Trans-Europe Express – Presidencies are good, actually

Sent out every Friday at noon, Trans-Europe Express gives you an insider's view of the most important coverage from across the EURACTIV media network, its media partners and much more.

As someone who has followed all the presidencies of the new EU members since the 2004-2007 enlargement wave, I know one thing: Presidencies are good.

The best thing about Presidencies is that, for the first time, the new members get a chance to sit in the driving seat of the EU spaceship, and this has a very positive psychological impact on them.

Before assuming such a role, there is very often an us-and-them attitude, the new members don’t really consider the Union as their own club, house or project.

Psychologically speaking, only after a presidency does a new member really become a new member. (When I was young they said that a man becomes a man only after his military service. The comparison is valid, I think.)

Also, the general public in new member states becomes better aware of the functioning of the Union, when ministers from the respective country chair Council meetings and speak more to the press.

I have seen great presidencies of new EU members. The first one was of Slovenia. By the way, Mogherini’s spokesperson, Maja Kocijancic, was the Coreper 2 spokesperson for the Slovenian Presidency.

At that time, the Financial Times described Ljubljana’s clout as “a bicycle towing a jumbo-jet”. But they still succeeded.

The Czech Presidency in 2009 was a bit messy and the government had to step down before its endIt helped launch the Eastern Partnership, which admittedly was not exactly a well thought out initiative that somehow led to the undeclared war in eastern Ukraine.

Poland had a great presidency. It was a different Poland, in 2011, with Donald Tusk as prime minister, with a booming economy and enormous swell of euro-optimism, at a time when the economic crisis was already biting in most of the Union.

Cyprus had a “Brussels-based” Presidency in 2012, with most of the country’s officials operating from the European capital and focusing on EU affairs. It was considered successful, despite the country being headed by a Communist head of state and government.

Lithuania held a dramatic Vilnius summit in December 2013, during which EU leaders failed to sign the Association agreement with Ukraine, opening the door to the EuroMaidan in Kyiv.

Slovakia will be remembered by the first summit at 27 in Bratislava, in September 2016. Malta followed, with highlights on social issues and on migration. The Estonian Presidency, which ended only days ago, left an excellent impression of modernity and digital solutions for everything.

Now the Bulgarian Presidency takes over. The country I know best may have many shortcomings, like corruption, a deficient judiciary system  and very bad standards for press freedom, but solutions to these long-lasting problems could be accelerated thanks to its Presidency.

Inside Track

Charm offensive. Council President Donald Tusk warned in an emotional speech at the launch of the Bulgarian presidency in Sofia against having a “game of thrones” in the Western Balkans, as Brussels seeks to encourage the region’s efforts to reform.

Populist vs. liberal. Czechs will go to the polls to elect their new president today in a vote that is seen as a decisive test for the country increasingly split between the anti-Muslim, pro-Russian views of incumbent Milos Zeman and his more liberal opponents.

Cabinet reshuffle. Poland’s new prime minister sacked key ministers in a major cabinet reshuffle, as he seeks to mend strained ties with the country’s EU partners, before meeting Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker for the first time.

Black is back. The Polish parliament began debating two competing draft laws this week, more than a year after the black protest, one aiming to liberalise the law and another that seeks to ban abortion when the foetus is deformed.

Less for the kids. Austria’s new right-wing government starting fulfilling election pledges with a plan to cut child benefit for workers whose children live abroad, with the measures mainly targeting migrant employees from Eastern Europe.

Trigger for Euroscepticism. If Poland and Hungary are not censured for flouting EU rules, German Euroscepticism is set to rise, warned foreign policy expert Cornelius Adebahr in an interview with EURACTIV Slovakia.

Fiscal discipline. A “debt clock” in Berlin, run by German tax lobbyists to shame the government into reining in spending, is falling for the first time in its 22-year history.

Stay or go? Silvio Berlusconi stated Italy must not leave the euro, but his main coalition partner immediately disagreed, underlining policy differences in the centre-right bloc ahead of the elections in March.

Government uproar. Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel said he would seek EU help to settle a row over his country’s deportation of Sudanese who were allegedly tortured on their return home.

Name dispute. Greece said that both it and Macedonia hoped for progress in upcoming talks with a UN mediator towards settling a long-running dispute over the latter country’s name that has held up Skopje’s EU membership prospects.

Smog problem. Macedonia had to take emergency measures against dense smog enveloping its cities, an annual winter scourge in the Western Balkans blamed on a mix of coal burning, ageing industry and high-polluting emissions from older vehicles.

Views are the author’s