The pitfalls of the EU’s multiple presidency system

Charles Michel had agreed to stand down early as President of the European Council so he could run for the European Parliament. Recently, however, he changed his mind. Sergio Fabbrini argues that this highlights the disadvantages of the EU multiple presidency system, and leaves the EU without a single representative of its interests

In the end, he decided to remain

In January 2024, European Council President Charles Michel enacted a controversial volte face. Only a few weeks earlier, he had announced he would stand down from his role early (it is scheduled to end in November 2024) in order to stand in European Parliament elections in June 2024. His decision, however, prompted criticism that standing down would undermine his position as President at a critical time. In response, Michel declared that he would in fact remain in his role and not stand for Parliament.

Yet, Michel’s original decision to stand down early has revealed the internal weakness of the EU's ‘multiple presidency system’. Indeed, his keenness to find another job has illuminated a dark corner of the EU: the lack of a single, legitimate executive power.

Implications had Michel stood down early

Every five years (following the elections to the European Parliament), the 27 national heads of government who form the Council elect the President of the European Council. The president serves for two and a half years, renewable for a further two and a half years. The European Council President is not eligible for reappointment. It was quite legitimate, therefore, for Michel to retire early in order to stand in the European Parliament elections in June.

The Presidency of the European Commission will be decided through reasonably long negotiations following the June elections. Had Michel kept to his original decision to stand down early as President of the European Council, EU representation during this period would have been exercised by the head of government of the country which, on a half-yearly rotating basis, holds the presidency of the Council of national ministers. Before the elections, this would have been Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo. After the elections, it would have been Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.

Inviting Hungary's authoritarian PM Viktor Orbán to represent the EU would be like handing your house keys to a burglar

Thus, during the post-electoral transition, the EU would have been represented by its bitterest rival. Orbán would have been able to decide on the agenda of problems and the conditions to address them. And this, of course, would have been like giving your house keys to a burglar.

How was this scenario possible? Because the EU has evolved in a piecemeal fashion. Its development followed a functionalist approach concerned with solving a problem but never with evaluating the systemic consequences of the solution identified.

EU half-year presidency

The EU half-year presidency is an example of this way of proceeding. Right from the start, the President coordinated the activities of national ministers and heads of government. The goal of the presidency was to make each member state feel that it was a participant in the European project. At the same time, from 1974, national heads of government started to meet informally to address the most divisive issues, untangling the knots which might hinder the Community decision-making process.

However, things changed with the various enlargements, which increased the diversity of the national leaderships. Many new member states lacked the organisational skills to coordinate the work of all the member states. In many cases, they did not even have the administrative culture needed to make such coordination possible. Moreover, the handover from one half-yearly presidency to another introduced inevitable discontinuity in the EU’s work, because each country had its own agenda or interest to promote.

The handover from one half-yearly presidency to another introduced discontinuity, because each country had its own agenda promote

Nevertheless, the half-yearly presidency stayed in the treaties. The argument in its favour was that it facilitated making new members familiar with European practices. Nobody ever considered that the opposite could happen. In Brussels, nothing is taken away; everything is always added. Indeed, the 2009 Lisbon Treaty started the practice of the 'trio presidency' of the Council of Ministers (consisting of the country in office, its predecessor, and its successor). The Treaty's aim was to provide a coherent European agenda for at least 18 months. And it formalised the European Council, with its president, as the collegial executive of the EU. The European Council deals with the policies whose competences are assigned to national governments.

In the meantime, the European Commission, with its president connected to the five-year electoral cycle of the European Parliament, continued to act as the EU executive for single-market policies.

Who 'governs' the EU?

So, the crux of the problem is who 'governs' the EU. There are three presidents: of the European Council, the European Commission, and the Council of Ministers. The hierarchy among them is not clear, nor is their respective legitimacy to speak in the name of the EU.

Regarding the first two presidents, the sofa in Ankara is there to remind us that the EU lacks a single, legitimate voice at international level. But regarding the third president, too, his/her legitimacy is highly disputable. Neither is the representation of the EU by the other two presidents clear. As if that were not enough, executive functions are also exercised, in their respective fields, by the permanent president (for five years) of the Economic and Financial Affairs Council of the Eurozone (Eurogroup) and by the permanent president (for five years) of the Foreign Affairs Council (the High Representative for foreign affairs and security policy).

In short, a panoply of presidential roles covers up the decision-making weakness of the EU.

A panoply of presidential roles covers up the decision-making weakness of the EU

Urgent business

And yet in Brussels there is no shortage of decisions to take. There are two wars on our borders, migration flows to regulate, and a European industrial policy to develop. The EU must also strengthen its internal market, and manage an environmental and technological transition with considerable social costs.

Who will drive the European bus to reach those destinations?

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.


photograph of Sergio Fabbrini
Sergio Fabbrini
Professor of Political Science and International Relations, Intesa Sanpaolo Chair on European Governance and Dean of the Political Science Department at LUISS Guido Carli in Rome

Sergio was the Pierre Keller Visiting Professor at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government 2019–2020.

He won the 2017 Spinelli Prize, the 2011 Capalbio Prize for Europe, the 2009 Filippo Burzio Prize for the Political Sciences and the 2006 Amalfi European Prize for the Social Sciences.

He was member of the Steering Committee of the ECPR Standing Group on European Union.

He has published twenty books, two co-authored books and twenty edited or co-edited books or journal special issues, and several hundred scientific articles and essays in seven languages in the most important peer-reviewed international journals, in the fields of Comparative politics, European Union institutions and politics, US politics and political theory.

His most recent publications in English include

Europe’s Future: Decoupling and Reforming
Cambridge University Press, 2019

Europe’s Future: Decoupling and Reforming by Sergio Fabbrini

Sergio is also political editor for the Italian financial daily Il Sole 24 Ore and currently Special Advisor to Commissioner Paolo Gentiloni on EU governance issues.

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