Slovakia’s EU Presidency didn’t overplay its hand

As we approach the end of the Presidency, this time I would would like to ask you for your view on the last six months. How do you perceive Slovak EU Presidency, what positives and negatives would you underline? 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

Carine Germond, Associate Professor, Norwegian University of Science and Technology

Rocky starts rarely make for quiet journeys. The rotating EU presidency, which Slovakia took over in July 2016 from the Netherlands proved this true. Brexit and the migration crisis clearly dominated the agenda. Begun under the auspices of the aftermath of the British EU referendum, the last six months have seen the UK and EU institutions bickering over the timing of Brexit and the negotiations of the future arrangements with Britain. The Slovak presidency team headed by Prime Minister Robert Fico largely abstained to comment publicly on Brexit. Fico had announced early that he would have little to do with Brexit considering that Article 50 would not be invoked during the Slovakian presidency, though, of course, Brexit was discussed at many high-level meeting in Bratislava. He largely left it to prominent EU personalities such as Jean-Claude Juncker and Donald Tusk, or their member states counterparts to occupy the limelight of the Brexit debate.

(Im)migration continues to feature at the forefront of the European actuality, be it in the form of xenophobic arguments brandished by populist, Eurosceptic parties, which are blossoming into influential political forces across Europe, or images of refugees on overcrowded boats or bodies washing up to the European shores. A recently circulated paper by the Slovak presidency proposes to allow more flexibility for member states to decide how they want to manage migrant inflows and claims. The paper may be a belated attempt to bridge political divides running deep within the EU.

This is not to say, however, that Slovakia cannot claim as its own a number of important, albeit perhaps less visible achievements during its EU presidency. An important objective of the Slovak presidency had been to move forward with the ratification of the Paris Agreement concluded at the end of the Climate Change Conference that took place in Paris in 2015 (also known as COP21). This objective was met with the EU’s ratification of the treaty in September 2016. This was an important steps towards reaching the threshold for entry into force of the treaty. Of course the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States, one of the biggest polluters, could derail the Treaty, if the President Elect decides to withdraw the US’ participation. Trump’s controversial declarations on climate change being a China-masterminded hoax and his nomination of a climate change-sceptic (not to say denier) to head the EPA, the federal agency in charge of reducing American planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions, certainly do not bode very well for the practical implementation of the Treaty, though Trump has proven time and again his cunning mastery of surprising volte-face.

In many ways the Slovak EU presidency was a juggling act in crisis management. In spite of the uncertain times in which Slovakia took its first EU presidency, the country did relatively well overall considering the many challenges that would have been daunting even to more experienced countries. This may be in part due to the team of experienced politicians and diplomats who led the Slovak EU presidency, but it may also highlight the benefits of the trio presidency in ensuring a longer-term continuity between presidencies. Fico and his team, whose anti-immigration remarks in the wake of the presidency had cast doubts on the ability of the Slovak presidency to act a constructive broker, dispelled some of them with their latest proposals, which, arguably, also conveniently de facto bury the Commission’s idea of migrant quotas that had been strongly opposed by Fico’s government along with Hungary. The extent to which the Slovak EU presidency managed to convey a more positive image of the EU’s ability to handle crisis remains open, however.

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

It has for sure been an eventful 6 months – and especially the Bratislava summit proved a surprisingly momentous occasion.  In any case, it was a terrific occasion that led to some nice positive visibility for the Presidency. Otherwise, I must say that a fairly low profile was kept – actually in line with my earlier expectations, that in the era since the entry into force of the Lisbon Treaty, the role of chairing the Council is eclipsed anyway by the more permanent Commission and European Council Presidencies. As regards substantive action and achievements, perhaps most praiseworthy here is how the Slovak government did not at any moment convey the impression that they wanted to stubbornly push their own priorities, and place a too heavy stamp on policy developments (e.g. the migration quota or the posted workers directive struggle) – something that was really feared in a number of Member States beforehand. Apparently Mr. Fico and his colleagues were willing not to overplay their hands instead, keep the noise down, and search for reasonable compromises.

The management of the preliminary phases of the Brexit-process were also handled rather well, without major cracks appearing on the EU side – something that must at least in part be credited to the Slovak Presidency, since it may have been extremely tempting to assert a common ‘Visegrad’ position, and try to foist that onto other countries. The clichéd term of ‘honest broker’ is thus also appropriate in this regard, and I’m sure the sentiment is similar in most European capitals. By the same token, many could have expected a (conscious or accidental) derailing of CETA, the EU-Turkey asylum deal, the Ukraine visa liberalisation plans, or a suspension of the sanctions on Russia as well, yet nothing of the kind occurred. Another striking proof of mastery offers the way in which a series of tricky financial dossiers were tackled – particularly, the extension of the EFSI (or ‘Juncker Plan’), the agreements on criteria for a blacklist of tax havens, intended synchronisation of rates imposed on corporations, administrative cooperation in the VAT domain, and the new treaties with Monaco and Norway. In contrast, the debate on the posted workers reform and the revision of the firearms directive foundered, but it is difficult to place the blame squarely with the Presidency. Similarly, the Italian opposition against the proposed mid-term review of the EU’s multi-annual financial framework could not be quashed definitively, yet that resistance may evaporate soon in the wake of the recent referendum result there. So, all in all, despite an ostensibly restrained approach, we might say the balance sheet ultimately tilts to the positive side: clever diplomacy seems to have ensured that behind the scenes many of the efforts have borne fruit, and overall, Slovakia has performed fairly satisfactorily in terribly challenging times.

