The transition from the Irish to Lithuanian Presidency on July 1st was somewhat overshadowed in the media by the accession of Croatia (which European Public Affairs covered via a selection of special articles) to the European Union. The importance of the rotating Presidency, and its place within the framework of EU decision-making, must not be underestimated even with the relatively recent introduction of institutional Presidents within the Council and Parliament joining the President of the Commission. But what are the key objectives and priorities for the incoming Presidency? Will they look to build on the Irish success of neutral diplomacy or end up playing second fiddle to the institutions in what will be a chaotic and delicate time in terms of legislation come September?
Let me first begin by detailing the word on the street as it were. Having had the privilege of organising, attending and interacting in policy briefings with key diplomats within the Irish PermRep over the last few months, the optimism and professionalism of the Lithuanian Presidency has not gone unnoticed. Taking on this most fragile of lead roles within the EU, the transition and mutual trust between these two nations has developed remarkably across all policy sectors. Leading the Presidency for the first time, in a period which is on course to become the busiest legislature schedule the EU has seen, Lithuania has been meticulously preparing its staff and relations with key actors so as to be able to hit the ground running. This can be viewed not just by the burgeoning relationship between Ireland and Lithuania in the run-up to the 2013 presidency – culminating in cultural exchanges and dialogue on trade and commerce like never before – but also the expansion of the Lithuanian PermRep in Brussels. Usually staffed by 80-odd employees, this has tripled to over 240 for the 2013 period, giving them unparalleled access to policy makers and sectors throughout negotiations on all dossiers.
Historically, the rotating Presidency of the European Council takes a neutral role on all negotiations for the betterment of agreed action. Domestic member state priorities, although heavily represented, usually take a lower profile so agreement can be found on core issues [as a side note, the last UK Presidency of the EU was incredibly successful in moving forward on many dossiers previously held up by UK interests]. With each Presidency, key objectives or a lasting memory of their accomplishments are sought after and identified and Lithuania are no different. Across numerous different channels and presentations – particularly at the Strasbourg plenary from June 10th 2013, Lithuania outlined their 3 key objectives as: the Banking Union (and fiscal policy); the Single Market (with a focus on the Digital Economy and Energy sectors); and border security (with the debate heavily leaning towards an extension to the Schengen agreement).
I’m not here to overtly analyse or predict the success or failure on any of these objectives. The September to December legislature period is already scheduled with many dossiers crossing these sectors, so with or without a calm and successful Presidency focusing on these initiatives, decisions will be made either way. More than (perhaps) any other 2 Presidencies, the close relations between Lithuania and the acclaimed Irish Presidency has, and will continue to have, a strong influence on the outcome of these objectives. The Banking Union is still hotly debated amongst all member states that are moving forward with it, but with significant movement being made on the MFF budget in late May, freeing up time and political capital, the Presidency can focus on creating a comprehensive and effective Banking Union agreement come September. The Single Market will once again (as it always will) be subject to scrutiny and it is refreshing to see Lithuania highlight the importance of the Digital Economy, aligning themselves with the push on telecommunications by Commissioner Kroes nicely. While border security is of particular, and increasing, relevance to the Eastern bloc and Baltic States, with a focus on Energy relations and the parameters of Schengen in relation to new member states – some of whom have had restricted access across the EU since enlargement in the early millennia.
With the help and assistance of the outgoing Irish Presidency and the support of the Greek Presidency which starts in 2014, Lithuania can stamp its authority and enhance its international reputation in leading the EU through this difficult time. It remains to be the scene whether they can effectively navigate and negotiate their way to success, but the priorities have been set, the groundwork done and by all accounts the first month of Lithuania’s Presidency has been a huge success in terms of transition and neutrality.