Researcher: EU presidency is a plus if you are a eurozone member

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It's always a plus if you are the member of eurozone because you are at the table where the decisions are made during an EU Presidency. Poland was against this two-tier Europe. But the real danger would be if you'd have some enhanced cooperation, which would at some point say "we cannot let anybody else in", argues Karolina Pomorska.

Karolina Pomorska is a Marie Curie Fellow at the Department of Politics and International Studies at the University of Cambridge. She participated on the round table “Sharing Experience from EU Presidency: Denmark and the Visegrad Countries”, organised by the Slovak Foreign Policy Association. Pomorska spoke to EurActiv Slovakia.

Before 2010 there were many speculations how the Lisbon Treaty might change the rotating presidency. Recently we see that those changes were overshadowed by developments catalysed by the euro crisis, which changed not only political priorities, but also institutional arrangements and processes. So how would you characterise the role of the rotating EU Presidency now?

I can explain it on the experience of the Polish presidency, because Poland felt full impact of that. Now, when you talk about the role of the EU Presidency, you have to think whether the country is in the eurozone, or not. Poland is not, so it obviously felt an impact – there were some areas where it did not have any say.

Also, the creation of the European External Action Service (EEAS) after the Lisbon Treaty means that the Presidency lost many of its external prerogatives – but not all of them. It is not chairing the Political and Security Committee and its working groups.

Now it's the EEAS, and the EEAS is setting the agenda. I would say it is an improvement because it creates more continuity and institutional memory, but the countries lost in this sense. The same is with the European Council where the permanent chair replaced prime minister or head of state.

But there are some important areas where the Presidency still matters. First, it still chairs Coreper II. Secondly, the Presidency still knows quite well where the interests of the member states are. For example in the external relations, there are many overlaps with communitarian policies – environment, agriculture, or trade.

So even there you cannot draw clear lines between the EEAS and the Presidency, and they have to work together a lot. And there is another reason, as the job of the High Representative is almost an impossible job. She cannot be everywhere, so it is a habit to deputise.

Baroness Ashton for example agreed with the Polish Foreign Minister Sikorski on some division of labour. He was attended some meetings in the European Parliament, with third partners, travelling to some regions etc. It is not a leading role, but there is some division of labour.

Do you believe that the country which chairs the Presidency still has some influence over the EU agenda, or is it more a manager of events beyond its control?

First of all you inherit lot of agenda from previous presidencies. Then you have to calculate crisis situations. But at the end of the day, each presidency has some room for manoeuvre, and we can talk about clear examples.

On the other hand, it is also up to ambitions of the member states whether they want to have influence, or not. In the area of the foreign policy some clearly said – now we have the EEAS, so we will just support them.

That was the case of Belgium, but even they were active when it came to countries of their particular interest, for example their former colonies. And then there are some countries that are very ambitious, and they really want to shape the agenda, like Poland. Warsaw said: we would like to make progress on the Eastern Partnership; we would like to talk about the financing of operations, operational headquarters; and so on. But obviously even on those issues they cooperated closely with the EEAS.

It is probably important to formulate Presidency priorities that correspond with the long-term EU interests…

Yes, but even before you could not completely overwrite others' interests. Even large member states knew they had to take others on board. You have to learn how to play this game – move your positions to the centre, offer package deals, and so on.

Slovakia will be the last Visegrad country to hold the rotating Presidency, so it could build on partners' experiences, both positive and negative. Slovakia will hold elections just before taking over the presidency; similar situation was in other Visegrad countries: Hungary had elections shortly before getting on the EU's helm, the Czech Republic changed government in the middle of its term, and Poland had elections during the Presidency. Is it possible to shield the Presidency role from these internal political developments?

This depends on how extensive the change might be. If you imagine that the Law and Justice party would win the Polish elections that would be a complete change of priorities in the foreign and security policy. And that could be quite disruptive. In the end of the day, much of presidency is run by the administration, and those people will not change.

They have been trained and they will stay there. But those people rightly say "we need politicians on our side, we need them to go to Brussels, to chair Councils they need to chair". And there you need to make sure that there will be continuity, no sudden changes in priorities, as in the EU everything needs to be discussed beforehand.

Crisis in the eurozone had an effect of strengthening the differences between countries that wish and could integrate more, and those staying on the periphery. These tendencies grew up to a point of discussing permanent centre-periphery architecture. How this might affect the role of the Presidency?

As I said before: it's always a plus if you are the member of eurozone because you are at the table where the decisions are made. Poland was against this two-tier Europe. But the real danger would be if you'd have some enhanced cooperation, which would at some point say "we cannot let anybody else in." But still it is open.

Do you think we still need a rotating Presidency? What added value does it bring to the EU?

You've asked about the benefits for the EU, but I will rather talk about benefits for the countries that are holding the Presidency. It has been proved, and there is a lot of academic research on that point that the Presidency acts as a sort of Europeanising factor, it helps to engage public in debates. And a debate means more democracy. In this respect, the Presidency has internal significance.

Talking about the Polish experience, did it change the public perception of the EU?

Possibly even more could have been done, but there were elections, other priorities appeared… Still public opinion polls at the end of the Presidency showed that 63% of Poles thought that the international image of Poland improved. On the other hand, 53% thought that Poland did not achieve much, but this is to large extent caused by misunderstanding of what you consider a good Presidency – that you cannot force your opinions or priorities on others.

And 77% of people said that the Presidency did not matter and that it's big countries that decide. But again we have to bear in mind that it was in the height of the crisis, when the big players were meeting separately, and involved other only at the end of the process so people were disappointed that Poland was side-lined.

Maybe it's important to manage expectations of your own public…

Exactly, managing expectations is very important. It's better to be modest, and perform well in your limited ambitions than to be too ambitions and became disappointed because you have not achieved something from objective reasons.

And the last hypothetical question: Do you think Poland will have another opportunity to hold the rotating Presidency, or will some future Treaty change abolish it?

I hope it will. And I think it should. Because we are not a super-state and the rotating Presidency increases democratic character, it has good effects, so it's good if member states have an opportunity to bring this “special contribution” and to get more involved.

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