An unenviable task. What to expect from Slovakia’s EU Presidency

In general, what would you expect from Slovakia EU Presidency from July 1st? What role should Presidency play in the situation we are right now in the EU? Read few comments.

Logo of Slovak Council of the EU Presidency. Credit: www.mzv.sk

Logo of Slovak Council of the EU Presidency. Credit: http://www.mzv.sk

Dániel Bartha, Executive Director, Centre for Euro-Atlantic Integration and Democracy (CEID)

There is a tradition of anxiety and willingness to prove themselves and do something spectacular among Central European countries when it comes to their EU Presidencies, but what we need from Slovakia is more to create the ground for a smooth process and managemant from the background. I think this is not what the Fico government originally prepared to do.

It will be extremely hard to deal with the agenda, as Bratislava will have to balance between its own interests and the management of the most severe, or even existential crises of the EU. The question is if Slovakia has any vision or willingness to handle the migration crises, Polish interests on the eve of their isolation, and the launch of the Brexit process and support the continuation of Russian sanctions. The good news for Bratislava is that it is not the Presidency’s role to manage most of the processes such as the Brexit talks,  but it is the Presidency’s responsibility to create the political environment and decisions to start them.

Slovak diplomats need a plan to prevent a second wawe of political crises that the Hungarian governmental backed public vote on migration quotas can create. The country will also need a stronger position on the democratic developments in Poland, and finally it has to counter internal and Czech anti-EU voices, while keeping the mutual trust among the V4 and the regional integration alive.

It is an extremely hard and unthankful job. If you are effective and doing your job well, nobody will recognize that, but if you fail it will be highly visible and the consequences can be dramatic.

Ben Crum, Professor, Department of Political Science. Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam

Obviously, these are not easy times for the EU. And that may put pressure on the government that holds the presidency.

At the same time, the powers of the presidency are limited. In its essence the presidency has a role in keeping the legislative business going (despite all the political turmoil). In the end, this is the responsibility on which the presidency will be assessed, and a good presidency is one who keeps the dossiers moving forward and avoids any one of them running into great political trouble. For this task, I would think that the Slovakian government is well-set, even if it is its first time in this office.

Next to that, the presidency can play a role – besides the European Council president (Tusk) – as a liaison between governments when it comes to inter-governmental  coordination on crisis matters.

This is of course a more difficult and contingent role to play. Inevitably, the Slovakian government will need to maintain close and regular contact with Berlin and Paris. It would also be good if it could keep Rome and Warsaw in the loop and ensure that there is regular communication. Certainly with regard to Poland, I suspect that Slovakia could play a constructive mediating role that few others could play. Relations with London are of course more difficult at this point. In many respects there is not much the continent can do but to wait for the Brits to sort this out for themselves first. However, the presidency may play a role as a reliable and relatively impartial EU point of contact for the Brits, and at some point it may also act as a the spokesman of the rest of the EU to express the need for the UK to speed up its act.

I’d imagine that in this respect the Slovak presidency can benefit from collaborating closely with its Dutch predecessor, a collaboration that is formalized in the ‘trio presidency’ (which also includes Malta). The Dutch can bring their long-term experience in the EU, as well as their experience over the last months and their relatively good contacts with the Brits.

In short, these are difficult times, but the important thing for the presidency is to keep its eye on the ball, not to overestimate its power, but to be there when it is needed to bring countries together or to ease communication between them.

Henri de Waele, Full Professor of International and European Law, Faculty of Law, Radboud University Nijmegen

Obviously, the EU finds itself caught in a ‘perfect storm’, and the Slovak Presidency faces a decidedly unenviable task. With the refugee and migration crisis probably back in full swing soon (due to Libya-Italy crossings, the deal with Turkey possibly falling apart, perhaps extra strain on the French-British agreement with regard to the Calais fence), as well as mounting problems in Italy (the bank sector again displays a great volatility), this means that there will be all too much on the plate of the competent Slovak ministers. Thankfully, of course a particular role is carved out for the EU Council President, alongside the Commission, alongside the High Representative for Foreign Policy – in that light, the burdens can and should be reasonably shared, and the Presidency can probably still focus a bit more on internal matters – EU internal market reform, energy security, furthering a reduction of red tape, etc.

