What makes a good Council Presidency?

Every month, TEPSA Secretary-General Jim Cloos writes a newsletter editorial on the news of the day, the future of Europe, and the work of the TEPSA network. To receive every upcoming editorial direct to your inbox, SUBSCRIBE to the TEPSA Newsletter here.

In our last edition I explained why I think that the rotating Presidency system is well adapted to the nature of the EU. Today, I want to look at what is needed to run a good Presidency and what defines one.

The first requirement is to be in the right frame of mind. That means three things.

One: understand that you chair one of the EU institutions, not the EU.
It bears repeating that there is no President nor Presidency of Europe. We have (quite a few) Presidents of the various Institutions, each with their own role. The only way for the EU to function at all is in the interplay between the various Institutions. So the Presidency, apart from chairing the Council, must reach out to and work with the other Institutions.

Two: be aware of rendering a temporary service.
A Presidency trying to fashion the Council according to its national system will fail. So will a Presidency that tries to reinvent the wheel and the rules of the game. It can bring new ideas and propose some reforms, but this will only work if they are embedded in a collective decision. 

Three: refrain from trying to sort out purely national issues or concerns.
Doing that from the Presidency chair almost always backfires. In fact, as a Presidency, you are worse off trying to sort out national issues. So a Presidency may ask: “What is in it for me?” Well, quite a lot actually. A good Presidency will buy you goodwill and trust, which are invaluable in our system. It will also give insight into the workings of the Council and a lot of experience. Countries that have run a good Presidency will reap the benefits over the coming years.

The second requirement is a good preparation.

One: get your administration ready for the task.
This means setting up the right structures and chains of command within your administration in the capital and in Brussels and training your administration. The GSC will organize tailor-made seminars in the capital and in Brussels in the year before the Presidency.

Two: follow very closely the files discussed between the preceding Presidencies, so as to be ready when you take the helm of the Council.
This involves networking at all levels, within the Council, but also with the Commission and the EP. The primary task since Lisbon has become the negotiation of legislative texts in the so-called trilogues bringing together the Council and the EP, assisted by the Commission. Continuity between Presidencies is extremely important in this respect.

Three: work on programming.
Programming is an indispensable exercise. However, incoming Presidencies have a limited margin for maneuver here; they have to respect the framework set collectively, under the guidance of the European Council. Unforeseen events can and most often do disrupt the best programs. In a crisis like COVID-19, the carefully crafted plans go overboard, and you have to show flexibility, grit and inventiveness.

The third requirement is to run the Presidency efficiently.

One: be professional and fair in chairing the Council structures.
It is vital to show sensitivity to the views and interests of all Member States and to be seen as an honest broker. A Presidency must establish trust, within the Council and in its relations with the other institutions. Since the  President or Prime Minister of the rotating Presidency will play a key role in the European Council meetings during these 6-months, he or she is fully kept informed of and consulted on developments in the various Council formations. Close concertation with the Commission and the European Parliament is a must for reaching codecision deals.

Two: empower the Presidency’s representatives at all levels.
A chair of a meeting cannot say: “Sorry, I  have to ask my capital to tell me what I can conclude from our discussion.” That would be the kiss of death for your credibility. The capital must show particular trust in the Permanent Representative and his staff who are key players in each Presidency.

Three: while the political responsibility belongs to the Presidency, listen to the advice and suggestions of the GSC.
The latter is constantly in ‘Presidency mode’ and has a lot of experience in assisting Presidencies in their difficult task. It will help you with calling and preparing meetings, advise on the conduct of negotiations and provide detailed briefings on every point of the agenda. The Legal Service will be at your side and can always be called upon to explain to delegates the legal intricacies of a file.

We have just seen what is needed to run a good Presidency. But how do you define one? The answer is not as straightforward as one may think.

First of all, since the Lisbon Treaty, the rotating Presidency no longer chairs the most visible of the institutions, the European Council. While European Council meetings were previously the absolute highlights of each Presidency, directly shaping its image, that is no longer the case. Even though the Presidency of the Council plays a key role in the preparation of and follow up to European Council meetings, the latter somewhat overshadows this role.

Counting the number of deals done in trilogues looks like an obvious criterion. But is it really? A Presidency of course has a key role, but there are many factors that are beyond its control. If your Presidency comes at the beginning of a new institutional cycle, you will not achieve many results here. The new Commission needs time to work out its proposals, the EP to set up the new structures. If the Presidency occurs towards the end of the cycle, the agreements will flood in because preparations will be advanced and all sides want to clear the desks before the new cycle starts. Therefore, depending on the cycle, the number of Council mandates or progress reached with the EP on ongoing files can be just as good an indicator of a Presidency’s performance than the number of final deals done.

And finally there is another factor you cannot control at all: luck. Sometimes the stars align, sometimes they do not. Political events and elections, including in the country of the Presidency, can disrupt the work or create a less favorable environment. Acute crises and even natural disasters (earthquakes!) can completely derail the planned path of events. In such cases, a good Presidency is one that adapts to the situation, keeps the boat afloat and does crisis management. The way of measuring success has shifted.

And now over to our Slovenian friends, with all my best wishes for a great Presidency; I hope that our Pre-Presidency Conference 17 and 18 June gathering many experts and decision-makers will have provided useful insights in that respect.

Jim Cloos, TEPSA Secretary-General