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date: 30 November 2020

The European Council: The Fascination and Frustration of Studying a Key Institutionlocked

  • Wolfgang WesselsWolfgang WesselsFaculty of Management, Economics, and Social Science, University of Cologne
  •  and Linda DiekeLinda DiekeDepartment of Political Science and European Affairs, University of Cologne

Summary

The observer´s first impression of the European Council is one of tired European Union (EU) leaders who, after dramatic late-night sessions, try to explain ambiguous compromises on key issues of European policies to their media audiences. From a researcher’s perspective, however, there are still many blank areas—a matter resulting from the various obstacles of analyzing this EU institution. The relevance of the European Council’s decisions has driven research on its agenda formation, decision-making and internal dynamics, its legal status and democratic legitimacy. Yet research on the European Council can be cumbersome and methodologically demanding due to the lack of confirmed empirical evidence: meetings of the European Council are consultations behind closed doors and the dense network of mutual information difficult to access. The conclusions are only a concentrate of the discussions held within. It is furthermore a challenge to explain the causal links between the diplomatic language of the conclusions and the real impact these measures have on EU politics.

Nevertheless, the European Council is a vivid object of investigation. Since its creation in 1974, the European Council has undergone structural and formal changes: from the increase to up to 28 heads of state or government, to the establishment of a permanent president and the formal inclusion in the institutional setup of the EU in the Lisbon Treaty. From the first “summits” onwards, the Lisbon Treaty had a crucial role in the development of the EU system and the formulation of the underlying treaties. In crisis, it was often the only constellation able to provide consensual and thus effective proposals. Meanwhile, the scope of its activities has been enlarged toward a state-like agenda. It now covers topics at the very heart of national sovereignty. To these issues dealing with core state powers belong economic governance, migration policy, justice and home affairs, and external action, including security policy.

Academic controversies about this cornerstone of the Union derive from intergovernmental or quasi-federalist assessments of the institution or from the powers and limitations of “summits” in general and in relation to other EU institutions. Some argue that the European Council shifts the institutional balance toward intergovernmentalist structures. Others stress the European Council’s role in transferring competences to supranationalist institutions. Further debates focus on whether the European Council has (successfully) overtaken the role of a “crisis manager,” or how its embeddedness in the EU institutional architecture could be enhanced, especially vis-à-vis the Council and toward a constructive and balanced relationship with the EP, in future treaty revisions.

Analyses of power and of the role of institutions—especially of a key institution as the European Council—are crucial issues of social sciences. Research projects on this highly interesting EU institution will have to assess which methods are adequate: from studying the treaty provisions, formalized agreements and conclusions, to observing its activities as well as tracing external contexts and the internal constellations of the European Council, to evaluating information considered as “anecdotal evidence” from interviews, biographies, and speeches from the few members of this institution.

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