Spain handed the EU's six-month, rotating presidency to Belgium on July 1. But since the Lisbon Treaty came into force, the EU also has a permanent president. This has changed the way the EU does business.
There's still a rotating EU president - but with less say
For many Europeans it seems the European Union has been obeying two masters lately. Formerly led by one rotating president, the addition of a long-term European Council Presidency to the rotating presidency has left many unsure about who calls the shots in the EU.
Before the Lisbon Treaty things were clearer: EU member states took turns holding the rotating presidency, hosting EU summits and chairing ministerial councils. For each country, the six-month presidency was a chance to help set the bloc's agenda.
Here today...here to stay?
The rotating presidency remains in place, though considerably modified. Among other reforms, the Lisbon Treaty introduced a standing European Council president in addition to the rotating president.
Unanimously selected by EU heads of state, the former Belgian Prime Minister Herman Van Rompuy has been in the position since December 1, 2009. As "permanent" EU Council President with a two-and-a-half-year term, Van Rompuy now has the power to call European Council summits, which he also leads.
To distinguish between the two presidents, Herman Van Rompuy holds the "Presidency of the European Council," whereas the rotating presidency is officially known as the "Presidency of the Council of the European Union." The Council of the European Union, also known as the Council of Ministers, is one of the EU's two legislative bodies and is not to be confused with the European Council - which comprises European heads of government.
A European "foreign minister"
In addition to giving the EU an extra president, the Lisbon Treaty also established a sort of "EU foreign minister." Officially referred to as the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Catherine Ashton heads the Foreign Affairs Council, a meeting of foreign ministers from the individual EU member states. After the European Council itself, this makes up the most important body in the EU.
Herman Van Rompuy and Catherine Ashton
With many of his responsibilites now stripped, the rotating president remains the head of the remaining councils, which take place between departmental ministers from different member countries - for instance, those in areas of economy and finance, justice, internal affairs and agriculture. The position still carries the power to shape EU proceedings, albeit less so than before the Treaty of Lisbon took effect.
In the backseat, but still a "driving" force
Beyond this limitation of the temporary president's powers, the rotating presidency already became a sort of "presidency trio" back in 2007. Since then, three different countries have been assigned to work together on a common political agenda for the 18 months making up the three countries' presidencies.
The current trio comprises Spain, which held the presidency for the first half of 2010; Belgium, which has just taken over; and Hungary, which is to take the reins in January 2011. As the next presidential trio, Poland, Denmark and Cyprus will share their presidencies through middle of 2012 - at which point Herman van Rompuy's first term as standing president of the EU Council will come to an end and may be followed by a second and final term if he plays his cards right.
Author: Susanne Henn (dl)
Editor: Chuck Penfold