Why Does the EU Presidency Matter?

24. September 2018.

The purpose of this online public consultation is to detect the problems and solutions that European active citizens consider critical for the democratic and sustainable development of the EU and protection of the European values over the upcoming two years of the new EU presidency.

You can take part in the public consultation HERE, through the online consultations civil society platform SAVJETODAVNA, where you can comment thematic policy briefs related to the following EU's hot issues: Post-Brexit EU, EU's Budget 2021-27 (Multiannual Financial Framework), European Elections 2019 and Beyond, Protecting EU Values, EU's Democratic Governance, European Energy Security and Sustainability,  Digital Single Market and  EU Enlargement to the Western Balkans. While there is no separate thematic brief on migration management, the issue is partially covered in the EU Value Protection policy brief. All contributions are most welcome!

This public consultation has been launched by Croatian civil society organisations Gong and CROSOL – Croatian Platform for International Citizen Solidarity in cooperation with SOLIDARNA Foundation and is open until October 5, 2018.

Public consultation results will serve as a basis for agreement on common advocacy and awareness raising agenda of the Croatian, Romanian and Finnish civil society organizations, in collaboration with their counterparts throughout EU and the enlargement countries in the Western Balkans, as well as with EU policy experts and social partners. The results of this public consultation, including online survey results, will be publicly presented on October 9, 2018 in Zagreb, at the international conference "The Role of EU Presidency in protecting the European values", co-organized by Gong and CROSOL.

This policy paper is meant as a background overview of the key policy issues highly relevant for the upcoming presidency trio of the EU in the period 2019-20, made up of Romania, Finland and Croatia. It is primarily addressing the civil society stakeholders -  including activists, trade-unionists, business representatives, journalists and academics -  in the three countries making up the trio, as well as their respective European peer networks, interested in understanding and influencing the future priority agenda of this important political endeavour.

The paper has been prepared in a modular manner, providing background information and key critical perspectives related to the most immediate political issues that the upcoming trio will have to deal with, such as the 2019 European elections and beyond, post-Brexit Europe, the new multiyear EU Budget and the pressing energy security issues with respect to Europe’s sustainable development agenda, as well as those issues that are considered paramount from the civil society perspective, affirmative of the core European values as the non-negotiable basis of the Union’s political and economic choices and its global agency focused on peace, security, climate action and sustainable development. Hence, the paper also provides an overview of the current state of play of the European values protection, European democratic governance, European connectivity and digitalization and the EU enlargement with special focus on the Western Balkans. Additional topical overviews may be added along the forthcoming consultations process. 

The paper is intended to serve as a starting point for discussion, comments and generation of ideas on common advocacy action in different policy areas and across the three national priority agendas, hopefully contributing to a more effective impact of the European civil society as a whole on the next EU presidency, taking place at a time when the renewal of citizens’ trust in the European Union’s democratic profile and ability to make value based decisions is more needed than ever. 


What is EU Presidency?

The Council of the European Union, often referred to as the Council, is one of the three fundamental institutions of the European Union, representing the common interests of the member states. The Council is not to be confused with the European Council, which is a separate EU institution that is composed of the leaders of all member states and the president of the European Commission, and is led by the president elected by the European Council itself. The Council meets in 10 different configurations depending on the policy area discussed. Each configuration is composed of 27 ministers from each member state, administrating policies in question. In that way, the Council of the European Union, together with the European Council, represents the main institution in which the national governments interact, discuss and make decisions on the legislation and policies of the European Union. Besides sharing legislative responsibilities with the European Parliament in responding to legislative and budget proposals by the European Commission, the Council is the main decision-making body tasked with coordinating policies among the member states (for instance through the adoption of frameworks, guidelines or recommendations) and addressing potential intergovernmental issues. Furthermore, it possesses the jurisdiction over formation and implementation of the EU security and foreign policy.

The Presidency of the Council of the European Union has been a function of the Council since its establishment in 1958 as a part of the European Economic Community and it was organised as a six-month rotating presidency among the original members. However, the presidency as we know today was defined by the Treaty of Lisbon in 2009 that introduced various changes in order to increase the continuity and coordination in the Council under the pressure of the growing European community. At the same time, it is often argued that these changes limited and diminished the influence and the power of the presidency. Some of the crucial changes that influenced the presidency were the separation of the European Council, now led by the newly introduced long-term president (Donald Tusk), transfer of jurisdiction over the foreign policy and security issues from the presidency to the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, and introduction of trio presidencies in order to smooth the transition between the presidencies and improve coordination and continuity.

