Column & Weblog
We are currently about half-way through the twelfth Belgian presidency of the European Union. A good moment, perhaps, to draw up an interim report on the progress made so far? Or perhaps not? The fact is that, during the presidency, you have very little time to reflect on such matters. There is simply too much to do. Practical problems need to be overcome, deadlines must be met. Conferences, workshops, events and receptions follow each other in double-quick time.
But what if we try to take a bird’s-eye view of the whole circus? Why shouldn’t we take a moment to pause and think about what we are really doing? Why shouldn’t I take a moment to pause and think about what I am really doing? (Let us assume that I am, indeed, speaking for myself). And, above all, what really are the ingredients for a successful presidency?
I have considered all these question seriously. And I quickly came to the conclusion that the success of a presidency is difficult to define, let alone measure. As research has shown, the results of a presidency are (to a large extent) dependent upon the expectations of the other member states. This, at least, is good news for us! The fall of the government and the holding of new elections just two weeks before the start of the presidency, and this in a country where the formation of a new government traditionally takes months … The other member states probably expected little from our moment de gloire during the last six months of 2010.
But let’s forget about expectations for just a moment. Instead, let’s go in search of the true essence of the presidency.
What are we really doing?
If we look at the presidency objectively, in the first instance we try to establish how far the presiding country has been able to influence European policy. In academic circles, however, there are doubts about the extent to which any country is able to influence EU policy during the relatively short presidential period of six months. To support this pessimistic point of view, the academics often quote the famous words of the political analyst and former EU official, Jean-Louis Dewost, who once described the presidency as “responsabilité sans pouvoir” (responsibility without power).
Fortunately, other voices do not agree, and so there is no need to despair (yet). The political scientist Jonas Tallberg (to name but one) has stoutly defended exactly the opposite hypothesis! According to Tallberg every presidential country has three different methods at its disposal through which it can influence policy and events: ‘agenda setting’, ‘agenda structuring’ and ‘agenda exclusion’.
‘Agenda setting’ is necessary for the bringing together of three key political elements: the recognition of the problem; the initial formulation of policy proposals, and the creation of a receptive climate for discussion. Through the combination of these elements, new points are eventually placed on the agenda.
With ‘agenda structuring’ Tallberg is referring to the possibilities open to the presidency to slow down or speed up procedures through its control of the process as a whole. The presidency can change the frequency with which meetings are held, so that this process is influenced in the direction the presidency wishes. Moreover, the presidency can also organise informal meeting which place the emphasis on specific presidential themes.
‘Agenda exclusion’ seeks to achieve precisely the opposite, by making sure that themes which are unpopular to the presidential nation are not debated – or are at least pushed into the background. The political analysts have long underestimate the value of this useful weapon, which was already neatly summarised in the 1960s as being “the power of non-decision making”.
Ingredients for a successful presidency
When playing the subtle game of agenda setting, structuring and ‘purifying’, there is one pitfall which the presidential country must avoid at all costs: that it does not compromise the supposed neutrality of the presidency. A top Commission official once described this delicate balancing act as follows:
“When you are not the Presidency, you are swallowing bitter pills every day, only because you know that you will have the Presidency one day and the others will have to swallow their bitter pills. You suffer for six years and in the seventh you get to bash the others. The Presidencies are always overstepping the limits [of neutral behaviour]. What you want is a Presidency that is skilfully violating you without it being publicly visible.”
This last sentence summarises the essence of the presidency. And so we now know what we need to do. With the necessary sense of realism, of course. As another official of the Commission once said: “A clever representative of the presidency has six key priorities and expects that four will be accepted. The Commission will actually accept three, but will then add one of its own.”
Policy objectives as the only yardstick?
But is an EU presidency necessarily successful if you achieve all your policy objectives? Is this the only criteria? Maybe not. During the presidency, the presidential land wishes to focus the attention of its own people and its own political institutions on the European policy level. This will at least help to alleviate the main frustration felt by many European policy makers: the lack of interest (or negative interest) in European affairs. For many of Europe’s citizens, the EU is a matter of little or no concern.. It all seems so distant and remote: “over the hills and far away”, as the Led Zeppelin song puts it. The presidency must try to make Europe more tangible and less impersonal, more meaningful and less complex. In short, there are challenges enough for us all!