Tag: trio

Belgium takes over. Not.

What will be “sober, plain and simple”? But also “tricky” and “not glamorous”?

Estonian Euro coins? No, it is the upcoming  Belgian Council presidency – at least this is the characterisation of  senior Belgian officials. As we are approaching its start, on July 1st, everyone is eager to hear about the famous presidency priorities. The fact that nowadays there is a set of common priorities for the 18 months trio presidency seems to be forgotten, by both the great public and, strangely, sometimes even by the respective countries. Every country still seems to have its own agenda, or at least it is expected to.

Belgium, however, is in a rather awkward, not enviable position right now. Not only does it have to deal with the Euro crisis, while trying to implement the institutional changes brought by the Lisbon Treaty, it is also facing yet again an internal political crisis with the government’s resignation in late April and elections scheduled on June 13th, merely two weeks before the beginning of the Presidency. Furthermore (as if all this alone was not enough), Belgium has one of the most complex federal systems, with three government levels with various (exclusive and shared) fields of competencies. A miniature EU, one might dare to say. This could mean good news: since it has developed a rather complicated but still quite manageable system at home, Belgium must have enough experience to steer the EU in all its changing (and challenging) complexity. But it could also mean bad news, when misfortune strikes both in its own backyard and beyond it. And this seems to be the current situation.

So what are the Belgian presidency’s priorities? Well, this is quite a “tricky” topic, seeing all the above reasons and baring in mind the expectations, the much talked about “need for leadership”, combined with the rather unclear EU representation responsibility envisaged by the Lisbon Treaty. No diplomatic effort is spared to convey the message that the 2010 Belgian presidency will be rather low key, “sober, plain and simple”. Not much of an own agenda (we do have the agenda of the Trio Presidency, remember?), not much visibility (we do have a permanent President of the European Council- which happens to be a Belgian- and a High Representative for Foreign Affairs); and probably a weaker authority, due to internal political instability.

In practical terms, the Presidency will probably not suffer a great deal from the domestic struggles. Even if a new government will not be in place by July 1st (which will probablybe the case), the current government will act as a caretaker and will start the Presidency. Later on, if a new government will be formed during the 6 months, it will take over and, of course, this will mean a change at the level of ministerial representation. However, in practice, this is not as bad and destabilising as it seems. Luckily, as I mentioned before, the Belgian system is complex enough to ensure that things keep working in times of political instability. Due to its federal nature, the representation in the Council is shared between the various levels (federal, regions and communities), depending on the topic. The system is very well organised and for the shared competences a rotation mechanism is put into place whereby the various regions, communities and the federal level succeed each other in chairing the respective Council formations. So well thought through, that even when one piece of the puzzle is missing (in this case a federal government) business as usual continues. The downside of this power-sharing mechanism is that if the various stakeholders disagree on a certain topic, Belgium is bound to be silent in the EU arena. It happened before (see the “Service directive”) and it might prove to be problematic if it happens during the Belgian presidency.

The focus on action and output, instead of a long list of priorities that might all be turned upside down by surprise events (Belgium was holding its last EU Presidency when the 9/11 events took place) is commendable. It is, nevertheless, questionable whether what Europe needs right now is a voiceless, low key leader, adopting an “ostrich strategy”. We can only hope that, if not a memorable Presidency (like some of the previous Belgian ones), the upcoming 6 months can prove that the Belgian model of  functioning without a government for fairly long periods of time without the day to day life of its citizens being directly affected can be successfully copy-pasted at EU level. It is, by no means the visionary approach on EU integration of the EU’s founding fathers, but in the current situation we would probably be better off with the least harm.

The forgotten Trio

Among the institutional changes brought about by the Lisbon Treaty, some have been more present in the media and public debate than others. Three months after the Treaty entered into force, we can still read at least a couple of articles a day about the President of the European Council, the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and, of course, the External Action Service that is now being designed. But with all the attention given to these new actors, one of the old ones has been slightly forgotten. In fact,with all the confusion in the media, it took quite a while for people to learn that the rotating Presidency of the Council of Ministers will still exist and work pretty much as before, with the unofficially existing 18-months Trio now being ‘officialised’ by the Treaty.