Each country is presiding for the period of six months, but its leadership is viewed as a part of the trio the country belongs to. Three consecutive countries presiding form a trio, and are expected to agree on the common long-term goals and priority issues, and are tasked with cooperating on the common agenda that is to serve as a basis of each individual programme. Since most issues and proposals demand more time than six months in order to be resolved, such grouping is supposed to ensure a period of 18 months (or three presidencies) to work on a certain issue uninterruptedly and ensure a higher level of continuity. Additionally, trio presidencies are also supposed to create an environment where small and inexperienced countries receive support and advice from more experienced trio partners.

Despite described changes to the institution of the presidency, the main tasks have remained the same: the presiding country represents the Council in relation to other institutions of the European Union and its main task is planning and leading the meetings in the Council and its preparatory bodies. In other words, ministers of the presiding country organize and facilitate a discussion between all member states’ ministers in order to reach agreement and coordinate the common interests and actions. The presidency creates and acts upon a predetermined agenda and prioritized issues in a way to ensure continuity. The agenda is expected to take into consideration the on-going issues that past presidencies did not manage to resolve and the urgent current affairs, as well as to be based upon the common agenda and topics determined by the trio presidency.

Accordingly, a member state is expected to undertake several roles while presiding over the Council: (1) the role of administrator through the preparation and organization of the formal and informal meetings as well as filling and distributing accompanying documentation and agendas, 2) the role of  coordinator of working relations between the Council and other EU institutions, 3) the role of agenda-shaper of its six-month presidency programme, 4) the role of the mediator during the negotiations between country ministers in order to reach agreement and find acceptable compromises, 5) the role of Council representative externally to international actors and internally to other EU institutions.

Does the EU Presidency Matter?

It is often debated whether the holding of the presidency truly benefits the member state and helps it in promotion of its national interests or primarily poses an administrative, diplomatic and financial strain. One of the main arguments on the political and negotiating power gain from holding the Council presidency is its principal role of setting the Council meetings’ agenda. Through setting the agenda or planning and facilitating the meetings, the presidency can try to pace the negotiations to its advantage while rushing or postponing a discussion or decision on a certain topic, and gains an opportunity to frame and time introduced issues - all of which can influence the negotiation process. In this way, the presiding country can push the issues that resonate with its national interest. The presidency also offers the member state increased visibility in international media as well as among the other member states and European institutions. This creates a more fertile ground for potential partnerships and negotiations with various international actors. For instance, when preparing for the presidency, the Bulgarian Government planned “over 200 political and cultural events on the territory of Bulgaria with over 200 000 visitors expected.” Furthermore, the presidency provides the member state with deeper insight and more specific information on open issues under negotiations, including particular member states’ interests and attitudes on specific topics. This may be seen as an increase in power resources and as providing additional opportunities for new partnerships and collaborations of national interests.

However, critiques of the presidency institution mainly claim how extensive financial and administrative costs that presidency imposes do not justify such a limited advantage in negotiating power. While the presiding member state has the role of agenda setting, that role is limited as the state has little influence over outcomes of the meetings or duration of decision-making. Also, deciding on the topics and priorities of the presidency is limited as well since it is strongly expected to continue the unresolved issues of the inherited agenda and the issues introduced by the European Council. The six-month tenure may seem as a too short period to achieve true accomplishments and changes of the national interest, or even establish legitimacy and trust among other member states. Other critiques rest on the extensive financial and administrative resources required for the presidency as well as a high level of expertise and capabilities of administrative officials and policy-makers. It is expected that the presidency cost be covered by the respective member state – in case of smaller countries like Slovakia, Malta, Finland and Croatia that are estimated at 70 million EUR. EU funding can be used for the staff training and preparations, as is the case in Croatia.

When discussing the political profitability of presidency for the presiding member state, special focus is often put on the small and new member states and the question of whether the presidency can provide an opportunity to countries with usually weak negotiation power and influence for a temporal advantage to pursue their national interests. While high administrative and financial costs often pose a heavier pressure on the smaller member states, the new member states confront a problem of a lack of experienced administrative officials competent to successfully fulfil organisational tasks, and a lack of experience in bargaining for policy demands or a lack of previously established relationships.

