Marina Costa Lobo, Robert Elgie, and Gianluca Passarelli – Are Europe’s presidents really perilous?

This is a post by Marina Costa Lobo, Robert Elgie, and Gianluca Passarrelli

In a recent EUROPP blog post Macdara Dwyer argued that presidential interventions could “generate lasting problems for the stability of European governments”. We take issue with the central themes of that post. We argue that European presidents do not tend to be very powerful, that recent presidential interventions in countries like Greece, Ireland, Italy and Portugal need to be placed in their proper context, and that European presidents are an essential part of a broader system of checks and balances. Overall, we disagree strongly with the idea that recent presidential interventions are “highly alarming”.

About two-thirds of all countries in the world have a president. In many of these countries, presidents exercise truly extensive powers. They include most of Latin America, Africa, Central Asia and the Caucasus, as well as parts of Asia, such as Indonesia, the Philippines, and South Korea. By contrast, in the 28 member states of the EU only three countries usually have a strong president – Cyprus, France, and Romania. On the contrary, many European countries have very weak indirectly presidents who do not enjoy reserve or inherent powers even in theory. Indeed, most directly elected presidents in the EU are very weak political actors. The popularly elected presidents of Slovenia and Croatia do not even have the power to send a bill back to parliament or to a constitutional court. In short, we need to place the power of European presidents in comparative perspective. For sure, even Europe’s indirectly elected presidents usually have at least some prerogatives, but compared with their counterparts elsewhere, they are truly little more than figureheads and that includes most of Europe’s directly elected presidents.

Maybe though, presidential power in Europe is on the rise. The evidence from Portugal in the early 1980s, Poland in the mid-1990s, and Finland since the early 1990s suggests otherwise. Here, constitutional amendments have weakened the power of the president to the extent that, for example, Finland now has one of the very weakest presidents in Europe. Even in France certain presidential powers have been constitutionally limited. In other countries too, presidential power has been streamlined even if the constitution has not been formally amended. For example, in Finland the president no longer has any serious power to intervene in the country’s EU negotiations.

It is true, though, that the exercise of presidential power is contingent. Events do encourage presidents to intervene and there is no doubt that we are living through difficult times. So, is there now more presidential intervention than there was previously? Hardly. The current President of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins, has indeed been a critic of austerity policies in general, though not specific government policies in particular. However, those with a longer memory will recall President Cearbhall Ó Dálaigh’s decision to refer a bill to the Supreme Court in 1976 and Mary Robinson’s handshake with Gerry Adams in 1993. These examples show that events can conspire to make the Irish president act consequentially and in ways that make President Higgins’ recent interventions seem very minor. In Portugal, the President can be an effective actor in some circumstances, by way of the power to veto legislation, the ability to refer bills to the Constitutional Court, as well as powers to dissolve parliament. Yet the President is never the head of government, nor can the President nominate the Prime Minister against parliament’s will. In this context, President Cavaco Silva cannot be said to have been more interventionist or powerful than his predecessors. Since the bailout started in 2011, he has used his powers to veto or refer legislation to the Constitutional Court much less than his predecessors.  Furthermore, given that the Portuguese President cannot dissolve parliament in the last six months of the presidential mandate and Cavaco Silva’s term ends in January 2016, his powers have actually been diminished in these last few months. In addition, with regard to the recent process of government formation in Portugal, there were no “winning parties running on a combined ticket promising coalition”. The anti-austerity left coalition was only negotiated after the election, does not involve a common agreement, and did not lead to a coalition government – only a Socialist minority cabinet with support from the radical left in parliament.

But maybe any presidential intervention is fundamentally worrying. There is certainly evidence that high levels of presidential power are problematic. Belarus, Europe’s last dictatorship, is founded on an all-powerful presidency. There is also some evidence that dual executives can be problematic especially for young democracies. In 1993 Niger’s first democratic experiment collapsed during a period of cohabitation between the president and prime minister. But EU member states do not have all-powerful Belarus-style presidents and they are not Niger-style young and fragile democracies. They can surely withstand presidential interventions of the sort we have seen recently.

