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Session 4: The European Council in times of crises

On Tuesday, January 17th January 2017, Jan Werts, Yann-Sven Rittelmeyer, Ebru Turhan and Petya Alexandrova examined the European Council in times of crises from different perspectives. The session was chaired by Mathias Jopp (Institut für Europäische Politik) and discussed by Ralf Drachenberg (Parliamentary Research Services/European Parliament) afterwards. 

Jan Werts began his remarks by stressing that European Council summits finish later in practice and are characterized by time consumption and renegotiation when comparing them to summits of other international organizations. Since the early summits in 1969, crises have always been the headline of European summits and different crises, like the oil crisis in 1973, were the driving force behind the official creation of the European Council in 1974. Drawing from his experiences, Werts explained that all European Council meetings either deal with a current crisis or make historic decisions. Moreover, he emphasized the importance of the Franco-German couple as the German Chancellors and the French Presidents have always been traditional key players whose pre-agreements have been the basis for later decisions and compromises within the European Council. Werts concluded by stressing that crises are more or less the raison d’être of the European Council. 

Yann-Svenn Rittelmeyer discussed the efficiency of the European Council by pointing to a fundamental dilemma: the balance between freedom and discipline. He argued that the European Council is less efficient as a crisis manager nowadays as its institutionalization in the treaties reduced its flexibility. According to Rittelmeyer, the first idea when founding the European Council was to create a flexibility structure of this institution. However, he stated, bureaucratic structures and rules of procedures since the Lisbon Treaty reduce the flexible functioning of the European Council. Especially due to the creation of a full-time presidency and the composition of meetings the so-called ‘club-spirit’ among the Heads of States or Government got lost. 

Ebru Turhan began her presentation by emphasizing a changing perception of crisis managing after the Lisbon Treaty and put emphasis on the EU-Turkey deal. Recent crises, like the refugee crisis, are transboundary as they affect different Member States and multiple policy areas at the same time. Against this background, Turhan pointed to the problem of “lack of ownership” as it often remains unclear who has to deal with a specific crisis. She criticized the German “Alleingang” during the refugee crisis as Chancellor Merkel created an “authority vacuum” by shaping the process and the content of the EU-Turkey deal. According to Turhan, Germany took unilateral decisions and circumvented the European Council by mainly collaborating with the Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission, when organizing mini-summits.

Petya Alexandrova questioned in her article whether there is a crisis of EU policy responsiveness. By focusing on European Council conclusions and public opinion data from the Eurobarometer survey, she examined to what extent the European Council deals with issues the public finds the most important. When excluding the field of external action, Alexandrova found a medium-level responsiveness and concludes that the European Council is tackling problems which the public is also aware of. When controlling for problem indicators such as GDP, number of immigrants or number of terrorist attacks in the five policy areas economics, immigration, inflation, terrorism, and unemployment, she found that crises offer an opportunity to show more responsiveness. 

Afterwards, Ralf Drachenberg discussed the European Council in times of crises. He emphasized that it is difficult to define the term ‘crisis’ and to come up with a typology. Crisis management, a term which is often used when talking about the European Council, has its roots in security and defense. Referring to the article Petya Alexandrova, Drachenberg criticized that European Council conclusions are not a good indicator for responsiveness. In his opinion, it does not mean that the European Council did not deal with an issue during the meetings just because it is not mentioned in the presidency conclusions.

In the following debate, Christine Neuhold (Maastricht University) questioned the legitimacy of the Mini Summits and Sophie Vanhoonacker (Maastricht University) stressed the importance of the preparation of European Council meetings and, thus, challenged Rittelmeyer’s demand for more flexibility. According to Turhan, the Mini Summits provide an open space for future analysis and indicate a stronger intergovernmental cooperation between the Member States. Moreover, Werts supposed that Mini Summits will become more regular as 28 Member States are too many for efficient negotiations. He argued that in the past, there have been too many summits without results and this provides a negative image for both the European Council and the European Union.

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