Written by Ralf Drachenberg,
The Rome Declaration of 25 March 2017, issued by the Heads of State or Government of the EU-27 on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of the Treaties of Rome, marked the end of a process that began following the United Kingdom referendum on EU membership on 23 June 2016. The point of departure for what could come to be known as ‘the road to Rome’ process was a diagnosis of the reasons for the decline of the European Union’s popularity among its citizens, and the objective was to decide on the Union’s short- to medium-term policy priorities. A first milestone was the meeting of 27 Heads of State or Government in Bratislava on 16 September 2016, focusing on the future of the EU at 27 and attempting to address the key policy priorities of concern to EU citizens.
Against this backdrop, the EPRS European Council Oversight and Scrutiny (ECOS) Unit organised an event on 25 April 2017, asking ‘From Bratislava to Rome: Has the European Council delivered?’
Has the European Council Delivered?
Joséphine Rebecca Vanden Broucke, ECOS’ Head of Unit and moderator of the event, provided the background for the discussion by presenting the unit’s recent in-depth analysis on this subject, ‘From Bratislava to Rome: The European Council’s role in shaping a common future for EU-27’, to the diverse audience, which included European Parliament representatives, academics, and think thanks, as well as representatives of Member States and other European institutions.
With respect to the Bratislava policy priorities, the analysis shows that Heads of State or Government have kept these more or less permanently on their agenda. The research provides evidence that Heads of State or Government have addressed nearly all their Bratislava commitments and that substantial progress has been made on the Bratislava commitments for all three policy priorities: migration and external borders; internal and external security; and economic and social development, including youth.
Joséphine Vanden Broucke pointed to the similarities and differences between the Rome Declaration and the Bratislava Declaration and Roadmap. Both called for a focus on EU citizens’ expectations, and expressed the desire to improve communication among Member States, between EU institutions and, most importantly, with the EU’s citizens. The differences were mainly in the scope and timeframe, as the Bratislava Declaration and Roadmap had a very limited lifetime (six months), whereas the Rome Declaration provides a vision for the next 10 years. The number of signatories was also different: while the Bratislava Declaration and Roadmap was a statement by the 27 Heads of State or Government, the Rome Declaration was signed by a larger group, including the President of the European Parliament and the President of the European Commission. Finally, policy priorities were reorganised into four instead of three: a safe and secure Europe; a prosperous and sustainable Europe; a social Europe; and a stronger Europe on the global international scene.
European Council strengths and weaknesses
When trying to assess whether or not Heads of State or Government have delivered on the objectives of their Bratislava Declaration and Roadmap, Richard Corbett (S&D, United Kingdom), a long-serving MEP and advisor to the first President of the European Council, Herman Van Rompuy 2011-2014, argued that the European Council’s performance in the time period between Bratislava and Rome illustrated both its strengths and weaknesses as a European institution. The process showed that it is often very difficult to come to a decision in the European Council, as nearly everything is based on consensus. On the other hand, once the European Council takes a decision it creates significant momentum, due to the combined support of the highest level of political leaders from the EU Member States. Richard Corbett also used the illustration of an elevator to describe one of the functions of the European Council, making the argument that the national leaders often use this forum to bring important national issues up to the European level.
When evaluating the result of the process which led to the Rome Declaration, all participants agreed that while some of the content of the Rome Declaration could be described as putting ‘old wine into new bottles’, it is necessary to reaffirm the EU as the framework in which European states want to cooperate together and to set political priorities for the EU, especially given the current political climate in Europe.
However, Professor Wolfgang Wessels, Jean-Monnet Chair, saw the Rome Declaration as lacking the forward-looking strategic and proactive dimension included in other EU political statements, first and foremost of these being the Laeken Declaration. He also described the European Council as the ‘hidden federator’, meaning that contrary to other academics, he believes that the increased role of the European Council in the political architecture of the EU has led to more powers for the EU, rather than less.
European Council pragmatism
Dr Eva-Maria Poptcheva, a European constitutional law specialist with the EPRS, recalled that the European Council sometimes finds solutions for which lawyers must find legal ‘clothing, or dresses’, because they fall somewhat outside the current treaty framework, pointing to the pragmatic nature of the institution. To further clarify, Eva-Maria Poptcheva specified that a functionalist approach has become outdated and that the current set up needs to be revised at a constitutional level.
The discussant, Dr Miquel Papí Boucher, author of ‘The European Council: Between law and political reality’, in response to the legal issues posed by the UK’s departure from the EU, also stressed the Heads of State and Government’s pragmatism and expressed confidence in their ability to resolve these issues either within or outside the European Council. He also further elaborated on some of the main findings of the study, such as the revival of the rotating Presidency and the crucial role of the European Council President, arguing that the former is also linked to the fact that the recent holders of the rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union have been small Member States, and, regarding the latter, the migration crisis strongly contributed to the central role of the European Council President. He also pointed to a fragmentation of constellations, with Heads of State or Government meeting in the European Council at 28, as EU-27 without the UK, at European summits etc., explaining the ‘pragmatic approach of EU leaders to European problems.’
Moving Forward: What direction will the EU take?
The discussions also showed that the current existence of the parallel groups of the European Council and meetings of 27 EU Heads of State or Government pose a challenge for interinstitutional relations between the European Council and the European Parliament. While the Treaty provides certain rules regarding the attendance of the President of the European Parliament at European Council meetings and requires the European Council President to report to the European Parliament after each European Council, no such requirements exist for the activities of the EU-27.
In the coming months, leading up to the December 2017 European Council, the Heads of State or Government will follow up on the Rome Declaration and clarify in which direction the EU is headed, based inter alia on the reflection process initiated by the European Commission following the publication of its white paper on the future of Europe. As the President of the European Parliament, Antonio Tajani, declared that it will be the European Parliament’s duty ‘to ensure that the pledges made in the [Rome] declaration are honoured’, we can expect further activities both in and with the European Parliament on this issue.