It appears that any solution to the Europe’s current problems will require decisive, overall leadership. However, it is hard to see any individuals or bodies able to provide such leadership in an EU that is hamstrung by its origins, traditions and structure, writes Paul Clarke.

Henry Kissinger famously put an end to the European Community's early pretensions to be recognised as world power when he asked: "Who do I call if I want to call Europe?" He had a point: if the Russians had decided to invade Germany during the 1970s, the then Community's rotating six-month Presidency could have seen the Americans having to contact the Prime Minister of Luxembourg to discuss a response.

In 2009, it looked as though there might finally be a sensible answer to Mr Kissinger's question when the Lisbon Treaty provided for the possibility of what an excited media dubbed a "President of Europe". Suggestions that this post might go to a high-profile figure such as former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair were swiftly squashed, however, as it became clear that Europe's prime ministers were never likely to accept someone who might contemplate making something substantial of the role. In the end they opted for former Belgian PM Herman Van Rompuy who made it clear that he saw the post as being a bureaucratic President of the European Council, someone to plan and organise the quarterly meetings of that body.

The Euro-Zone crisis

The problem is that the greatest crisis the EU has faced since its inception - the sovereign debt crisis and the possible disintegration of the Single Currency - is not one that is going to be solved by the Council. At best that body will be debating agreements made between its most powerful members, currently Germany and France (hence the portmanteau nickname Merkozy for their leaders. The unlikely possibility of the headline writers having to switch to Cammerkozy was killed in December 2011 when David Cameron chose to take the UK out of Euro-Zone deliberations).

The players

The three centres of power in the EU's system of governance are the European Commission, the European Parliament and the Member States (meeting regularly in the various subject Councils - Transport, Environment etc - at Ministerial level and four times a year in the Council attended by heads of government. Despite the UK press obsession with the powers of the first two partners to "impose" legislation on the third, it is undoubtedly the case that the ultimate power currently resides with the likes of Merkel and Sarkozy.

European Parliament

Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) certainly have more power than was previously the case, having acquired over the last three decades a say in most of the legislation enacted by the Union. They also have a major role to play in agreeing the EU budget and can dismiss the Commission, as they did in 1999 when the Santer Commission was forced to resign amidst accusations of fraud and corruption. Politically, however, the Parliament is there to be consulted: it does not have independent law-making powers. While its views on say the environment or health and safety can be communicated to the Commission, and may well be acted upon, MEPs are not in a position to do other than comment on the current economic crises.

European Commission

The President of the Commission, José Manuel Barroso, is in a stronger position. He at least appears to be playing a part in the discussions presently aimed at resolving the fate of the Union - which is not something that can be said for his counterpart at the Parliament (currently Jerzy Buzek of Poland if you were wondering). However President Barroso is constrained by the fact that, although the Commission is meant to represent and uphold the interests of the EU as a whole, its role is mainly to be the proposer of action and legislation. While President Barroso has spoken out (he told Euro-Zone countries to bring "solutions and not problems" to the December 2011 Summit) he is no doubt aware that any solution that he and his officials offer to the current crisis cannot even start on its journey through the decision-making process without the support of the key members of the body that ultimately determines the future of the EU, the Council.

Council

As described above the EU operates with two confusingly similar-sounding bodies: the Council of the European Union (or Council of Ministers); and the European Council. The former meets regularly under various "subject headings" including: Agriculture and Fisheries; Employment, Social Policy, Health and Consumer Affairs; Transport, Telecommunications and Energy; and Education, Youth, Culture and Sport. They are all recognised as "the Council" however which leads to the somewhat confusing fact that a piece of legislation debated and agreed by say the Justice and Home Affairs Council can be given formal approval and passed into law by whichever group happens to meet next. This means that a piece of legislation on, say, pesticides, can be adopted by the Education, Youth, Culture and Sport Council. These subject Councils are attended by ministerial level representatives of the 27 Member States and, despite the dire warnings of the UK media, it is these national representatives who have the final say on any new European legislation.

The European Council brings together the heads of government of the Member States twice during every six-monthly EU Council Presidency and is the body charged with defining the general political direction and priorities of the Union. Where there is some attempt in the other institutions to live up to the ideal of "acting for Europe", however, it can generally be supposed that the Council sees the most obvious examples of national priorities taking precedence.

The ins and the outs

The problem facing the Union at the beginning of 2012 is that the deals and compromises necessary to move the European project forward over the years have led to a diffusion of power which may be useful during the normal, routine adoption of legislation over periods of months and years but leaves a dangerous gap when the situation calls for determined and unified action. Giving out derogations and opt-outs (most notable over he Single Currency) and allowing inter-Governmental agreements in areas such as foreign policy means that the EU has been moving towards a two-speed membership with the UK in danger of becoming almost as detached as Switzerland and Norway.

The answer to the question "who is in charge" during the EU's greatest crisis is, unfortunately, a group of politicians charged with saving the wider European project while giving first consideration to their own national interests. The resulting tension could see the Union taking a radically new direction in the next two or three years with the Commission no doubt working hard behind the scenes to ensure that the semi-detached members such as Denmark and the UK are somehow kept on board.

Last reviewed 17 January 2012