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Brussels’ new pontiff

The EU's college of cardinals has picked its first pope, writes Leigh Phillips. So why aren't we angry?

January 31, 2010
6 min read


Leigh PhillipsLeigh Phillips is a regular Red Pepper writer and was previously a Brussels-based journalist and Red Pepper's Europe correspondent.


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It was a shame that Tony Blair was not appointed the first European president. I really did want Tone to get the gig – if only so I could throw a shoe at him. Apart from that, my interest in whether the prize was won by the former Labour leader – or, for that matter, by whichever other personage the European Council, that secular version of a secretive papal conclave, came up with – was acutely limited in comparison with my frustration that it was a secretive papal conclave doing the deciding.

From the pacifist anti-Blair flutterings of the Guardian’s Comment is Free web pages to the swivel-eyed Belgo-phobic fulminations my grandad takes as gospel in the Daily Express, most commentators across the union have lamented that the man who ultimately was installed, Belgian PM Herman Van Rompuy, is a political dwarf. The same goes for Catherine Ashton, the EU’s new foreign minister.

Of Van Rompuy, the blimpish Express headline yawped: ‘Britain ruled by a Belgian? You must be joking!’ This was followed by spitting, wholly fallacious philippics at ‘his crazed plans for building a European superstate and … ambitions for a massive new taxation offensive.’ They are missing the point: it’s not who wins the crown, it’s who is doing the anointing that matters.

The European Council is the quarterly congregation of premiers and presidents of EU member states. It is by some measures the most powerful institution in the union, although only now under the Lisbon Treaty does it have official status. It has no formal legislative powers and its decisions are not legally binding – yet, crucially, it sets the political and legislative direction of the EU.

In practice, no European legislation could begin without the council’s encouragement and no bills can be passed without its support. But while the prime ministers and presidents that sit in the EU council are themselves elected domestically, the council itself never has to go before the people and defend its policies.

This is a perhaps difficult but key concept to grasp. We are quite used to electing representatives who then go on to appoint people to positions in our name (judges, ambassadors, civil servants) as we cannot spend all our time in a voting booth deciding on every single candidate for every job. But when a body has a legislative role, traditionally there will be a separate election to that chamber. Yet there are no elections to the EU council or to the council of ministers (essentially the same formation but at the ministerial level and with formal legislative powers).

With the exception of the appointment of its president, decision-making in the EU council is on a consensus basis, meaning every country, no matter how small, has a veto. This means that decisions essentially take the form of treaty-making instead of a normal legislative process. In other words, they are more like a series of contracts between sovereign states than the contested products of popular representation.

Until Lisbon, the council’s presidency changed every six months, rotating from country to country. Van Rompuy is the first permanent president, appointed for a two-and-a-half-year term, renewable once. So he is not actually the president of Europe, just of the EU council – although the job requirements of the position were so vague that had a character like Tony Blair been appointed, it might very quickly have come to be seen as such.

Indeed, whether the job should be seen as a president of Europe is what sparked off the bunfight between member states after the Lisbon Treaty was passed. Some countries, such as the UK, wanted a strong, head-of-state-like figure, while the smaller states, in particular the Benelux nations, wanted more of a chairman.

The EU council does not meet in public. Coverage of its meetings entails journalists scurrying around the Justus Lipsius building in Brussels eliciting gossip from diplomats and other reporters in an attempt to guess what is happening in the council chamber.

This sub rosa process was no different during the appointment of its president. Swedish PM Fredrik Reinfeldt, the last of the rotating presidents, tried to achieve unanimity on the choice by phoning his counterparts ahead of a summit. He likened it to solving a Rubik’s cube, trying to balance the conflicting demands of the various capitals.

Newspapers across the bloc tried to steal a march on their rivals by publishing that according to this unnamed official or that anonymous diplomat such-and-such a figure was now the confirmed choice. We were dupes of national diplomats using us as a vehicle to push forward their own preferred candidates. No one got it right, and we were revealed as being as uninformed as reporters in St Peter’s Square awaiting the appearance of white smoke from a Sistine chapel chimney.

Appalled at the opaque and patently anti-democratic process, some, such as pro-democracy group European Alternatives, are campaigning for the EU council president to be directly elected by citizens. While this would be a mammoth improvement over the current wholly unrepresentative shambles, it would only reinforce the growing presidentialism of the EU.

A couple of years ago, a Danish diplomat told me he feared that the EU would eventually end up embracing the US or French presidential model, where the president is elected, but his or her cabinet is appointed by him or her alone rather than drawn from an elected parliament. The presidential model, the half-way house between monarchy and parliamentary democracy, is much more preferable to elites today, who are as distrusting of the hoi polloi as were the leaders of the young American and French republics. Instead, we should push to have Europe’s executive, president included, taken from the sole elected chamber: the European Parliament.

But at least European Alternatives are pushing for something. Europe has just had an unelected president foist upon us, with barely a whimper from the left. No protests, no rallies. Not a single shouty real-ale doused meeting.

That is the reason why I had my fingers crossed for Tony Blair. ‘Rompuy Pumpy’ is a bland paper-shuffler no one will notice. At least with Blair, people would have perked up and said, ‘Oi, who elected this war criminal king of Europe?’ Maybe then we could have had a real debate about the non-democracy at the heart of the European Union.

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Leigh PhillipsLeigh Phillips is a regular Red Pepper writer and was previously a Brussels-based journalist and Red Pepper's Europe correspondent.


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