Written by Ralf Drachenberg.
The European Council consists of the Heads of State or Government of the 27 EU Member States, as well as the President of the European Council and the President of the European Commission. It became a formal European Union (EU) institution, with a full-time President, under the Treaty of Lisbon. Although it does not exercise legislative functions, the European Council’s role – to ‘provide the Union with the necessary impetus for its development’ and to define its ‘general political directions and priorities’ – has developed rapidly over the past twelve years. The European Council President has a crucial role to play in this context.
The first term of Charles Michel, the incumbent President, comes to an end on 31 May 2022. Based on previous cycles, the decision on the (re-)election of the European Council President for the period from July 2022 to November 2024 is expected to be taken at the last formal European Council meeting before the end of the current mandate.
This briefing provides answers to some of the most frequently asked questions on the office of President of the European Council, in particular the position’s role and the election process. It also provides examples from the mandates of the three office holders to date.
1. When was the permanent office of President of the European Council created?
The office of full-time President was introduced in 2009 with the Lisbon Treaty – at the same time as the European Council became a fully fledged EU institution. It replaced the previous rotating presidency of the European Council, held by the Head of State or Government of the Member State holding the presidency of the Council of the European Union (Council of Ministers), which continues to chair most Council formations. The office was created, among other reasons, to bring more continuity and coherence to the European Council’s work.
This updates an October 2016 EPRS Briefing, ‘The choice of the President of the European Council: Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)’.
2. What is the role of the European Council President?
- chairs the European Council and drives forward its work;
- ensures the preparation and continuity of the work of the European Council in cooperation with the President of the Commission, and on the basis of the work of the General Affairs Council;
- endeavours to facilitate cohesion and consensus within the European Council;
- presents a report to the European Parliament after each formal meeting of the European Council.
The President of the European Council also ensures the external representation of the EU on issues concerning its Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP), without prejudice to the powers of the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy.
Herman Van Rompuy, the first full-time President of the European Council, described his role as follows:
The European Council is generally considered to be the highest political authority in the Union but the job description and formal competences of its President are rather vague, even meagre. A lot therefore depends on what you do with it or make of it! I can put it differently: everything what was not foreseen formally, had to be created informally.
3. Is the President a member of the European Council?
The European Council’s President, just like the President of the European Commission, is a member of the European Council. Article 15 TEU states that ‘the European Council shall consist of the Heads of State or Government of the Member States, together with its President and the President of the Commission’. The difference between these two categories of members is that, as opposed to the Heads of State or Government, the two presidents do not have voting rights; thus, according to Article 235(1) of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU), ‘where the European Council decides by vote, its President and the President of the Commission shall not take part in the vote’.
4. How long is the President’s term of office?
Article 15(5) TEU states that the term of office of the President of the European Council is two and a half years. The same person can be re-elected once. Prior to 31 May 2022, the Heads of State or Government will need to decide whether or not to appoint Charles Michel for a second term as President, or choose someone else to succeed him. In both cases, the (re-)election process is the same. Based on previous practice, the decision is expected to be taken at the last formal European Council meeting before 31 May 2022, i.e. the spring meeting, on 24-25 March.
5. Who can replace the President if necessary?
There is no Vice-President of the European Council to provide support to the President or take over in the event that were necessary. In case of illness or death, or if the President’s term is ended due to impediment or serious misconduct in accordance with Article 15(5) TEU, the member of the European Council representing the Member State holding the rotating Council presidency replaces the President of the European Council until the election of his or her successor (Article 2(4) of the European Council Rules of Procedure).
6. Who proposes the candidate(s) for the office of President?
Neither the Treaties nor the European Council’s Rules of Procedure specify who is officially in charge of steering the nomination process and proposing the names of possible candidates. For the election and re-election of Herman Van Rompuy, it was the leader of the Member State holding the rotating Council presidency (the Swedish and Danish Prime Ministers, respectively) who collected proposals from the Heads of State or Government and sounded out the views of the other EU leaders. When considering his successor, the President himself was crucial in the selection process and proposed Donald Tusk as candidate, after seeking out the opinion of the Heads of State or Government.
When considering the re-election of Donald Tusk, it was the Head of State or Government of the Member State holding the rotating presidency at the time (i.e. the Prime Minister of Malta), who sounded out the views of the European Council members and chaired this agenda point. When looking for a successor in 2019, the process was coordinated by Donald Tusk.
7. How does the election process work?
The election of the President of the European Council is decided by qualified majority voting (Article 15(5) TEU). Using the same procedure, the European Council can also terminate his or her term of office in the case of an impediment or serious misconduct.
