Charles Michel, the president of the European Council has addressed the participants of the prestigious Bled Strategic Forum. He is responsible for close cooperation with heads of states and governments of the EU member states, thus his ideas are worthy of attention as those presumably well-founded and formulated while understanding the positions of these leaders and their respective states. His speech will be analysed here, trying to draw conclusions about the reality of those ideas and the possibility of implementing those during the time left of Michel’s term, ending in 2025.
But first: does the president of the European Council have to have ideas? The role, weight and relevance of this position has been subject to questions ever since its creation under the Treaty of Lisbon, signed in 2007, entered into force in 2009. Even the text of the Treaty does not help much, according to Article 15 (6) of the Treaty on the European Union, the roles of the president of the European Council are mostly political and related to the work of the European Council, the meetings of heads of states and governments of EU member states. The president chairs those meetings, drives forward the Council’s work, which mostly means mediation and consensus-building in the case of differences in positions of member states. The president is under the obligation to cooperate with the president of the Commission and report to the European Parliament after each meeting of the European Council. Additionally the president of the European Council represents the European Union on issues concerning its common foreign and security policy, but he/she is tied by the common EU position – if it exists. To make the situation more complicated, seemingly there are some overlaps between the roles of the president of the European Council, the president of the European Commission and other actors, creating uncertainty about how much influence the president of the European Council can acquire, leaving this question open from the very beginning. Adding the fact that the president of the European Council does not have his/her own “ministry” (only an allocated small staff from the general staff of the Council of the European Union), legitimate questions can be raised about the capacity of the president to develop his/her own Union policies.
In conclusion, we can say that this position was not created for developing EU policies, but nothing prohibits the president from doing it, even if that may take the form only of informal lobbying among member state leaders – for which the position is perfectly wired. That is what makes the opinion of Charles Michel worthy of our attention.
The speech itself started with expression of solidarity towards Slovenia for the recent floods, which was immediately used to refer to solidarity, not only among European Union member states, but also towards allies and partners of the EU. That has outlined the most important two directions of the speech right away: first, enlargement and second, future institutional changes, using the experience of the reaction to the Russian aggression against Ukraine, as the president has put it: “A different EU revealed itself on that day. Fast, determined, united and more decisive.”, elegantly circumventing the problems of unanimity, but clearly keeping it in the crosshairs.
“So now enlargement is no longer a dream. It is time to move forward.”
The visibly strong commitment of the president towards the Western Balkans enlargement (while also mentioning other countries) opens some questions. The idea of the next enlargement step by 2030, and the necessity of adapting the EU’s next multiannual financial framework (“7 years budget”) accordingly do not seem like an easy task.
It may be important to note that Michel himself does not have to take these tasks as his term ends in 2025, and the current MFF covers the time period between 2021-2027. This fact takes some credibility from the statement of the president, we can argue that these are simply easy promises from his part, without any responsibility.
Additionally, enlargement is one of the questions where member states do have the final word, as it requires the formal amendment of the EU founding treaties. During the past years, member states have dominantly been preoccupied with other questions, most importantly the COVID-crisis, the economic crisis and the war in Ukraine, most of them not considering this question as a serious issue. This is clearly shown by the fact of the position of the commissioner responsible for enlargement losing weight and relevance, being easily given to the candidate sent by the Hungarian government.
On this field, the president has made some steps earlier, of which he reminded the audience: most notably of the concept of „gradual and progressive integration into EU policies”, which has also been supported by the European Council, and is also being used by the European Commission to develop its own enlargement package, which is expected to be published in October. Based on that, future member states could participate in the operation and the decisions of the EU (e.g. in the relevant Council formation) even before joining, after they had completed negotiations in the given policy chapter, making these states part of the operating system as soon as possible.
We can conclude that the idea of enlargement is not rejected in general by the member states and the Commission has started to prepare its execution. This definitely means that there is a reality of the enlargement – while the president has obviously skipped the problematic parts: many member states may be concerned about their changing political weight, participation proportions in decision making etc. with new states entering the structure. This is clearly seen by the president, stating “the GDP of the future member states is about 50-70% of the smallest EU economy. This means they will be net recipients, while several current net recipients will become net contributors”, probably remembering back to his first major political result as a fresh president: conducting the Council’s negotiations for the 2021-2027 MFF in the summer of 2020m which has been made even harder than usual with the fresh COVID-crisis and the rule of law-related debates and constant veto threats by Hungary and Poland. There will definitely be tensions among member states, but Charles Michel is happy that he will not have to handle those.
It is worthy to add, that the president has not missed the opportunity to mention problems related to rule of law, setting it as an important entry condition, but obviously pointing the finger to the ongoing debate within the EU, most notably with Hungary and Poland. The idea of setting the possible highest level-expectations to potential new member states will probably lead to debates, especially that some states in the Western Balkans have developed seemingly strong political alliance with Hungary, which may use its influence with these states to try to fend off criticisms related to its rule of law-related problems. While the efficiency of this is very questionable (realistically any potential member state would give up its alliance with the Hungarian government for EU membership) tensions are to be expected.
“We will have to adapt our institutional framework and procedures so that an enlarged EU is able to make efficient and timely decisions.”
The president has addressed the painful issue of possible institutional reforms. At the same time he tried to cool off expectations, clearly stating “completely scrapping unanimity could be throwing the baby out with the bath water”.
As our earlier analysis on the matter ( https://c4ep.eu/veto-power-not-the-tool-we-love-but-the-tool-we-need/ ) has concluded, the idea of completely eradicating unanimity from the EU’s decision making is not only unrealistic but also strange to an international organisation. Of course the president can not make such a direct statement, he has to maintain a balancing act between realities and strong political demands. But the fact is, that he has no solution for this, as he put it: “this will be a hard nut to crack”, adding “there is no way to avoid this debate now”, clearly understanding that this is not his responsibility and any advancement on this matter is subject to consensus of member states. Apart from bringing examples from the near past, he has not envisioned any revolutionary or at least novel solution.
One of the examples he mentioned was the activation of the Peace Facility to finance arms delivery to Ukraine, where as he mentioned, “constructive abstention was used to not impede unanimity”. This is true, but not a real breakthrough solution, as constructive abstention is not a new tool. It has existed for a long time and it is subject to the decision of the member state concerned – practically it is part of unanimity. And that is the catch: any change in this matter is subject to consent to member states, and as long as member states consider veto power being their final weapon – which they do – they will never lay it on the ground.
From this aspect, the idea of pushing back unanimity and using more of the qualified majority does not grow to become an all-out plan, it seems to stay in the “dream” category.