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

Slovakia held the Presidency of the EU in a particularly challenging time for the Union. The programme of the Slovak Presidency was based on four priorities – economically strong Europe; modern single market; sustainable migration and asylum policies; a globally engaged Europe – driven by three principles: achieving tangible results; overcoming fragmentation; focusing on the citizen. Despite the focus on “tangible” outcomes, the fact is that these priorities are rather generic medium-term goals, which were unlikely to be achieved within a six-months period. The Slovak Presidency did try to overcome the fragmentation among Member States, namely by acting as a broker in some agreements. Although assessing the performance of a particular actor within the EU political system is a difficult task (since the outcomes are normally the result of a long process of formal and informal negotiations involving a range of institutional and individual, public and private stakeholders from multiple levels, which renders particularly difficult to establish who influences whom) it seems reasonable to conclude that in three out of the four priority-areas some successes were achieved (even though most of the processes were already well advanced when Slovakia took over the presidency of the EU). For instance, the EU ratified the Paris Climate Agreement, which definitely ticks the box for a globally engaged Europe. As regards the economic priorities, the EU-Canada agreement (CETA) was finally signed (the Slovak Presidency helped to overcome the Wallonia’s red card) and an agreement was reached on EU budget for 2017 after an intense marathon of negotiation, with the Slovak Presidency assuming the essential role of broker. At the last Ecofin Council chaired by the Slovak Presidency, the finance ministers approved the extension of the Juncker’s Investment Plan, which, despite the validity of the criticisms, could be important instrument to boost the real economy.

The assessment is far less positive when it comes to migration and asylum policies. Some measures aimed at reinforcing the protection of external borders were put in place (such as the extension of the competences and tasks of the European Agency for the Management of Operational Cooperation at the External Borders of the Member States of the European Union now renamed the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, while maintaining the commonly used designation “Frontex”), but the fact is that no agreement was reached on the crucial reform of the EU asylum system (essential to halt the tragic refugee crisis). To be fair, one might say that, as some argued, to expect that the EU “dissensus” on such a sensitive topic would be tackled in six months was overly optimistic. However, arguably the fact that Slovakia has not embraced the Commission’s proposals on the subject (and actually strongly opposed relocation of migrants) did contribute for this negative outcome. Also on the negatives, the accusations of having ignored public procurement procedures in the selections of event agencies have cast some shadows over the presidency’s management of public funds. In sum, the Slovak Presidency established laudable goals, aimed at bringing the Union closer to its citizens and restoring citizen’s confidence in the common European project. However, in such turbulent times, some of the goals turned out to be fairly unrealistic, particularly considering the 6-month duration of the presidency and its somewhat limited competences post-Treaty of Lisbon.

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

Slovakia’s 2016 Presidency is likely to be remembered more for domestic events in the UK and Italy than for anything that happened under the auspices of its 6-month stint in charge. I was in Brussels in early July and met some of the Slovakian officials involved and they were delighted to have the opportunity to steer the EU’s agenda, but as with most presidencies, this was largely pre-packaged with the other members of their 18-month trio.

Brexit, of course, has over-shadowed everything and so the Slovaks will have been working hard behind the scenes to ensure, first, that this did not de-rail everything, and second to co-ordinate with their fellow member states about the best way to proceed in terms of mapping out the processes that would be required in the wake of the British vote. That said, much of the leadership for this will have come from the European Council, the European Council Presidency, the Council Secretariat and the Commission.

Perhaps, then, the Slovak’s biggest achievement – and one that deserves respect – is that they have helped ‘keep the show on the road’, particularly as the end of their Presidency has been over-shadowed by the Italian constitutional referendum and the resignation of Matteo Renzi as Italian PM.

These are turbulent times so I imagine that Slovakian politicians and officials will hope that when their next turn finally comes round, many years from now, things will be smoother. Assuming the EU still exists!

Christian Schweiger, Senior Lecturer in Government, Department of Politics, Durham University

From what I can gather the positive achievements of the Slovak presidency were first of all its ability to determine the EU budget spending priorities for 2017, with a strong emphasis on ensuring that funds are allocated to the European Flagship investment programme to support business activity and growth, the integration of refugees and also for overall security issue, especially the security of the EU’s external borders. In this context the presidency also tried to initiate an ‘effective solidarity’ approach on migration issues which would give member states a lot more flexibility to tailor their national reaction to migration than this is envisaged under Merkel’s refugee quota system.

I also consider the repeated attempts of the Slovak presidency to get the remaining 27 member states together to discuss the EU’s post-Brexit priorities positive, most of all the recent intergovernmental summit in Bratislava. As far as I understand the presidency was trying to establish consensus on how to possibly implement the proposals made by the five presidents for the more effective governance of the eurozone. This is commendable but the progress in this area has of course been limited as member states continue to fail to find a consensus on how far further political integration should go, especially when it comes to transferring greater powers to the Commission.

Where I would see the biggest weakness of the presidency is in its failure to address the EU’s deepening legitimacy crisis (of course the subject of my new book which has just been published). One has to ask if it could be expected for a country presidency (especially that of a small country like Slovakia) to make major progress here but still I did not see much initiative coming from Bratislava with regard to how the EU should reconnect with its citizens and counter the growing advance of populist and extremist political parties.

Botond Feledy, Director of Saint Ignatius College, Centre for Euro-Atlantic Integration and Democracy

The SK presidency came in the most critical time: while the other V4 countries did their presidency duties earlier in somewhat more calm periods of the EU, Bratislava had to face the renewed East-West division after the migration crisis. The Bratislava summit and its fruit, the roadmap is an important document. The member states started to experience that Slovakia, member of V4, could drive a meaningful, constructive dialogue on the long term objectives. This was an exceptional task. It is also historical that the 27 met without the UK. We certainly will remember this tipping point of the EU together with Bratislava. It is always important from a V4 perspective when the close allies take the rotating presidency: it is a chance to lobby for our regional interests and Slovakia took on this challenge.

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