While decision-making by consensus is sought, this has not always been achieved. For Donald Tusk’s re-election on 9 March 2017, the Polish government voted against re-electing him, while all the others voted in favour. As a protest against Donald Tusk’s re-election, the then Polish Prime Minister, Beata Szydło, refused to agree on the conclusions, which can only be adopted by consensus; thus, for the first time, the European Council meeting ended with ‘conclusions by the President of the European Council’, as opposed to the standard European Council conclusions.
During the process of selecting his successor (and other high-level appointments at the start of the 2019 institutional cycle), Donald Tusk stressed that these decisions were to be taken by consensus, if possible, but that he ‘would not shy away from putting [them] to the vote’ if needed.
The election of the European Council’s President, as opposed to that of the Commission President and the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy (as a member of the College of Commissioners), does not need the European Parliament’s approval (see Table 1).
|Position||Treaty article||European Council role||European Parliament role|
|President of the European Commission||17(7) TEU||Propose candidate||Elect candidate|
|President of the European Council||15(5) TEU||Elect||None|
|High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy||18(1) TEU||Appoint (with agreement of the President of the Commission)||Part of the approval of the College of Commissioners|
8. Who has held the office to date?
To date, three individuals have held the office of President of the European Council: Herman Van Rompuy, Donald Tusk and Charles Michel. Herman Van Rompuy was 62 years old at the start of him term of office as President (in 2009), while Donald Tusk was 57 (2014) and Charles Michel was 43 (2019).
9. What are the criteria for choosing the President?
Prior to the Lisbon Treaty, there was no choice for the members of the European Council as to who should hold the presidency, as it was automatically the Head of State or Government of the Member State holding the rotating presidency who carried out this role. The changes introduced with Lisbon gave them the possibility to choose the person who they believed would be most suitable to hold this office.
When choosing the future President of the European Council, EU leaders take into account other factors besides the candidates’ professional experience and performance to date. Attention may notably be paid to ensuring a certain balance between political forces in the EU, Member States and gender.
This balance is partially reflected and formalised in Declaration (No 6) on Article 15(5) and (6), Article 17(6) and (7) and Article 18 TEU, which states that ‘in choosing the persons called upon to hold the offices of President of the European Council, President of the Commission and High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, due account is to be taken of the need to respect the geographical and demographic diversity of the Union and its Member States’. During the nomination process for the EU’s new institutional leadership in 2019, Donald Tusk stressed that the nominations should reflect the EU’s demography and geographical balance, but also gender and political balances.
Unlike in previous cases, the election of Charles Michel as President of the European Council in 2019 was part of a package agreed at the special European Council meeting of 30 June-3 July 2019, which also included the positions of President of the European Commission, High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, and President of the European Central Bank (the latter not being a political appointment).
10. What factors determine whether a President is re-elected?
When the President seeks re-election, his or her prospects depend on various factors, including how successful or unsuccessful their first term in office has been; how many supporters or critics they may have in the European Council; the extent of political support in their home country; the existence of any strong or obvious alternative candidates; and the party political balance in the European Council at the time.
11. Can the President of the European Council hold other offices?
While the Treaty clearly states that the European Council President ‘shall not hold a national office’ (Article 15(6) TEU), it does not specify that it is forbidden to hold another European office. In fact, Herman Van Rompuy, Donald Tusk and Charles Michel each also served as President of the Euro Summit while President of the European Council.
The Treaty on Stability, Coordination and Governance in the Economic and Monetary Union (TSCG) lays down that ‘the President of the Euro Summit shall be appointed by the Heads of State or Government of the Contracting Parties whose currency is the euro by simple majority at the same time as the European Council elects its President and for the same term of office’ (Article 12 TSCG). It does not specify that the President of the Euro Summit must come from a country that is part of the euro area. Donald Tusk (Poland) was President of the Euro Summit, but did not come from a country that was part of the euro area.
Merging the positions of President of the European Council and President of the European Commission
As argued by academics and mentioned in the European Parliament’s February 2017 resolution on improving the functioning of the EU, building on the potential of the Lisbon Treaty, the Treaties leave open the possibility for the offices of Presidents of the European Council and of the European Commission to be held concurrently by the same person.
In his 2017 State of the Union address, then Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker proposed to merge the offices of the Presidents of the European Commission and of the European Council into a ‘double-hatted President‘, as ‘Europe would be easier to understand if one captain was steering the ship’. He added that ‘having a single President would better reflect the true nature of our European Union as both a Union of States and a Union of citizens’.
Read this briefing on ‘Role and election of the President of the European Council: Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)‘ in the Think Tank pages of the European Parliament.