|Series Title||European Voice|
|Series Details||26/10/95, Volume 1, Number 06|
As the European Union faces yet another period of political unrest at its helm, Rory Watson studies the options to steady the boat.
BELGIUM has a rare distinction among the last half a dozen holders of the rotating six-month European Union presidency.
It alone did not have to contend with a general election or domestic political instability during its stint at the EU helm. That uncertainty can, at best, cause a government's attention to be diverted from European to national priorities and, at worst, lead to virtual paralysis in EU business.
Neither scenario reflects well on the member state holding the presidency, nor on the Union itself, which must adapt to fast-moving events in its orbit.
The Union now finds itself in familiar circumstances as the current Spanish presidency contemplates the prospect of its authority being undermined by wrangles over the country's 1996 budget. Furthermore, Italy prepares to take over in January in the midst of a crisis which stems from the continuing fall-out from its legal and political purification process.
Perhaps the greatest upset occurred in the opening weeks of Denmark's presidency in the first half of 1993, when Poul Schlüter's centre-right coalition government resigned, largely on a point of honour, over the so-called Tamilgate affair.
Somewhat embarrassingly, the government's collective resignation came just days after ministers had met European Commission officials to discuss their forthcoming Union programme. Work had to be put on hold while new ministers came into office and mastered their briefs. It was left to officials to provide the continuity vital to the smooth running of the EU.
Nor is size any guarantee that an EU presidency can ride out domestic distractions. Germany's six-month spell in charge during the second half of last year was caught in the doldrums until the country's general election was out of the way at the end of October.
Similarly, the EU vessel was tied up in port in the run up to the French presidential elections in May, with no ministerial meetings at all for an unprecedented six weeks.
The extent to which reliance on just one member state to steer the EU for six months can put a brake on wider Union business when internal political survival comes into play has caused some countries to suggest reforming the presidency system - a debate which has been fuelled by the prospect of wider Union membership.
Advocates of change argue that as the Union expands in numbers and responsibilities, it is unrealistic to place nearly all of the burden of coordinating, preparing and chairing meetings on to one, especially small to middle-sized, administration.
An unspoken concern is whether the political and administrative infrastructure of new members in particular would be up to the task and the fear that a big country's turn at the helm might in future come round only once every 10 to 15 years if the system is not changed. The constant changing of hats, they add, also confuses the EU's international partners.
Spain launched the debate early in the summer, offering various suggestions: a longer term of office ranging from one to two years; the creation of presidential teams of perhaps four to five countries each representing 100 million citizens; a troika formula of one large and two small countries; and even an elective presidency.
Its discussion paper floated the idea of a prominent personality appointed for two and half years to represent the Union vis-à-vis the rest of the world. The idea was taken up by French President Jacques Chirac during his election campaign, but he proposed a three-year mandate instead.
Governments have already tinkered with the presidency system as the Union has grown from six to 15 members. The troika system of immediate past, present and future presidencies became the norm in 1983, when Greece took over the baton just months after entering the then European Community. Her partners wanted a way of keeping a handle on any possible idiosyncratic behaviour.
The Union has played around with the normal alphabetical order used to determine presidency rotation to ensure that in an even-numbered membership no country is always committed to taking the chair in the same six-month cycle. Presidencies are more truncated in the second half of the year, as much of July and August is lost to holidays.
More recently, at the Brussels summit in December 1993, the order was changed again to ensure that the troika would not consist of three small countries. In the process, it confirmed the Netherlands as one of the Union's bigger players by approving a troika next year of Ireland, the Netherlands and Luxembourg. New members Austria, Finland and Sweden were slotted in with this, and not the alphabet, in mind.
Suggestions that the current presidency should be changed tend to be supported by the larger member states and opposed by those who fear they may be dictated to by their more powerful colleagues. Indeed, when the idea was first floated in 1992, it became a factor in Denmark's initial rejection of the Maastricht Treaty.
According to a smaller state diplomat: “If you had a three- or four-country presidency, which country would be asked to run which Councils? And if, say, the French faced elections and had difficulties in maintaining political momentum in a common foreign policy, would they hand it over to someone else? Also, who would decide who held the summits and other high-profile meetings?”
Critics of change believe a multi-headed presidency would involve more bureaucracy as different capitals attempted to coordinate with each other and became involved in the inevitable political skirmishing which would follow. Small countries also reject the allegation that their resources will be too stretched by the responsibilities involved.
As Ireland is already preparing for its EU presidency in the second half of next year, the government is planning to increase its Brussels-based Permanent Representation by about a third and to strengthen the coordination role of its department of foreign affairs in Dublin. The administration is confident it can handle the extra financial and personnel burdens involved.
Stressing the virtues of the rotating presidency, one Irish diplomat explains: “For smaller countries it gives them a chance to dig deeper into Europe and into other people's concerns.
“As chairman you are obliged to look very carefully at what other people would like to see the Union do.”
Spanish European Affairs Minister Carlos Westendorp, chairman of the Reflection Group which is preparing the ground for next year's Intergovernmental Conference, specifically acknowledges this strengthened feeling of belonging that emerges from the rotating presidency.
He also recognises the conundrum of combining permanence and rotation in a larger Union, but is wary of offering possible solutions just yet.
Irrespective of the final decision on whether a personality should represent the Union's external face, the choice facing EU governments appears to be to introduce a longer-serving collegiate presidency of three to four countries or maintain the present system in the hope that new members would agree not to take on the role for a number of years after membership.
The precedent exists. Portugal, which joined the Union in 1986, negotiated a timetable which did not give the country its first presidency until 1992.
|Subject Categories||Politics and International Relations|
|Countries / Regions||Belgium|