A famous quote is often mis-attributed to Henry Kissinger on the topic of the European Union:

Who do I call if I want to call Europe?

40 years after Kissinger left his position as Secretary of State the same quote continues to apply: while the EU does have a lot more authority and mandate these days, it still doesn't have a single leader who is clearly above all other EU authorities. There are 4 presidents of different EU branches, but they cannot be sorted into a clear hierarchical structure.

So what is the reason behind this? Are leaders of national governments afraid of giving real authority to an EU representative? Is it simply incompetence on behalf of the EU? Or perhaps it's not really necessary as all real power rests within the national governments regardless of titles?

  • 4
    The EU is not a political Union; besides weren't the founders of the US afraid of investing power into wholly sovereign entity, which is why the US constitution mandates a separation of powers? Oct 7 '17 at 9:53
  • President of the European Commission? (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/President_of_the_European_Commission) It surely doesn't get more top-most level than that.
    – Trilarion
    Feb 12 '18 at 9:57
  • @Trilarion: The European Commission is neither above nor below the European Parliamen. And the European Council is on par with both. As the question already states, they all have presidents.
    – MSalters
    Feb 12 '18 at 15:40
  • @MSalters Sure, but then for example the US President is also not above the Congress. The question asked for the single top-most level representative. It's probably not expected that this person stands above all others. Typically this contact person would be the head of the executive branch. The president of European Commission seems to fit that role well.
    – Trilarion
    Feb 12 '18 at 16:36

Are leaders of national governments afraid of giving real authority to an EU representative?

That's exactly it, and behind the leaders, member states in general are wary of relinquishing their autonomy in key domains like defense and foreign policy. And it's not a matter of incompetence, EU-enthusiasts are acutely aware of the issue. That's why there have been talks of a common defense or foreign policy for decades now and that's also why the Lisbon treaty (and the failed Treaty establishing a constitution for Europe) created a new “president” function.

But there are many actors pushing in other directions and it was simply not possible to agree on a “EU president” with real autonomy or symbolic authority (say a president elected by the parliament). So the compromise was to create a “president of the European Council” instead and the result is yet another personality, sitting beside the national leaders and the president of the Commission (instead of having any sort of authority over them) and struggling to be relevant.

It's really part of a broader trend: If you look at the evolution of the European Union, the last two major structural innovations, the euro and the Schengen area were initiated in the 1990s and presented as a take-it-or-leave-it package to the new members coming in the last three enlargements. Both the euro and Schengen area have been very contentious (if not outright failures) so there is little appetite for a big push towards more integration and, with 27/28 countries around the table, it's a lot more difficult to get an agreement on the way forward.

  • 1
    But isn't that what's democracy about - a plurality of voices? Besides it doesn't address the point that the EU was originally set up after two ruinous world wars; some political solution had to be sought... Oct 7 '17 at 16:52
  • 2
    @MoziburUllah There were almost 5 decades between World War II and the founding of the European Union. I think you might be confusing this with the United Nations.
    – Philipp
    Feb 9 '18 at 11:40
  • 4
    @Philipp No. He thinks of "European Coal and Steel Community" which was created in 1952 and is a direct predecessor of present day EU.
    – M i ech
    Feb 9 '18 at 12:36
  • @Miech And the treaty of Rome came into force only a few years later. The ECSC was merged in the EEC and the TEU basically amended and consolidated it.
    – Relaxed
    Feb 9 '18 at 19:02

Another thing one has to consider is the idea behind the creation of the EU. It is an economic union, and was created as an extension of the Marshall Plan in order to concentrate investments in redevelopment of western Europe after the second world war (and to, of course, halt communism from spreading in suffering parts). Access to industries in Europe at the time, and maybe still today, were a primary concern for US policy makers and therefore a balance of power was essential in Europe. This is probably the reason why the US invested so much in redeveloping West Germany. To sum, in my opinion there isn't a European political leader simply because it wasn't in the interest of any influencing side to make this a political alliance (and very likely unstable alliance).



I'd argue that there aren't really 4 "Presidents" in the executive sense, and that the lack of clear hierarchy between them doesn't mean that there's not a relative importance.

President of the Parliament

Notwithstanding that "In protocol ... terms, it is the President of the Parliament who comes first", that position is more akin to what would (usually) be called a Speaker in English -- it's not an Executive position.

Presidency of the Council of the European Union

The Presidency of the Council of Ministers (Council of the EU) is held by a given country at any one time, and is once again not so much an Executive Presidency as which country's Ministers chair the various committees.

President of the European Council & President of the European Commission

Arguably, one can't go far wrong if one thinks of the President of the European Council being nominally more important and setting broad strategy, while the President of the Commission is, day-to-day, practically more important and is responsible for actually getting things done. They could (with a bit of wiggling) be thought of as analogous to Head of State and Head of Government, i.e. the President of the European Council is akin to a President; the President of the European Commission is akin to a Prime Minister. There's a degree of split function between them, but that's also true of many countries (e.g. France, or Czechia).

High Representative

From 1999–2009, there was a High Representative of the Common Foreign and Security Policy; since 2009 that has (following some changes to the position as well as the name) become the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy (a.k.a. the EU Foreign Minister). Wikipedia claims (albeit currently without citation) that "The Clinton administration claimed in May 2000 that [the post] was the fulfilment of Henry Kissinger's famous desire to have a phone number to talk to Europe."

Who You Gonna Call

Sometimes President of the Council, sometimes President of the Commission, sometimes High Representative. But is that really any different from when a state wants to contact, say, the French Government?

  • This answer explains the functions of the different top-level positions in the EU very well, but it unfortunately doesn't answer the question which was actually asked here: "What is the reason behind this?" Why did the people who negotiated the EU Treaties decide on such a convoluted separation of powers?
    – Philipp
    Feb 9 '18 at 11:50
  • 1
    Noted. I think my implication was that it's not particularly convoluted, but I could have made that clearer.
    – owjburnham
    Feb 9 '18 at 15:53

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .