Here is a quick guide on how to make the EU more confusing:
Step 1: Name Take two institutions with entirely different roles and give them deceivingly similar names. “Council” sounds vague enough, and who would guess that “European Council” and “Council of the EU”, or simply “Council” (as the Treaties helpfully name it) or “EU Council” (a Twitter compromise) can refer to different institutions? This is a smart move also because the term “Council” is easily linked to other organisations, that have nothing to do with the EU, most significantly the “Council of Europe”. There you go: the perfect premise of confusion.
Step 2: Architecture In the chaotic architectural landscape of the EU quarter in Brussels, choose to place both institutions in the same building (give them the same General Secretariat and Legal Service, as a bonus). Then build a new one and – surprise, surprise – let both of them use it.
Step 3: Institutional identity. Because the EU is so complex already, aim to reduce this complexity. Explain the roles of each of the two institutions and give them an individual identity? Wrong guess. Design a common logo and build a website that serves both of them: like this, things will look simple. No one really cares that one institution has a crucial legislative role while the other is basically a summit of political leaders that takes place a few times a year. All it matters is that they are now a “family”. A family of 28 governments “making decisions”, to quote their (common) social media outlets. Again, it’s a small detail that some of these decisions are actually EU legislation while others are political statements. Better not to confuse citizens with such minor details.
Step 4: Communication strategy. Now you have a tough choice to make: talk about the busy daily legislative work of one of the Council configurations, that might be boring and definitely not sexy enough to make headlines, but with an important impact on EU citizens’ lives, or be in the spotlight a few times a year while covering the “#euco”. In the end, it does not matter too much, by now you managed to confuse everyone from academics to journalists and lobbyists – in Brussels and elsewhere. And we are not even talking about “normal citizens” anymore. Well done! (And we have not even mentioned the ‘Eurogroup’ or the ‘Foreign Affairs Council’…)
While it might sound like satire, this is unfortunately a reality that I, as a researcher and lecturer on EU affairs, am finding more and more frustrating. Explaining to students the difference between the European Council and the Council of the EU feels like an academic battle between facts (i.e. the roles of each institution mentioned in the Treaties: art 15 TEU for the European Council and article 16 TEU for the Council of the EU) and a now unified and superficial institutional communication. Trying to correct wrong statements (coming sometimes – too often!- from within the EU bubble) feels like a pedantic exercise, since being rigorous is just perceived as giving too much attention to minor details. But this is also a question of accountability. Who makes decisions? Who is to blame? The ‘family approach’ with a focus on the European Council does not help citizens to understand EU decision making – it only reinforces the perceived distance between leaders coming to Brussels (always in black limousines) and, well, the rest of us. The role of the rotating Presidency and the meetings of the Working Groups or COREPER are easily fading away when placed in the same “bucket” with the shiny Prime Ministers that make an appearance in Brussels every few months for a day or two. It’s not hard to see who is the winner of this communication strategy and the total confusion it generates. The European Council has been gaining both political significance and visibility since the Lisbon Treaty (and the introduction of the permanent President) and the so-called “Euro crisis”. The “family approach” just reinforces the de-facto power grab of the European Council within the EU institutional setup. The aim of this communication approach seems obvious: relagating the Council of the EU to a mere preparatory body of the European Council.