In particular however, I would expect particular problems to surface with regard to 1) resolving conflict on the CETA deal, where it seems that some Member States insist on national parliamentary ratification and others do not, 2) in the wake of the previous, deciding whether or not to pull the plug on TTIP, also dependent on the outcome of the US presidential election (both Trump and Clinton seem opposed to the deal), 3) renewing the Russia sanctions or not, where there exists another internal fracture line between appeasing and confrontational countries that is getting ever more exposed – the Slovak ‘soft line’ towards the Kremlin could lead to increased friction if no proper diplomatic approach is followed, 4) dealing with the new UK prime minister in the likely situation that he/she will still not be willing to trigger Article 50 of the EU Treaty immediately, despite the demands / requests of EU leaders last week, and 5) connected with the previous, develop an acceptable position with regard to a likely enhanced push by Scotland for a quick accession to the EU, in spite of evident Spanish resistance. Since Slovakia has not had previous experience in the job of running the EU Council of Ministers, there is a high chance that at least on one of these dossiers, stagnations or implosions are forthcoming – hopefully the Tusk/Juncker/Merkel will manage to contain the situation then, and steer the EU into more gentle waters, but right now we can be sure of hardly anything.

Carine Germond, Fellow, Netherlands Institute for Advanced Studies, Assistant Professor of Contemporary, Maastricht University

Slovakia will take over the EU Presidency from the Netherlands in the delicate and uncertain situation created by outcome of the British referendum on EU membership and it will have to handle the start of the negotiations on the exit package and future Britain-EU relations when (rather than if) Great Britain decides to trigger for the first time Art. 50 of the Lisbon Treaty. Slovakia’s first EU presidency will be a baptism of fire for the inexperienced country but it will be able to rely on the other members of the trio presidency, especially the Netherlands which have a long experience in this matter. This will require skills and a close cooperation with its successor, Malta, but also the next trio presidencies. Conversely, Slovakia’s prior experience in state divorce (it separated from the now Czech Republic and became an independent state in 1993 after having been part of Czechoslovakia for 75 years) may come handy.

The announced Brexit is also very likely to re-shape the agenda of the forthcoming EU presidencies. Brexit and the manifold reasons behind the outcome of the British vote emphasized the need to pay more than lip service to several of the priorities that were outlined in the Dutch-Slovakian-Maltese presidency programme, most prominently among them: economic growth, security, and (im)migration. These issues featured conspicuously in many shapes and forms in the debate over Brexit, and are at the forefront of people’s concerns across the EU. Slovakia thus should ensure that these issues are tackled seriously

It will however have to walk a thin line. There is indeed little appetite in the Member States for more integration, largely because of Eurosceptic constituencies at home and influential populist parties advocating to end EU membership (e.g. in France Marine Le Pen’s Front National and its support of a Frexit or the Geert Wilders’ advocacy of a Nexit in the Netherlands). At the same time it is quite evident that the member states individually are ill equipped to deal with transnational challenges such as (im)migration, border security of borders terrorism, growth and jobs. Arguably the solution can only be at the European level.

The negotiations of future arrangements with Britain may however prove easier for the Slovakian presidency than the discussion on the still on-going refugee crisis. Slovakia was indeed among the Eastern European member states who opposed the Commission’s distribution scheme of migrants and undertook legal action against the EU refugee quotas. As the holder of the EU Presidency, Slovakian officials will have to demonstrate their ability to promote a constructive agenda on migration policy over the next six months.

Doreen Allerkamp, Post-Doc Researcher, Mannheim Centre for European Social Research (MZES), University of Mannheim

About Slovakia, as for any first time Presidency, one big hope is that it avoids some of the mistakes its more recent predecessors as first timers have made – notably a giant diplomatic faux-pas in the shape of a symbolic representation of some kind right at the outset that just fails to create the desired impact but instead backfires badly.

Second, that it fulfills the four roles of the Presidency – leader, broker, representative, administrator – to the best of its abilities. Under current circumstances, many would already be quite pleased if it manages the latter two satisfactorily, namely ensuring smooth operations of the Council despite complicated challenges and representing a unified Council position where needed.

As for leadership and brokerage, one cannot help but feel that these are a too big for Slovakia to take on at the present moment. While it must formally shape the Council’s agenda, it won’t have much room for manoeuvre, as goings-on will be dominated by the unfolding Brexit scenario, and the rotating Presidency will not be leading those negotiations either officially or unofficially, nor will it be setting their agenda. The best it can do in that context is try to make sure the Council is united, i.e. broker compromise positions, in which task it will also require the support of the big 3 or 4, in particular on certain details of the British question.

Unfortunately, the Brexit-vote fall-out is going to dominate Slovakia’s Presidency, whether or not Brexit actually happens.

