Foreign Policy Blogs

No Queens at EU Summit

The European Union summit on September 16 was a disappointment to those who had hoped at last to learn how the royal heads of Europe view the EU’s role in the world – and thus, presumably, their own future global influence and status. Sadly, it turned out that some of the top names in media had falsely reported the summit would be attended by the queens of England, the Netherlands, and Denmark, the kings of Spain, Sweden, and Belgium, and assorted ceremonial presidents who don’t usually have much say in running their countries. In the end, apart from the president of France, summit participants comprised the usual crop of much less glamorous prime ministers, from whom we hear only too often.

The misunderstanding arose after a number of media outlets that should have known better – including the BBC, Financial Times, and The Wall Street Journal – billed the summit as a meeting of heads of state, meaning that it would be attended on behalf of the UK, for example, by Queen Elizabeth II. Spain would be represented by King Juan Carlos I, and so on for other countries with royal families.

Of course, the media should have reported that the meeting would be attended by “heads of state and government.” The only head of state to participate in EU summits is Nicolas Sarkozy, the president of France, who is head of both state and government – like his counterpart Barack Obama in the United States. The other European participants are only heads of government.

While this may seem a pedantic distinction, it is vital to understanding how parliamentary systems, like those of most European countries, differ from presidential systems like those of the United States and France. If you think a prime minister is a head of state, you have failed to grasp the most elementary constitutional principles of parliamentary government. It does not bode well for the writer’s comprehension of how political decision-making works at the most basic level.

If media people don’t know the difference between heads of state and heads of government they should stick to saying “leaders.”

Meanwhile, the simple word “summit” is also becoming the subject of abuse, with journalists increasingly using it sloppily to mean almost any high-level meeting. Thus The Washington Post placed the following headline on a September 11 report by staff writer Howard Schneider: “Swiss summit will shape future of banking industry.”

The report described the meeting as a “coterie of central bankers and government regulators,” which is far from qualifying for the lofty appellation of summit. In international negotiations a summit means a meeting of top-level leaders, that is to say heads of state and/or government. If these worthies are not present, Swiss summits are to be found exclusively in the Alps.