Rhein on Energy and Climate

At its meeting of February 4th 2011 the European Council has approved an EU energy strategy for the next 10 years, containing the long-overdue completion of the EU energy market, including electricity and gas inter-connections. It has invited the Commission and the 27 ministers in charge of energy policy to adopt the necessary legislative acts as a matter of urgency in view of completing the single gas and electricity market by 2016 latest.

This is the first time that the European Council got involved in concrete long-term strategy issues of high political sensitivity and given “instructions” to the lower echelons of EU governance – the sectoral Councils and the EP – to implement its policy direction.

The European Council Conclusions of February 4th 2011 have been the result of intensive preparation by the Commission, the Belgian Presidency and the Cabinet of the European Council President.
The Commission had submitted its basic proposals in the summer of 2010. It had a clear vision of the objectives to be achieved, in particular for the interconnection of the networks. The energy ministers have discussed the proposals twice during the Belgian Presidency.

This pattern is will be repeated in March in two other crucial policy areas: fiscal and financial matters and EU policy regarding its Arab neighbours.

For fiscal/financial matters the direct involvement by the “chefs” has been a familiar procedure since the Greek crisis in April/May 2010 and the institution of the “Van Rompuy Group” in the autumn of 2010, called upon to devise a permanent financial crisis mechanism.

As to foreign policy, it has always been a domain of the heads of government. On March 11th they will be called upon, for the first time, to discuss about practical measures to take in view of assisting the reform process in the Arab world. Considering the very short time of preparation and no more than three hours reserved for the discussion the heads of government are unlikely to approve more than a “Political Declaration” and, hopefully, instructions to the High Representative and the foreign ministers to come up with a set of concrete measures for the European Council meeting March 24/25.

It is too early to draw lessons from what might turn out to become the standard procedure of European governance. But a few points seem relatively clear.

First, the President of the European Council seems more than ever determined to turn the European Council into the body where the major strategic outlines for European policies are being shaped. Energy, foreign policy and economic governance are the three areas for which a strategic approach is more than ever necessary.

Second, the role of the sectoral Councils shrinks in those areas. They have to implement the guidelines issued by their “chefs”. Together with the EP, their role will consist of fine-tuning and putting the strategies in legislative form.

Third, the same goes for the the rotating presidencies. They will lose much of their glamour in external representation, a role mostly assumed by the High Representative or the President of the European Council.
But fortunately for them, their remain plenty of international meetings where the rotating presidencies will still be needed, as the recent Association Council meeting with Israel has demonstrated.

Fourth, the Cabinets of the Council and Commission Presidents will see their relative “powers “ strengthened. Much of the preparatory coordination work to arrive at the necessary compromises will lie on their shoulders.

In conclusion, the arrival of the European Council President will involve heads of government more frequently and intensively in the strategic decision making about crucial policy areas like macro-financial, energy/climate and external policies. This is to be welcomed. It confers upon heads of government a greater sense of ownership. But to remain effective the Commission and the European Council Presidents must be careful not to overload the agendas with too many items and details.

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