First, with new Rapporteurs to be appointed at the end of July (earliest), a new Commission to be formed in November, the August recess as well as the July/December holidays, the upcoming (1 July) Italian Presidency is left with about 4 months of actual Council work and little room for trialogues. Second, adding to the renewal of the Parliament and the Commission, a new Qualifying Majority Voting system for the Council as well as the succession of its President (end November), the Italian Presidency falls at the beginning of a new (and different) 5 years legislature. The Italian Presidency, not least in the words of its leading representatives (PM Renzi and EU affairs undersecretary Gozi in Rome, Perm Rep Sannino in Brussels), seems very conscious of these two facts. The recurrent words “we don’t aim to reach X General Approaches [i.e. agreements on legislative dossiers among Member States] but rather reach constructive progress” needs to be read from the perspective of these two facts.
Italian Presidency Priorities is the buzz title of many events, articles, and papers occurring these days (as before any presidency). Speculation is left to itself, as the Presidency programme has not been published yet by the Italian government (the only public report was done by Letta’s former government, here, in Italian), and it is uncertain if it will be released before Renzi presents it on 2 July at Strasbourg’s plenary. Pointing at policy X or Y as the priority for the Italians is, in my view, premature; there are still significant council meetings, e.g. an ECOFIN and two Council meetings on immigration. It would be stretching the point, particularly because many capitals are or will still be dedicating significant political capital to the tight institutional changes agenda, which leaves the Italians the delicate task to assess what can be pushed and what cannot. This said, it seems more interesting to see how the upcoming Presidency is structuring its work around main areas. Public presentations of the above mentioned Presidency “ambassadors” asserts the three main macro-areas of the Italian programme will be growth, citizens and external dimension; with a particular emphasis on growth and jobs as the objective against which all policies should be considered.
According to Euractiv.it, the Italian first “priority” would encompass eight issues: the revival of the 2020 Strategy –with its governance issues to be tackled; the deepening of the monetary union –e.g. Italy doesn’t hide its support of Monti’s group on own resources; strengthening the competitiveness of the EU –and here Italy calls for a review of competition policy to favour EU industrial champions (with Alstom’s case as possible precedent); the Youth Guarantee initiative; the achievement of the digital single market – the aim of a General Approach on the telecom package is no secret; an industrial “renaissance” -building on December 2013 Competitiveness Council conclusions; convergence towards a common EU position, in view of 2015 Paris negotiations for global binding climate 2030 objectives (UNFCC).
The second priority, revolving around democracy and Italy, would be divided into five points: the functioning of the European institutions; asylum right and immigration policy –crucial for Italians due to dramatic geographical exposure; external borders management –Italians would like to increase finances for Frontex; the establishment of a European Public Prosecutor’s Office –on which the Parliament, the Council need to agree either unanimously or by enhanced cooperation; human rights.
As a third area, the global dimension includes the following chapters: immigration –agreements with third countries are seen by the Italians as a necessary solution; energy –Gozi often hinted the intention to “leverage” the Ukrainian crisis to (ambitiously) push for EU energy agreements with third countries; trade -the Presidency aims to advance all the several ongoing trade agreement negotiations without hiding that the most important, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Pact, won’t be concluded but should be appreciated as decisive for growth and, as such, become unquestioned.
Reading through the main issues around which the Italians government would structure their Presidency, you come across several politically sensitive issues. Many controversial dossiers are unlikely to be fully unraveled in the council’s meetings chaired by the Italian experts, attachés and ministers. However, the experience of a Member State at its 11th Presidency could help to fast-track some difficult negotiations. In actuality, Presidency presentations in Brussels also stressed that resources will be allocated to ensure smooth level 2 work (e.g. work on delegated and implementing acts), such as, notably, the implementation of the Banking Union. If legislative work won’t be as frenetic as under the Lithuanians and the Greeks, which needed to close key dossiers before Parliament’s elections, the Italian Presidency will face the more political challenge of leading sensitive discussions. And the significant amount of ongoing bilateral meetings underway and on the horizon, seem to indicate that the Italian government is preparing to meet the challenge.
The programme (and the website) are under construction. The first calendar available was just released, and previously, the only provisional calendar available is dated December 2013. It is however confirmed that there will be about 18 informal Council meetings -15 out which will be held in Milan, which replaces Rome as “Presidency’s capital” in view of the Expo2015. Among the special events to be noted is the “Digital Venice” (8 -9 July), the meeting on Employment in Turin (11 July) and the EU-Asem Summit in October. Two are the European Council meetings. The one in December (18-19) will be dedicated mainly to energy. Whereas for the October one (23-24), Gozi mentioned that the aim is to reach an agreement on the so-called partnerships for growth, which have been discussed under the term of contractual arrangements since 2012, with the agreement building on theCouncil’s conclusions of December 2013 (from point 32). Growth is indeed the key-word and what this Presidency would like to be remembered for. Seen as crucial for moving “from austerity to growth”, ideas to link European budgetary rules to national reforms are at the center of the political focus in Italy, and reportedly, at the core of Italian Economy Minister Padoan’s discussions during his recent visits in Berlin, Paris, London, Madrid and the Hague. Another key policy to pursue in a “Presidency for Growth” is long-term investments. If at European level attachés point at the recent Commission’s communication as a menu to pick from, then the Italian government is still testing the ground (in the main capitals) on the possibilities to introduce elements of budgetary flexibility to encourage key national investments. Energy, together with the digital agenda, is seen as the transversal policy which has the highest growth connotation and, notably, the Italian Presidency has declared they are already working closely (also on how to integrate the external dimension of the energy policy) with the Commission.
The Italian expression “molta carne al fuoco” (literately: much meet on the fire) would synthesize well the fact that there are many opportunities to take advantage of, and many challenges lying ahead for the upcoming presidency. Renzi’s government comes from unprecedented European electoral results, which surely gives him considerable political capital to spend in key negotiations. With the fall of confidence in French and British governments (and the rise of euro-sceptics) Italy could emerge as a crucial –if not necessary interlocutor for the Germans (see Schauble’s speech on EU governance as snapshot of German weltanschauung). The presidency under construction reckoned the need of a political semester, and declared to be ready to kick-off discussions even on treaty changes –by submitting a questionnaire on EU institutions to Member States, possibly already in July’s General Affairs Council.
How the mentioned “constructive progress” on many key policies will actually materialize is difficult to foresee. Whether or not Italy will be able to drive significantly high-level discussions will depend on a puzzle of factors such as the internal Italian stability and capability to deliver on promised reforms, people who will take up EU “top-posts”, and the level of trust among main Member States. In this changing EU landscape, Italy has the opportunity to steer the change. My best wishes are for the upcoming Presidency to seize this opportunity, both for Europe and Italy.