Nick Wright, Teaching Fellow in EU Politics, University College London

I think the Slovakian Presidency will be focusing very much on keeping the show on the road – on coherence and continuity. There were be a real emphasis placed on ensuring everyone feels the ‘project’ is continuing despite the UK’s planned departure. Not so much business as usual, as emphasising that there are still 27 other member states working together representing nearly 450 million people. This is a bad time for the EU, but it is not the end. The objective for everyone will be to ensure that the UK is the only state that feels a better future lies outside the EU. I imagine we will start to see a more coherent response develop, including a strategy for responding when the UK does finally invoke Article 50. I have a feeling this will be in the autumn – I don’t think the UK can really leave it too much longer. The Presidency will play an important role in facilitating dialogue not just with the UK, but between the other 27 in terms of starting to establish broad positions that would lead to a negotiating mandate. It is a really challenging task, but Slovakia may have advantages: not being a ‘big’ state means it may be better able to broker agreements and sooth ruffled feathers. It also does not need to posture in terms of what is and isn’t acceptable.

More generally, the role of the Presidency should be to make sure the EU engine keeps ticking over and everything moves forward. In that sense, nothing has changed. But starting to think about how to demonstrate that the institutions and the EU in general are learning lessons from the Brexit will be important. That will take some time, and it is not really the job of a 6-month Presidency to do that all in one go – but starting this process is important.

Isabel Camisão, Professor na Faculdade de Letras da Universidade de Coimbra

Slovakia, or indeed any country assuming the Presidency of the Council in the incoming years, will have a difficult task. The EU is facing multiple crises and challenges (the economic crisis or at least its negative effects, terrorists attacks, the refugee crisis, the emergence of nationalism, the rise in polls of extremist parties). And of course, on top of that, as a result of the UK referendum, the EU is also navigating uncharted waters. Actually, at least for the meantime the Brexit is likely to overshadow the Slovak Presidency’s agenda and indeed any other EU institution’s agenda. However, once Article 50 is invoked the Commission will probably assume the main role in leading the withdrawal negotiations (although the article in not entirely clear as regards to who conducts the negotiations, since leaves it open to the Council to nominate a different Union negotiator). Moreover this will be most likely a long process (the article defines a time-frame of two years) and, if things goes as in the accession negotiations, normally the negotiators address the technicalities and the most consensual negotiation chapters first in order to pave the way to the most sensible issues. So it is unlikely that the more contentious issues will be addressed during the Slovak Presidency. The next presidency will most likely have to manage the critical issues already on the EU’s agenda, following the 18 months programme of the Council prepared by the trio Netherlands, Slovakia and Malta (respectively the current presidency, the incoming presidency, and the presidency that follows in the first semester of 2017), such as economic growth, job creation, or migration.

In terms of the Slovakia input, the reality is that since the Lisbon Treaty (with an elected President of the European Council) the role of the presidencies of the Council become more modest. Furthermore, some question the relevance of the Slovak Presidency considering its inexperience and small staff. However, the lack of experience or small staff is not per se indicative of a bad performance (take for instance the Portuguese example, a country which presidencies of the Union have been considered a success). Also, it gives the state an opportunity to move an issue of particular interest to it (and hopefully to the EU as a whole) higher in the agenda (for instance migration policy and border control are indeed salient issues for Slovakia), although it greatly depends on the presidency’s diplomatic and broker skills.

As a final note, regards the current situation, it is of course a very said time for Europe, but it is also an opportunity for European leaders to show that their leadership is not merely, as someone puts it, a leadership that “muddles through”. This is the time to show that they can be firm in defending EU’s best interests (that does not mean being “vindictive” or intractable negotiators). The message that the 27 member states are resolved in their desire to remain united should be loudly and clearly conveyed. It is also an opportunity to listen the expectations and demands of Europeans citizens, particularly the young generations. The European citizens support to the EU is even now mostly utilitarian rather than affective. However, it seems that the young people is developing a sense of belonging that is essential for effective support. In the meantime, Europe needs to get back on the right track, away from an irrational focus on finances and economy as the sole goal of the project and closer to the values that have united a continent for centuries disunited.

Dimitris TsarouhasGreek Politics Specialist Group, Assistant Professor, Department of International Relations, Bilkent University

These are uncertain times. I suspect that the Slovak Presidency will seek to facilitate a deal with the UK that would secure free movement of labour, not least because this is in the interest of the Visegrad Group. What is uncertain, however, is the extent to which the likes of Germany and France will be willing to assist in that endeavour, not least because it is uncertain what the UK wants, and what type of relationship it wants to cultivate with the EU.

 

 

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