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Euro crisis undercuts EU rotating presidency

28 December 2012, 11:44 CET
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(BRUSSELS) - The European Union's rotating six-month presidency has lost much of its authority in recent years as the eurozone crisis and increased powers for Brussels have undercut its role and importance.

The shared presidency, which Ireland takes over from Cyprus in January, was originally intended to allow each country to set and drive the EU agenda during their term, and highlight their contribution to the EU project.

It still does that to a degree but now at 27 members, soon to become 28 with Croatia in 2013, the impact has been diluted, all the more so since the office of the President of the European Council was formally established in 2009.

Herman Van Rompuy currently holds that post, presiding over the council of EU leaders as the top political representative of the group, and overseeing the regular summits in Brussels.

The Lisbon Treaty which established the president's office "really undercut the rotating presidency of the EU," said Yann-Sven Rittelmeyer, researcher at the French Institute of International Relations (IFRI).

"The rotating presidency takes on all the work to prepare (for the summits)... but once things get serious and difficult, Van Rompuy steps in to resolve any problems directly with the leaders," said one EU diplomat.

At the summit, the holder of the rotating presidency has the right to sit next to Van Rompuy, but "in practice, it is only four or five leaders who speak, generally the most important ones" such as Britain, France, Germany or Italy, the diplomat said.

"The other 23 keep quiet and hope that the meeting will not drag on too long," the diplomat added.

The Lisbon Treaty also created the post of High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, a high profile office of modest beginnings which is trying to give the EU a single international voice.

The current High Representative, Catherine Ashton, chairs the meetings of EU foreign ministers and represents the EU on the international stage, such as leading talks with Iran over its disputed nuclear programme.

Ashton's office can also ask the rotating presidency to hold a meeting on a specific issue if need be but this power is taken to reflect poorly on the incumbent country rather than as a positive, diplomats say.

The six-month presidency in principle retains oversight of all other areas, such as finance and the economy, judicial and interior affairs, agriculture or the environment.

But its role has suffered here too as the eurozone debt crisis has driven steps toward greater economic policy coordination, putting the focus ever more on the single currency bloc and its central powers, Rittelmeyer said.

Similarly, enlargement of the EU, especially from 2004 with the accession of many former Communist countries in Eastern Europe, has taken the limelight away, he added.

The office however still holds some attractions, especially for smaller countries which can cut out a role as impartial mediator between their larger and more combative peers, Rittelmeyer said.

Cyprus, for example, hands over the presidency to Ireland having overseen adoption of a single EU patent system, a project nearly 40 years in the works.

It can also claim some credit for progress the eurozone has made on establishing a single bank regulator, a key step towards the banking union needed to prevent a recurrence of the debt and financial crisis.

On the downside, budget negotiations have been difficult, with deep differences leading to complete failure to reach an accord at a special November leaders' summit on the EU's 2014-20 spending plans.

If the rotating presidency has lost some of its allure, there is no sign that any member state would pass on the opportunity, one diplomat said.

The presidency is "the best way of getting a feeling for the balance of advantage in the corridors of power," the diplomat said.

Such knowledge "is very useful when you are pushing your own national interests," the diplomat added.

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