So what does the presidency really mean for the presiding state? While there are truly extensive financial, administrative and expertise demands and costs, and the jurisdiction over the agenda setting and decision-making process might not be influential enough to change the meetings’ outcome, the presidency can use its influence to accelerate the process and a resolution of the agenda topics of its interest and postpone discussion of other ones. Furthermore, the  presiding member state, especially a smaller one with usually weaker influence in the negotiation process, enjoys higher visibility and international affirmation as well as a stronger influence on the negotiation process than in comparison to its normal membership position.[1]


What Makes a Successful EU Presidency?

Due to the complexity of the institution of the presidency as well as its dependence on the affairs and dynamic intergovernmental relationships in the European context, it is not easy to produce a clear recipe for a ‘successful’ presidency. The success evaluation has to take into consideration the limited authority of the presidency as well as the restrictive time-frame, and focus on realistic expectations.  Therefore, when answering the question of what makes an EU presidency successful, it is useful to consider reports of the past presidencies and highlight the main areas of praise or criticism.

The most obvious indicator of the successful presidency is the ability to close files and achieve agreement on the agenda’s topics. Due to the time and influence limitations of the presidency, it is unrealistic to expect a successful closure of all topics. Therefore, a successful presidency may be one that reached complete closure of only one topic on the agenda but also if it achieved a significant development and improvement in that policy area. For instance, Estonia’s presidency is being remembered as one that brought attention to the digital market and achieved a significant shift in the area of digitalization policies while some other programme goals remained unanswered.[2]

While Estonia achieved improvement in the area of its national interest, Malta is praised for reaching political consensus in an area member states had limited interest in, but which remained unsuccessfully resolved by previous presidencies. During negotiations that ended in consensus regarding organic food policy and changes to the Common Agricultural Policy, Malta preserved a more neutral role of facilitator, gained praise for a successful mediation and success on resolving this hot topic, as well as leverage and legitimacy for further negotiation processes on other topics.[3]

Responsiveness to crucial political and economic events and interests in contrast to an exclusive focus on issues of domestic importance is also seen as an important capability of a successful presidency. Accordingly, the Slovakian presidency received critique for hijacking the EU agenda with its domestic political problems without sufficiently tackling the unforeseen issues of migratory pressures and political affairs.[4]

Mastering technical, administrative and diplomatic responsibilities proved to be an important criterion for a successful presidency. High demands on resources and chairs’ and civil servants’ expertise proved to be a special task for smaller, especially newer EU members, and encompasses both the ability to handle bureaucratic demands as well as to facilitate negotiations and lobbying in order to reach an agreement. For instance, despite an overall positive assessment of the Slovenian presidency, it received critiques regarding its capacity for coalition building and lobbying as well as “a lack of soft knowledge among Slovenian officials and weak coordination among policy agents.”[5]  For small and new member states such as Croatia, ensuring adequate logistical, administrative and diplomatic capacities represents a serious challenge but also a maturity test in the eyes of other member states. For instance, as estimated by the Croatian Government, when presiding, Croatia will be responsible for organizing 1400 meetings at different levels in Brussels, around 20 meetings and conferences at the ministerial level and 200-250 technical meetings taking place in Croatia, as well as at least one EU leaders' Summit – which it has already been announced will focus on EU-Western Balkans relations.

Since the main strength of the presidency comes from the national government of the presiding member state - its political stability,  as well credibility in international eyes play an important role in the success of the presidency. A strong example of how the government instability and domestic problems can significantly undermine the success of the presidency is the Czech presidency, criticized for a “failure to provide a stable leadership” due to the fall of the Czech government in 2009, during its tenure in the Council.[6]


Setting EU Presidency Priorities

Lastly, when preparing the political agenda of priorities during the presidency, it is crucial to understand the wider European context of relevant topics present in the on-going political discussion, unresolved by previous presidencies. The EU political agenda for 2018 focuses on the following key issues:[7] illegal migration, Brexit, cyber security and disinformation, youth empowerment resources, rising inequalities, counter-terrorism, the new Multi-annual financial framework and the budget expectations, Eurozone and the European Monetary fund, the question of voter turn-out in European elections and quality of representation, Polish and Hungarian actions against the principles of the rule of law, political upsurge of radical far-wing parties, disintegration of countries in the Middle East, and migrant integration.

