When discussing the policy making of the European Union (EU) one has several actors to consider. This paper is going to analyse the role of the Presidency of the Council of Ministers and in how far it is possible for the President to influence, structure and guide policy making in the complex institutional setting of the EU. This also leaves room for 'good' and 'bad' presidencies. But what does it mean to have lead a good presidency or a failed one? One major issue that has to be kept in mind is that for the evaluation of a presidency there are so far no common guidelines. One attempt to introduce a method has been done by Schoutt and Vanhoonacker in their paper „Evaluating Presidencies of the Council of the EU Revisiting“ of 2006. In this paper it becomes clear that fulfilling a good presidency depends on several factors and that this cannot be explained through the sheer size of a country.
The Presidency of the European Union
The paper will start with a detailed discussion of what it means to have the presidency and what is expected of the Presidency. A presidency is termed for six months and every member state of the EU has its turn. This rotation is ordered according to a system which ensures that there is a variance between small and big, as well as new and old, member states. This system functions as a „great equalizer“between the different states, since every member has the same chance to „run things“(Cini, p. 152, 2003). In order to ensure a certain consistency of politics under the different presidencies, the so-called troika was introduced. This troika consists of the „preceding, current and succeeding Presidencies“(Nugent, p. 161, 2006). The troika ensures communication between the presidencies which is especially necessary in terms of multi-annual programs. The troika also ensures a smooth transition between the different presidencies, since in this way it is ensured that every presidencies has had some involvement into the issues before it has to run the whole system. In order to assess the work of the presidency one has to know its duties and the connected possibilities. On an administrative level, the presidency is a massive strain on the bureaucratic resources of the countries holding the presidency, since it has to provide „chairpersons for all meetings held at all levels of the Council hierarchy“ (Hayes-Renshaw in Shackelton, p. 70, 2006). Although it is an imense burden, it means nontheless that the country has the possibility to influence decision making on all levels of the decision making process in the Council, since as a chair the country has the responsibility to set the agenda. Agenda - setting is a great way to exercise some influence on the policy-making process, since here the possibility is given to decide which „issues are covered and in what order“ (Cini, 2003, p. 153). Although the presidency has the possibility to
„prioritise certain issues“ it does not mean that it can decide absolutely free. The EU´s agenda is influenced by several factors. There are structural factors such as multi-annual programmes which can not be dismissed during ones presidency. Further, there are externally determined factors, such as the crises in the Near- or Middle East which have to be dealt with. Also, the Commission or other countries will adress issues which the presidency cannot ignore. Therefore, it can be said that the presidency has the possibility to prioritise issues but under constraints (Christiansen, in Richardson, p. 143/144, 2004).
Another duty of the presidency is the action as main contact point for the other instituitons which are involved in decision-making. Especially under the co-decision procedure, the presidency can exert some influence in trialogues and concilitation meetings (Hayes-Renshaw in Shackelton, p. 70, 2006). These trialogues are informal communications between representatives of the Council, Commission and the European Parliament. In these informal settings the real bargaining takes place which gives the presidency a chance to exercise some influence on behalf of one of the main EU instituions (Nugent, p. 35, 2006). Another very important task of the presidency is the acting as a „honest broker“ which means that the main aim of the Presidency has to be the reaching of a fair agreement according to the rules in the Council. This often means that national aims might have to be overriden by the presidency. Thus, Hayes-Renshaw has claiemd that the „main task of the Presidency is to be [...] neutral“ (in Shackelton, p. 70, 2006). This aim can only be achieved by the fact that the country holding the Presidency has two delegations in every meeting. This way, a certain neutrality is given which is enforced by the fact that the President does not vote. The compromises found differ of course according to the chairperson since the President can guide discussions towards certain outcomes. By using „subtle diplomatic skills, such as knowing in what order to call on member states during discussions to ensure that best chances of success (or failure), when to call for coffee breaks, and how to time the right moment for suggesting a 'presidency compromise'“, the personality of the presidency can influence the decision majorly without having to vote (Cini, p. 153, 2003). The presidency further has the obligation to ensure that legislative and formal rules are obliged to. This is a very functional task but nevertheless highly important. The presidency is, amongst other points, judged according to its abilities to organise regularly wellstructured, formal as well as informal meetings at different levels. This organisation across the different layers of the Council of Ministers, as well as different sectors of the Council. also enforces a greater vertical and horizontal cooperation (Christiansen, in Richardson, p. 143, 2004). Apart from these administrative tasks, the Presidency is responsible for the external representation of the EU`s foreign policy positions. This is getting increasingly difficult to handle since the EU turns into an ever more important international player whilst getting more and more members.