So, who's running the EU now?
BRUSSELS -- On January 1, Spain became the first country to take over the six-month rotating EU Council Presidency since the Lisbon Treaty went into effect a month earlier. To Madrid, therefore, falls the challenge of shaping how the new and improved EU will work.
Like all countries that assume the half-year rotating EU Council Presidency, Spain has dutifully outlined its priorities during this period: (1) economic recovery, (2) enabling more citizen participation in EU legislative processes, (3) a stronger social agenda, and (4) a stronger global role for the EU. Skeptics say that this agenda is both too ambitious and too unfocused. Of course, it's still unclear at this time whether Spain -- or indeed any future rotating EU Council President -- has the influence to prioritize anything at all. Some may have argued that this was the case even before Lisbon was passed, but with the Lisbon Treaty came two fresh positions that will compete for attention and authority with the Spanish Presidency. To moderate fanfare, the unassuming Belgian Prime Minister Herman van Rompuy was introduced as permanent President of the European Council. To virtually no fanfare, British diplomat Catherine Ashton was introduced as the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. The Lisbon Treaty leaves room for interpretation -- not to mention the imagination -- when it comes to exactly how these two new figureheads will be worked into the balance between the supranational Commission and the EU Council, which represents the national governments. The High Representative job fuses two famously rivaling positions: that of the Council's foreign policy supremo (last held by Javier Solana) and that of the Commissioner for external affairs (last held by Benita Ferrero-Waldner). The "permanent" President of the European Council (his tenure lasts two-and-a-half years), meanwhile, coexists with the enduring system of rotating national presidencies. Until now, the Spanish Presidency has been rather ambiguous, however, on how it plans to manage its own role vis-Ã -vis these newly created European positions. At stake is the power to influence the agenda.
Under the new Treaty, it will be permanent President van Rompuy, not Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Zapatero, who will chair EU summits in the next six months. Moreover, the General Affairs and External Relations Council -- the monthly meetings of EU foreign ministers -- will now be split in two. The General Affairs Council will continue to be chaired by the member state currently holding the Council Presidency, which, just to keep straight, will be Spain for the first half of 2010. But the renamed Foreign Affairs Council will be run by High Representative Ashton, and not by Spain. Since the Foreign Affairs Council will be the decision-making body responsible for EU foreign policy, this shift to the High Representative might seem that Spain is essentially losing its global agenda-setting power for the entire duration of its six-month presidency. Not so fast. When common commercial policy is discussed at the Foreign Affairs Council, the foreign minister of the country holding the rotating presidency will chair the meeting instead of the High Representative. The nation holding the rotating presidency also continues to chair the Committee of Permanent Representatives that is responsible for preparing the Foreign Affairs Council's agenda and is the place where compromises are hammered out.
In other words, the relative influence on EU foreign policymaking might not end up tilting too strongly toward High Representative Ashton after all. Finally, if matters aren't confusing enough, there is one more player that must be included in the equation: Commission President José Manuel Barroso. Last week, permanent President van Rompuy met with the Commission President José Manuel Barroso and Spain's Prime Minister Zapatero in Madrid for the official launch of the Spanish Council presidency. The constellation looked very similar to the former EU representation troika of the presidency in office, European Commission representative, and the High Representative for Common Foreign and Security Policy. Permanent President van Rompuy and the rotating presidency led by the Spanish Socialist government have pointedly emphasized their intention to cooperate. But if van Rompuy manages to remain as active as he has been so far and develops a close relationship with Commission President Barroso, whose five-year term is twice as long as van Rompuy's, the Spanish Presidency -- and after it, the rotating presidencies of Belgium and Hungary -- will find itself disadvantaged in any turf war.
For now, however, the post-Lisbon European carousel will see a quartet of leaders -- the rotating Presidency of the EU member states, the semi-permanent President of the European Council, the Commission President, and the High Representative -- all trying to share the limelight amicably, but all jousting for influence behind the scenes. The reputation of the Spanish Presidency is staked less on its stated policy priorities and more on whether it manages to make this new, very complex system function and set a precedent for future presidencies.
Corinna Hörst is the Deputy Director of GMF's Brussels Office. Martha Ivanovas contributed to this article.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.