Three waves | Roll into port together | The trio is home. (Herman Van Rompuy)

What does this mean in practice, what are the advantages of the Trio and its relations with the newly established players? It might be too early to judge, but we can already get some insight from the experience of the Spanish-Belgian- Hungarian Trio. Its work has been reflected on at the launch of a report on the contribution of 14 European think-tanks to the Spanish, Belgian and Hungarian Trio Presidency of the European Union.

While, in the pre-Lisbon setting, the past, current and forthcoming Presidencies were encouraged to work together in order to ensure coherence and continuity, the fact that now this collaboration is made official (and compulsory), gives it a boost, by creating common practices. The civil servants from the three countries meet regularly, in sectoral structures and at various levels, to discuss the priorities for the 18 months. This starts about two years before the first Presidency takes office and ends after the third has finished its mandate, not before making a thorough evaluation of the Trio’ s performance. All this may sound like  a normal bureaucratic procedure, a pure coordination task. Yet, it is more than that. It is an exercise that helps civil servants  and politicians with different (sometimes very different) administrative and political cultures to get to know and understand each other and start thinking out of the “national” box. Thus, in order to draft a common programme, the three countries try to take on board each other’s interests, apart from their own national one, leading to a set of priorities that each of them can feel the ownership of. Moreover, these priorities that have been agreed by three Member States have a bigger weight when it comes to defining each country’s own strategic lines for he 6 months period.

The protagonists of the first official trio, Spain, Belgium and Hungary, seem to have found this exercise very useful. At the symbolic level, they decided to use the same logo design, with only the colours of the national flags changing. A common website was also created (www.eutrio.eu); however, contrary to expectations, this web address is currently used just as an alias for the Spanish Presidency website (which, in its turn, does not have a lot of references to the Trio and not in the most visible of places). At the more practical level, the Trio has drafted a single programme, instead of three different programmes as it used to be the case; however, it seems that each country still follows its own set of priorities, de facto reducing the common programme to a strategic framework, while still allowing specific Member States to take credit for certain achievements that happened to take place in their 6 months term. (Update: the Spanish Presidency is already “taking stock” of the achievements of the first third of its term, coming up with a very positive assessment. No reference to the common Trio programme and the progress in terms of that, in case you were wondering).

During the preparatory stage, the Trio had some daring ideas, such as having one country chairing one working group or/and Council formation for 18 months, while the other two countries chair others, or to have interchangeable chairs from the three countries. These arrangements would have reinforced the idea of a common programme and a common identity; but they proved to be too forward-thinking for this moment, adding up to the current post-Lisbon institutional confusion. Perhaps this is still something to think about for the next Trio (Poland, Denmark and Cyprus).

It still remains to be seen what role the rotating Presidency will carve for itself in the new interinstitutional power balance. Even though most of the visibility is taken up by Herman Van Rompuy, one has to remember that it is still the rotating Presidency that chairs the 270 Council Working Groups, the COREPER meetings, as well as nine out of ten Council formations, including the General Affairs Council (GAC), whose horizontal coordination role can prove to be very important strategically. Another key issue is how the Trio Presidencies will relate to the newly established institution- the European Council– and its growing powers, especially in the economic area. While the usual working practices of the Council are of a bottom-up nature (starting at Working Group level, then going to COREPER and only then- and only the controversial, unsolved issues- going to the level of Ministers), the increased role of the European Council might see these practices change, allowing for the possibility of a top-down approach in certain areas.

Irrespective of the way the Trio will interpret and fulfill its tasks, it is important to remember, when looking at the institutional structure of post-Lisbon EU, that the rotating Presidency is still playing an important role. Practice will show, in the following months, if the idea of an official Trio has given it more strength, coherence and continuity. And all this beyond a common logo and a programmatic set of common priorities.

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