More than that, we should think of presidents as being part of a broader democratic system of checks and balances. Both indirectly elected and weak directly elected presidents have the potential to offer a counterpoint to majority governments. These presidents all have the legitimacy – including those elected by the representatives of the people in parliaments – to ask difficult questions, to request that bills be reconsidered, to confirm the constitutionality of bills, even to interpret the specific wording of the constitution, and so on. Inevitably, some presidential interventions will displease some people. That’s politics. But in the constitutional framework of EU member states presidential interventions are scarcely “alarming” or likely to generate “lasting problems”. In fact, presidents can offer a check that monarchs cannot, precisely because the latter have absolutely no legitimacy to act in contemporary democratic systems.

Overall, rather than trying to muzzle presidents, we would encourage them to speak out even more at least within the constitutional limits in which they currently operate.


marina costa loboMarina Costa Lobo ( is Principal researcher at the Institute of Social Sciences at the University of Lisbon. Her research interests include the role of leaders in electoral behavior, political parties and institutions. Her latest book was co-edited with John Curtice and is entitled: Personality Politics: the role of leaders in democratic elections, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015. She has published articles in Electoral Studies, European Journal of Political Research, and Political Research Quarterly among other journals. For more information see
Robert_Elgie_001Robert Elgie ( is Paddy Moriarty Professor of Government and International Studies at Dublin City University. He is the general manager/editor of the Presidential Power blog ( He has published numerous books, including Semi-Presidentialism: Sub-types and Democratic Performance (Oxford University Press, 2011). He has published in journals such as Comparative Political Studies, British Journal of Political Science, Political Research Quarterly, and Journal of Democracy. He is the editor of the journal French Politics. His most recent book is Studying Political Leadership: Foundations and Contending Accounts, (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015).

Gi__400x400Gianluca Passarelli ( is Associate Professor in Political Science at the Department of Political Sciences, Sapienza University, Rome. His research interests lie in presidents of the Republic, political parties, electoral systems, elections and electoral behaviour. He has authored, co-authored, or edited books on presidents, political parties, and constitutional regimes. He has published in journals such as French PoliticsSouth European Society and PoliticsContemporary Italian Politics, and Political Geography. His latest book is The Presidentialization of Political Parties (Palgrave, 2015). He his co-convenor of the ECPR standing group on Presidential Politics

1 thought on “Marina Costa Lobo, Robert Elgie, and Gianluca Passarelli – Are Europe’s presidents really perilous?

  1. Quantitative Researcher

    Using such a broad comparative approach with regard to this particular issue is ridiculous. Europe is undergoing an extremely specific development at the moment — namely, an attempted transition from a national-based economic system of governance, to a federal-based economic system of governance. If you want to draw proper analogies you must seek them here.

    You must also address the actual issues in Europe right now. Otherwise the analysis becomes sterile and irrelevant; an academic exercise based on poorly drawn analogies undertaken in a vacuum with no relevance to contemporary issues.

    Statements such as this are patently ridiculous: “is there now more presidential intervention than there was previously?”. Speaking in quantitative terms (more) for a qualitative phenomenon is the essence of methodological sloppiness. Crude example: a country with no presidential intervention has a single intervention in the form of locking half the population in prison. By your silly quantitative criteria this country, because it only had “one” intervention would have “less presidential intervention” than a country in which a president intervened twice to stop two highly controversial bills.

    As someone who works in a quantitative science such use of quantitative language is gratuitous and offensive — it strikes the eye as quantitative methodological fetishism from researchers working in a field where quantitative methodology is highly limited in its application.

    Dwyer’s piece highlighted a serious issue that is taking place within a context broad historical context. He addressed an aspect of a crisis of Europe itself; of the way that Europe is evolving, politically, democratically, economically. Your piece seeks to circumvent these issues and instead falls back on vague, unclear analogies with no context undertaken in pseudo-quantitative language. Poor show.


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