Written by Joséphine Vanden Broucke
Any historian or journalist worthy of the name, when confronted with the choice between a primary or a secondary source, will go for the primary source: A source of information created during the period under study, or a person with direct knowledge of a situation, is always preferable to a secondary source which builds or comments upon primary sources.
But why choose when one can have it all? At our EPRS event on 5 May 2015 ‘The First Five Years of Permanent Presidency of the European Council: The Van Rompuy Experience‘, Herman Van Rompuy himself presented his own account of his five years in office, from 2009 until 2014.
Gathered in Parliament’s Library Reading Room in Brussels, Herman Van Rompuy not only shared his experiences as European Council President, but also commented on the panel debate with the chair of Parliament’s Constitutional Affairs Committee, Mrs Danuta Hübner, Professor Peter Ludlow (whose invaluable insights into the European Council have earned him the moniker of ‘Council historian’), Professor Uwe Puetter (author of a seminal book on the European Council), and Dr Petya Alexandrova, who has analysed the attention the European Council gives to different policy areas in a quantitative study for EPRS.
No Lone Ranger
In his keynote speech, former-President Van Rompuy announced that his ‘leitmotiv’ was cooperation. Cooperation between the institutions, and with the Member States – he made it a point of honour to visit each of the 27, later 28, capitals once every year, and was always careful to keep communication lines open and to ensure continuity, including with the Union’s strategic partners and in the international G7/8 and G-20 meetings.
‘The President should be in the driver’s seat, he said, ‘which I believe I was: I used my powers and roles fairly extensively, without becoming a ‘lone ranger’.
While not accountable to Parliament, he made it a point to fulfil his reporting duties to Parliament, and he maintained many informal contacts with the Parliament throughout his presidency.
According to Mr Van Rompuy, the economic crisis forced European leaders to take tough decisions unanimously, but the down side of this is that it has become very difficult to obtain a consensus in the euro area and in the EU, except in the context of a crisis. He warned that the continued fragmentation of our European markets is an impediment to growth, and that the traditional gradual Union approach unfortunately means Europe sometimes lack a sense of urgency.
Former-President Van Rompuy spoke against merging the presidencies of the European Council and the Commission, which ‘could involve more problems than solutions’, because the Union is set to remain a ‘duet’ between the Member States and the institutions.
Mr Van Rompuy is convinced that the European Council has actually increased the Commission’s powers, shunning any attempt at a ‘power grab’ through intergovernmental initiatives. However, he believes that a directly elected Commission President would require a complete recasting of the architecture of the European Union and a revolutionary Treaty. Mr Van Rompuy concluded that, as the current Treaty is likely to remain fundamentally unchanged ‘for a long, long time’, we should use its potential to the full in a cooperative spirit.