With a new government still to be sworn in, Danish diplomats in Brussels are hurrying preparations for Denmark's six-month turn at the EU's helm, due to start in January. But they are under no illusion regarding their ability to shape the agenda, realising that the eurozone debt crisis is likely to "overshadow" the presidency.
Denmark, which rejected the euro in a 2000 referendum, knows it will have little chance of influencing the agenda on the most important decisions facing Europe as it does not take part in eurozone meetings.
"As a non-eurozone member it will be an extra challenge to stay involved [and remain] part of the discussion" said a senior diplomat, speaking to the international press in Brussels on Monday (26 September).
"We've accepted being out of these meetings," the diplomat said. And even if Copenhagen decided to have an ambitious agenda, like Poland or France did during their time at the EU's helm, he was under no illusion: The euro crisis "might overshadow any presidency".
'Keeping the European engine going'
Denmark is still waiting for a new government since the Social Democratic party won general elections on 15 September, ending ten years of centre-right rule. Helle Thorning-Schmidt, prime minister-in-waiting, is expected to announce her cabinet before Saturday (1 October), with discussions on the EU Presidency programme due to start later in the month.
Last time the Danes took over the rotating presidency in 2002, all the talk in Brussels was about positive themes, such as the EU's enlargement to ten new countries, mostly from the former communist bloc, and the draft European constitution.
"This time there is no overarching theme at least in the positive sense," the diplomat regretted.
Moreover, 2012 will be an election year, with France voting for a new president and Germany preparing for a 2013 ballot at a time when fiscal and budgetary reforms are likely to continue dominating the national debate in the eurozone's two largest economies.
But despite the limited room for manoeuvre, the diplomat said Denmark can still make a valuable contribution.
"Our ethos will be to keep the engine going" regardless of the crisis. "It is not all about the euro," the diplomat said, adding that "the EU is still delivering tangible results."
Among those, he said discussions on how to restart the economy are likely to feature high on the agenda of the annual spring meeting of EU leaders in March. The summit will be the second to take place under the EU's new "semester" of economic policy oversight and could provide a first political test for the reformed stability and growth pact, which is currently being strengthened to inflict tougher sanctions on budget offenders.
Long-term EU budget: A rebate for Denmark?
Negotiations on the EU's multi-annual budget for 2014-2020 are also likely to steal headlines, with an agreement expected by the end of 2012.
However, the diplomat warned that a major overhaul of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), which still makes up about 40% of the budget, cannot be expected due to the presidential elections in France. "It is quite obvious that any French President seeking re-election would find it extremely difficult to make reforms on the agricultural policy," the diplomat said. "And that's also one of the reasons why I don't think there will be agreement on the [2014-2020 budget] during the Danish Presidency."
What will change, however, is the way the budget is approved. For the first time, negotiations will include the European Parliament as a full co-legislator, leaving less room for striking "back door deals" among EU member states, the diplomat indicated.
Denmark also seems determined to put the rebate issue firmly back on the table. "As a net contributor to the EU budget, our next government would argue strongly in favour of getting rid of the [UK] rebate" and other exceptions made to rich EU countries such as Germany, Holland and Sweden, the diplomat said.
And if getting rid of national rebates is not possible, the diplomat said Denmark itself will insist on getting a rebate, as already stated by Danish Prime Minister Lars Loekke Rasmussen in May. This, he said, was necessary "to adjust for what is becoming increasingly difficult to defend in a domestic political debate that we have become the biggest net contributor per capita" to the EU budget.
No presidency 'on the cheap'
Meanwhile, Danish diplomats in Brussels are stepping up preparations for the presidency, which starts on 1 January, knowing that the agenda might change at the last minute. "You can't really set your priorities until one week before the presidency," the diplomat said. "What you can do is limited."
The diplomat rejected suggestions that the Danish presidency might end up running on a shoestring due to the current austerity drive in Europe. "I know there are stories in the Danish press about a 'discount presidency' or 'a presidency on the cheap'," he said but this is "not how we see things here from Brussels". Indeed, he said staff at the Danish Permanent Representation to the EU will be nearly doubled from 80 to about 150.
He conceded however that Denmark will certainly organise less informal ministerial meetings than the current Polish EU Presidency. "That is simply a cost-efficiency assessment," he explained: "The money you put into those informal ministerials do not necessarily give the results that you would expect."
In November 2010, the Danish government decided that seven informal Council meetings would be held in Denmark during the Presidency. The budget for these has already been approved.