The contemporary trio presidency of Estonia, Bulgaria and Austria’s joint programme focuses on the following five topics: jobs, growth and competitiveness, empowering and protecting EU citizens, a forward-looking climate policy, freedom, security and justice, and improving the global influence of the EU.[8] Accordingly, Estonia’s priorities were an open and innovative European economy, a safe Europe secure from terrorism and organized crime while tackling the migration crisis, a digital Europe and the free movement of data and an inclusive and sustainable Europe concerning labour mobility, equal opportunities, social inclusion and sustainable environment.[9] The Bulgarian presidency prioritized digital economy, security and migration policies, economic and social empowerment of youth, as well as connectivity and collaboration with the Western Balkans.[10] The current Austrian presidency, currently in position, formed its agenda under the slogan “A Europe that protects” and prioritized a protective role of the European Union in three areas: security and illegal migration, prosperity and competitiveness through digitalization, and stability in the European neighbourhood concerning the Western Balkans.[11]

The upcoming Romanian-Finnish-Croatian presidency trio is expected to build upon the unresolved open issues of the previous presidencies while introducing new topics of European importance. However, this trio’s official programme is not yet available as it is expected to be presented to the Council in November 2018. The inter-governmental articulation of the trio’s programme, which is being agreed upon through a series of inter-ministerial meetings, must take into account the individual countries’ priorities, the past trio’s programme and the actual European political context.

Romania, the first one to preside from January 1, 2019, has presented its priority agenda, listed as four “topics of special interest” elaborated in specific issues:

  1. Converging Europe: growth, cohesion, competitiveness, connectivity, with a focus on issues of sustainable development, reduction of disparities, convergence, employment and social rights; innovation and digitalization; connectivity and markets
  2.  A safer Europe, with a focus on issues of strengthening internal security-border management, Schengen, cyber security; and future of the common area of freedom, security and justice
  3. Europe, a stronger global actor, with a focus on issues of Common Security and Defence Policy and the efficiency of EU external action; consistency of EU policy in its neighbourhood; and honouring of international commitments
  4. Europe of Common Values with focus on issues of solidarity, cohesion, equal opportunities and social justice; democracy, freedom and respect for human dignity; and combating racism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, intolerance and populism.

The Romanian Government has taken an inclusive approach to non-state actors and civil society in preparing for the EU Presidency. An inter-sectoral consultation platform was set up, bringing together government officials and policy officers, academics, civil society representatives and social partners, organized into thematic working groups in line with the ten configurations of the Council. The working groups have been exploring the specific issues to be addressed during the Romanian presidency.  Prior to its formation, civil society organizations have held their sectoral consultations to define their advocacy priorities in respect of the prospective Government priority agenda. Inter-sectoral collaboration on the policy preparations for the presidency is not only a clear sign of the Government’s openness, but also a smart move of mobilizing the much needed policy expertise and ensuring buy-in from key stakeholders as well as their policy expertise.


So, far, the Croatian Government has provided general programme orientation of the upcoming presidency in the first half of 2020, after Romania and Finland. Trio consultations have been underway since January 2018 and it is expected that in autumn 2018, the agenda setting will be intensified to be completed by December 2018. It is expected that the Croatian presidency will focus on economic growth, employment and social inclusion, European security, energy and transport connectivity and EU enlargement in the Western Balkans. Croatia has already announced the hosting of the EU-Western Balkan Summit in Zagreb in the first half of 2020. In July 2018, the Croatian Government has adopted a formal decision which positions the EU presidency as an activity of special state interest, treated as a priority within the state administration. By a subsequent decision, the Government set up the EU presidency preparation bodies, which will include the Governance Council for the Croatian EU Presidency preparations, in charge of strategic decisions, adoption of preparation and implementation guidelines and oversight over the entire process. The Council will be chaired by the Prime Minister and engage top Government officials as well as the Croatian Permanent Representative to the EU and the Liaison Officer for the European Parliament, while all preparations will be coordinated by the Ministry of Foreign and European Affairs through the Inter-ministerial Coordination, supported by a common Secretariat. It is not clear at this point how the Croatian Government intends to ensure structured consultations and participation of the Croatian Parliament Committee on European Affairs, as well as active contribution of the social partners and civil society in the EU presidency preparations – a formidable task for the newest and one of the smallest EU member states.


Key Sources and Further Reading

Austrian Presidency of the Council of the European Union, https://www.eu2018.at/agenda-priorities/trio-programme.html

Tzveta Dryanovska – “Is There a Recipe for a Successful EU Presidency?: Key Ingredients, Priorities, and National Interests”, Move.bg, 10 January 2018, https://move.bg/is-there-a-recipe-for-a-successful-presidency.

Ole Elgström  - European Union Council Presidencies: A Comparative Perspective , London: Routledge, 2003.

