Emily Sieg, Columnist
Ideology: Social Democrat | Writing from: Washington, DC


Light on the sea is brighter than on land. Heaven is breathing.

This haiku, originally written in Flemish, found its way into the British newspaper, The Guardian in November of 2009 as a part of a skeptical and joshing article on the new should-be‘big man’ in the European Union. The poet who composed this short 17-syllable piece is none other than the newly elected President of the European Council, Herman van Rompuy. Sadly, the politician, who would soon occupy the most prestigious office in the EU, was announced in the British presses as ‘EU’s Dumpty’ and has generally been treated as either some sort of sentimental or even just a nothing. That this seemingly meek Belgian was chosen and has since been criticized as a weak man at the head of Europe’s most important institution invokes the question, ‘What kind of politician should the president of the European Council be and how much power should he really have?’

The recently ratified Treaty of Lisbon created this appointed office which previously rotated from each member state every 6 months. The new president, chosen by the council, has a term of 2.5 years and can be reappointed once. Just to make things slightly more confusing, however, the 6-month rotation shall still continue for the President of the Council of the European Union, which is in fact different than the European Council. The Council of the EU is the prime decision making body of the EU and includes ministers from each member state. The European Council, which van Rompuy leads, comprises of the heads of each member state.

The distinction between these two councils is immense. Herman van Rompuy is the president of the council that technically has no legislative power, but exists to coordinate between heads of state and give direction to the European Union. Thus, according to current construction of the EU, the President of the EU Council should be less a leader and figurehead than a broker between the various heads of state. Van Rompuy may be called a president, but the term is dangerously misleading.

The EU currently exists in a form similar to the American Articles of Confederation before the creation of the United States of America. Each EU member state asserts its authority within the union and largely manages its own domestic affairs. Although the EU may collect taxes, pass overriding legislation and hold members accountable to the European Court of Justice in contrast to the Articles of Confederation, the individual sovereignty of each state is not totally compromised. Indeed the EU shows promising signs of increasing federalism, or supra-nationalism as it is referred to in the EU sense, but the fact remains that the EU is more of a confederation that a federation of states. A strong presidency would not fit a model confederation.

As such, the little man from Belgium represents the European Union quite well, despite his critics. There are states within the EU that may desire a stronger president, but there are also states who simply assumed that the president would be powerful. This certainly seemed the case when there were talks of Tony Blair assuming the presidency. However, considering the Treaty of Lisbon was only just passed last year and that many European citizens express doubts about the EU, a weaker president seems the best choice. For those who would wish to see a real European executive, this is the first step in that direction. For those who would rather leave decision-making power concentrated in the hands of each member state, this presidency can largely be ignored. Remember, the Treaty of Lisbon is significant for its simplification of legislation ratification, assumption of rules for qualified majority voting and even for giving national parliaments more power to determine EU policy, but not necessarily for the creation of this presidency. Herman van Rompuy is simply the first guinea pig as the European Union decides whether it will pursue federalist tendencies or not.