In the EU, every leader becomes a monarch

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VSORONATIONS HAVE took many forms throughout European history. The Spanish kings received a golden apple. The kings of France were sprinkled with sacred oils from the Holy Ampoule of Reims. Napoleon opted for a variation on a theme, oiled himself and then crowned himself in the presence of a pope. Polish kings endured the alarming spectacle of waking up to an Archbishop in their bedroom on D-Day.

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Coronations of a different kind occur each time the EUThe 27 leaders are meeting for the European Council, the club’s first institution, which began a two-day summit on October 21. The Europa building – a glass cube enclosing a fluorescent oval nicknamed “the space egg” that hosts the gathering – may lack the pomp of Reims Cathedral. Yet once presidents or prime ministers nip, they actually become elected monarchs. During the hours that follow, each leader obeys a royalist creed: Iétat, it’s me, with 27 national governments reduced to 27 individuals.

Invented in 1974 as an informal dining club for gentlemen (they were all gentlemen at the time), the European Council was a place where leaders could discuss continental issues in private. He was sitting outside the EUtreaties of. Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, the French president who invented the forum, baptized it with a majestic air: “The Summit is dead. Long live the European Council! (The summit is dead, long live the European Council). Step forward five decades and he stands as the most powerful EU institution, settling all important questions, whether constitutional or simply controversial.

As a result, the European Council gives broad powers to the individual leaders who sit on it. For some countries, it doesn’t matter. In France, Emmanuel Macron sits at the top of a system that gives the president enormous powers over his fellow leaders. For those with weaker executives, this is inconvenient. Italy has a carousel of changing rulers, some by talent and others by stupid luck. He rocked eight heads of government in Angela Merkel’s 16 years as German Chancellor. In an intimate setting like the European Council, where personality clashes with power, it is a weakness. Why make a deal with someone, if they will be replaced in a few months?

Unlike a real king, EU leaders need to care about voters and parliaments at home. Sometimes it’s about tactics. Evoke the specter of moss deputys at home is a good way to earn concessions from peers. Some parliaments, especially Scandinavian parliaments, keep their leaders on a leash, a tactic lawmakers in other countries would do well to follow. All leaders are aware of each other’s internal constraints. But the European Council exists to forge compromises. How to get there is ultimately up to the people at the table.

Once a decision is made by the individual leaders, it is difficult to undo it. If 27 have agreed to do so, then 27 must agree to cancel it. Inertia is a powerful force in EU Politics. Once the club goes in a certain direction, it’s hard to stop. For this reason, the European Council is supposed to be far-sighted, much like a board of directors. While the EUThe direction takes care of the daily, the heads of government should meet several times a year to define the general direction. A few sentences are usually sufficient for the most grandiose projects. Huge proposals, such as monetary union, start their life in a few lines in a press release from the European Council.

The European Council is explicitly not a legislator, according to the EUtreaties of. However, it finds itself increasingly in the process of producing laws. Line-by-line haggling once reserved for great constitutional moments such as treaty changes is now common in the development of specific policies. In July 2020, leaders spent five days arguing over € 1.8 billion ($ 2.1 billion) in spending, including putting together a € 750 billion package of new debt jointly guarantee. Fractions of one percent of gross national income have been manipulated into the early hours of the morning. As the conclusions of the European Council are seen as a royal proclamation, they leave little room for EUthe actual lawmakers to play again, if the instructions are too specific.

For its supporters, the European Council is the most democratic EU institution. Leaders are household names. But the EU suffers from an attention deficit rather than a democratic one. On paper, the EU is a parliamentary system: an executive is accountable to a directly elected chamber, while national governments act collectively as co-legislators. The summits attract the attention, and with it the legitimacy, of the rest of the system, where European deputys and ministers grind EU law. Leaders prefer to do it themselves rather than delegate. The result ? No more meetings. In the 1990s, leaders met three or four times a year; in the 2010s, they met twice as often. If it is possible to bring together via video, the temptation is to come together even more.

King for a day

Even the format of the vertices has drawbacks. The European Council is agile, but narrow. The larger states are shrinking to the small handful of advisers who make the trip. Decisions are made under deliberately stressful circumstances. Highs start late and end late because physical exhaustion mixes with social pressure to get deals on the line. It is rooted in the misleading idea that progress in the EU is only possible in the event of a crisis, even if it is artificially created. A tool that works well in an emergency is everyday use, much like using a fire extinguisher to fill a kettle.

Since individuals hold so much power, personality matters a lot at the courts of kings. The France of François Hollande was rather gentle. Mr. Macron is most happy to play in a continental arena, pushing French ideas into a much wider field. Pure strength of character can lend even the smallest weight of the land. In such a forum, a change of personnel can lead to a change of policy. The departure of Merkel, who was attending what may be her last such meeting this week, will change the dynamics in the EUthe top table. Another monarch will be there soon enough. The queen is dead. Long live the next one. ■

This article appeared in the Europe section of the print edition under the title “Une cour de rois”


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