Estonian Presidency of the Council of the European Union – “Priorities of the Estonian Presidency”, https://www.eu2017.ee/node/921.html.

Ondrej Horky – “Czech EU Presidency Lacked Commitment, Expert Says”, https://www.dw.com/en/czech-eu-presidency-lacked-commitment-expert-says/a-4435129ž

POLITICO – “Malta’s EU Presidency: How It Went”, rtal, POLITICO, 30 June 2017, https://www.politico.eu/article/maltas-eu-presidency-how-did-it-go/

Marjan Svetličič and Kira Cerjak – “Small Countries’ EU Council Presidency and the Realisation of Their National Interests: The Case of Slovenia”, CIRR XXI, no. 74 (2015): 5–39.

Schuman Associates – “The EU Political Agenda in 2018: 10 Key Issues”, http://www.schumanassociates.com/newsroom/377-the-eu-political-agenda-in-2018-10-key-issues;

Members’ Research Service – Blog “Europe’s Challenge in 2018: Ten Issues To Watch”, https://epthinktank.eu/2018/01/17/europes-challenges-in-2018-ten-issues-to-watch/

Bulgarian Presidency of the Council of the European Union, “ Trio Programme’, https://eu2018bg.bg/en/trio-programme;

Bulgarian Presidency of the Council of the European Union, ‘Priorities”,  https://eu2018bg.bg/en/priorities.

 ‘“A Europe That Protects” - Priorities of the Austrian Presidency of the Council of the European Union’, Austrian Presidency of the Council of the European Union, accessed 4 August 2018, https://www.eu2018.at/agenda-priorities/priorities.html.

Romanian Government – Handbook of the 2019 Romanian Presidency of the Council of the European Union, http://www.europuls.ro/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/Guide_RO2019_EN_WEB.pdf

[1] Marjan Svetličič and Kira Cerjak, ‘Small Countries’ EU Council Presidency and the Realisation of Their National Interests: The Case of Slovenia’, CIRR XXI, no. 74 (2015): 5–39.

[2] POLITICO, ‘Estonia’s Presidency: How It Went’, Newsportal, POLITICO, 20 December 2017, https://www.politico.eu/article/estonias-presidency-how-it-went/.

[3] https://www.politico.eu/article/maltas-eu-presidency-how-did-it-go/.

[4] Success in Very Difficult Times - MEPs Praise Outgoing Slovak Council Presidency’, Official website, European Parliament, 13 December 2016, http://www.europarl.europa.eu/news/en/press-room/20161208IPR55154/success-in-difficult-times-meps-praise-outgoing-slovak-council-presidency.

[5] Svetličič and Cerjak, ‘Small Countries’ EU Council Presidency and the Realisation of Their National Interests: The Case of Slovenia’.

[6] Ondrej Horky, ‘Czech EU Presidency Lacked Commitment, Expert Says’, Newsportal, 30 June 2009, https://www.dw.com/en/czech-eu-presidency-lacked-commitment-expert-says/a-4435129.

[7] Schuman Associates, ‘The EU Political Agenda in 2018: 10 Key Issues’, Official website, Schuman Associates, 2 February 2018, http://www.schumanassociates.com/newsroom/377-the-eu-political-agenda-in-2018-10-key-issues; Members’ Research Service, ‘Europe’s Challenge in 2018: Ten Issues To Watch’, Official website, European Parliamentary Research Service Blog, 17 January 2018, https://epthinktank.eu/2018/01/17/europes-challenges-in-2018-ten-issues-to-watch/.

[8] ‘Trio Programme’, Bulgarian Presidency of the Council of the European Union, accessed 4 August 2018, https://eu2018bg.bg/en/trio-programme; ‘Trio Programme’, Austrian Presidency of the Council of the European Union, accessed 4 August 2018, https://www.eu2018.at/agenda-priorities/trio-programme.html.

[9] ‘Priorities of the Estonian Presidency’, Official website, Estonian Presidency of the Council of the European Union, n.d., https://www.eu2017.ee/node/921.html.

[10] ‘Priorities’, Official website, Bulgarian Presidency of the Council of the European Union, n.d., https://eu2018bg.bg/en/priorities.

[11] ‘“A Europe That Protects” - Priorities of the Austrian Presidency of the Council of the European Union’, Austrian Presidency of the Council of the European Union, accessed 4 August 2018, https://www.eu2018.at/agenda-priorities/priorities.html.