Danes: Our EU presidency was a solid lunch

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The Danes compare their 2012 EU presidency to one of the national dishes, the rye bread "Rugbrød" that many Danes eat for lunch: uninspiring but excellent for nutrition. But Brussels observers note that the Danes have been absent on major issues, including the eurozone crisis.

When Denmark last held EU's rotating presidency in 2002, it was during much fanfare, with the decision to enlarge the EU. Then-Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen ended the presidency by declaring: "Europe, we have an agreement!"

This time around, the expectations in Denmark ahead of the presidency's start in January were low, mainly due to the fact that the euro, which Denmark has not adopted, would be the main agenda. And Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt had only been elected four months earlier.

This spring will probably not be remembered for the Danish EU presidency. Yet even though the economic crisis has gotten the most attention, the organisations Danish Business and Danish Industry believe that the Danish ministers have done a good job.

They compare the presidency to the Danish lunch bread.

“I think about it is as a pragmatic presidency in a very historical time. And those two things don’t always come together,” Sinne Backs Conan, Europe politics chief at Danish Industry, told the Danish news agency Ritzau.

Danish Business believes Denmark managed to shift the EU’s agenda to the benefit of both Danish and European companies.

The presidency has among other things pushed for the same regulations to be implemented in all countries, so that Denmark would not lose competitiveness.

“With that we can only be satisfied,” said the head of Danish Business’ Brussels office, Kasper Ernest, expressing satisfaction with the progress made during the six months in the areas of innovation, research, entrepreneurship and investments in infrastructure at the EU level.

On a more critical note, representatives of Danish Business say the Danish EU presidency could have negotiated more free-trade agreements and achieved more in the climate and energy areas. 

“That part of the job has had a difficult time,” Conan said.

Cyprus now succeeds Denmark in the six-month presidency, taking over at a time when the country is turning to Brussels for cash to plug its mounting debt.

Under fire

The biggest criticism the Danes received during the presidency came when the Parliament decided to boycott and suspend negotiations with EU member states on five major justice and home affairs dossiers to protest against their decision to unilaterally rewrite rules related to the border-free Schengen area.

Danish Minister for Justice Morten Bødskov in particular came under fire for pushing for an agenda seen by MEPs as a “direct attack on the EU's fundamental values”.

"You have broken the relation of trust with this Parliament, and broken away from the Community method, which guarantees that larger member states cannot impose their will on smaller ones," MEP Joseph Daul, leader of the centre right EPP group, told Bødskov in the Parliament.

"You have opened the door to populism and we will stand against you," said MEP Hannes Swoboda, leader of the group of the Socialists and Democrats.

Danish MEPs were shocked by Bødskov's reception.

“This is the worst massacre I have seen yet. It was not nice to watch. It was embarrassing for Denmark,” MEP Morten Løkkegaard from Group of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe told the Danish daily Politiken.

“I have never seen anything like that. Morten Bødskov delivered a catastrophe in the plenary,” added Jens Rohde, also an ALDE MEP.

MEP Christel Schaldemose (S&D) and a member of Bødskov's party said: “It was a very harsh exchange of opinions. As a Dane it was not nice to watch."

Successful European minister

Whereas Bødskov took a beating in the Parliament, Denmark's Minister for European Affairs Nicolai Wammen has been considered a success story.

The choice by Thorning-Schmidt to make Wammen Denmark's first Minister for European Affairs was risky as Wammen had only previously been a popular mayor of Denmark's second biggest city, Aarhus, and did not have any experience beyond local politics.

"Nicolai Wammen has – according to my sources – delivered a convincing effort," said political commentator Thomas Larsen from the newspaper Berlingske Tidende.

"He has in a record time learned everything, he has nurtured the relationship with the Parliament well, and when Minister of Justice Morten Bødskov came under fire, Wammen was vital in terms of getting a cease-fire, which eventually was established," Larsen added.

Though Wammen could continue as minister for European Affairs, Larsen expects that Thorning-Schmidt will give Wammen a new position as minister in an area which appeals much more to the Danes so that he can strengthen the otherwise unpopular Danish government.

An ‘invisible presidency’

Seen from a Brussels perspective, the Danish presidency has confirmed the trend of rotating presidencies losing importance under the Lisbon Treaty.

“This was a completely invisible presidency,” Piotr Maciej Kaczy?ski, a research fellow at the Centre for European Policy Studies, told EURACTIV.

“They’ve done, as they should have done, a very good job on number of legislative dossiers, but on the big political issues they were not visible. But that’s how the system operates. There is no more EU presidency, there is Council presidency,” Kaczy?ski said.

The analyst said the handling of the Schengen reform has been Copenhagen’s “biggest mistake”. But he added that apart from that, they did “a pretty good job” on a number of issues, mentioning in particular the new economic governance rules to strengthen eurozone budgetary discipline, known as the ‘two-pack'.

“They’ve done that to the best of their abilities. But again, not on the big issues like the euro crisis,” Kaczy?ski said. 

1 July-31 Dec.: Cyprus presidency.

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