Ministers representing the incoming Estonian, Bulgarian and Austrian presidencies of the Council of the EU outlined on Tuesday (20 June) their priorities, which seem to differ substantially.
Since 2008, the countries holding the rotating presidencies of the EU council work in “trios” and agree on 18-month joint programs, in an effort to be more coherent. Analysts have been critical as to the success of this effort.
Another element of the “trios” is that they usually take on board at least one old member and one new member. This time two new members, Estonia and Bulgaria, will hold their first-ever presidency. Estonia joined the EU in 2004 and Bulgaria in 2007. The Estonian presidency begins on 1 July and the Bulgarian on 1 January 2018.
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The UK was expected to take over its presidency from 1 July, but after the Brexit referendum it was replaced by Estonia.
Speaking at the General Affairs Council in Luxembourg on Tuesday, the Estonian Deputy Minister for European Union Affairs Matti Maasikas said his country would “try to be revolutionary” and have a “short and focused program”.
Migration and security are among the clear priorities of the Estonian presidency, he said, and emphasis would also be put deepening the single market.
“We take very seriously the joint declaration to deliver on the implementation of a Connected Digital Single Market for All by the end of 2018. We will focus on the increased use of e-solutions and the free movement of data, as well the development of cross-border e-services and e-commerce,” Maasikas said.
Unsurprisingly, Estonia, which has engaged in an unprecedented embrace of technology to transform its economy and government, is focused on the Digital Single Market.
The Estonian diplomat said his country was looking beyond 2018. He said he hoped for a discussion at the Digital Summit in Tallinn on 29 September on how to embrace technological change and how to take advantage of the opportunities offered by it.
On digital security, he said, the focus of the three presidencies would be on improving the functionalities and the interoperability of existing and new large-scale IT systems.
Another field of work, he said, is the fight against terrorism and the prevention of radicalism and violent extremism.
The Bulgarian minister in charge of the Bulgarian presidency, Liliana Pavlova, said that for her country, preserving and strengthening the unity and the solidarity among the member states would be key. She said that Bulgaria’s presidency would be “Europe for everyone.”
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She said the focus of the Bulgarian presidency would be to focus on compromises in areas such as migration, the future of cohesion policy, as well as moving forward with the digital single market.
As the poorest country in the EU, Bulgaria attaches big importance to preserving EU cohesion policy. Unlike the Visegrad Four (Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia), Bulgaria has accepted to take part in the relocation of migrants from Greece, although it is a “front-line” country itself, as many migrants cross into Bulgaria from its southern borders.
Pavlova said that as a country from the Balkans, Bulgaria would support the European perspective of the region. Already during the Estonian Presidency, Bulgaria will host a “big event” on Justice and Home Affairs with the Western Balkans countries, she announced.
The Austrian Secretary-General for Europe in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Michael Linhart. repeatedly used the key word “citizens” to describe his country’s presidency goals.
He said Austria would focus “on the most pressing challenges”, adding that this obviously involved security, “as the EU citizens expect”.
“We are last in the trio and will take open files”, the Austrian diplomat added.
On migration, Austria hasn’t been patient to wait until EU policies are put in place, and organised the countries along the Balkan route to stop the migration flows by closing borders.
First Vice-President Frans Timmermans said that the EU executive welcomed the trio’s programme, which he said was fully in line with the Commision’s line of “being big on big things and small on small things”. It builds on the “excellent work” of the Maltese Presidency and the Slovak Presidency before it, Timmermans said.
We are entering in the second half of the Commission mandate, so we must concentrate on delivering concrete results for our citizens, on using the internal market to create more jobs, Timmermans said.