access: 04/06/2010).

[16] Ligue des Droits de l’Homme: Sur l’initiative citoyenne, 24/02/2010, available at: (last access: 04/06/2010).