The new EU presidency: Priorities and the work ahead

The new EU presidency: Priorities and the work ahead

Estonia, the first member of the Estonian-Bulgarian-Austrian trio that will govern the EU for the next 18 months, will assume the EU presidency on July 1. How will Estonia’s presidency differ from the outgoing Maltese presidency? And what influence will Estonia’s presidency have on Council negotiations?

June 30 will mark the end of the Maltese presidency of the EU, making Estonia the next in line to fulfil that role until the end of the year.

For six months at a time, countries assume the rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union, the main legislative body of the EU. The presidency is assumed by trios such as the three countries that will now assume the presidency in succession (Estonia, Bulgaria and Austria). The trios share a common programme that allows continuity and is a way to achieve policy coherence year by year.

The presidency may be perceived by some as a relic of the EU’s past, but it allows for a change in pace in the negotiations, allowing countries with different cultures to approach mediation in their own terms. This is also moment of reflection, as the UK should have been the one receiving the relay from Malta to assume the presidency.

This year, the Council will be presided over by two small countries that are assuming this role for the first time, tackling complex issues and policy advancements that involve consensus of the main players in the room. Estonia and Bulgaria thus have to flex their diplomatic muscles.

The Maltese presidency

 Malta assumed the Presidency in January 2017, a year that started with two main topics on the EU‘s uncertain agenda: Brexit and the US engagement with Europe.

Since the very beginning, the new trio’s priorities were clearly defined and were in line with the main topics outlined together with the Netherlands and Slovakia in the trio programme, which are of course, a reflection on the prioritization by the trio of the topics that guided the Council meetings in all key topics, internal and external.

Job growth and competitiveness is the first topic to appear in the list, focusing on the key areas of the Single Market, entrepreneurship and job creation, investing in the future, and increasing the global attractiveness of the EU and the Economic and Monetary Union (EMU). The rest of the topics are the protection of EU citizens as a second priority, followed by a focus on energy policy and climate change as well as the EU as a strong global actor and freedom, security, and justice.

For Malta, the priorities were mainly focused on migration, the single market, security and defence and maritime strategy. Migration, was clearly one of the main points of interest, as Malta is a country situated in the Mediterranean near the African coast, and thus has a considerable influx of migrants and refugees. Their approach to the issue was to tackle internal and external aspects while focusing on the economic causes of the problem in the first place.

Regarding the single market, Malta managed to achieve one of its main objectives: end roaming charges. Negotiations were complex, but the presidency had as a goal to finish it during their time in the office, so the push was a clear help to the issue.

Regarding security and defence issues, important developments were achieved during the Maltese presidency, as the Reflection Paper on the Future of European Defence, together with the launch of the European Defence Fund show. Social inclusion was another one of the big topics, including increased cooperation among health systems n.

European Neighbourhood Policy was another chance for Malta to tackle migration, focusing on the southern neighbours and the understanding of the problems that instability abroad can bring to the EU. Thus, stabilisation of the neighbourhood was a key priority of the presidency and reflected on security discussions. Finally, the maritime sector was included in the agenda, pushing for an integrated EU policy, targeting jobs in the industry and with the objective of an international ocean governance. Donald Tusk described the work done by the Maltese President as “impressive and excellent”.

The Estonian presidency

This will be the first time for Estonia to hold the Presidency of the Council of the EU, as the country stepped forward after the UK gave up on the possibility of taking on this role by leaving the bloc. The common programme established by the trio and shares the same order of priorities as the previous trio, but with subtle differences. In the first section on job growth, the global attractiveness section is dropped, and one on environmental sustainability has been included.

Compensating for global attractiveness, the last section on the EU as a strong global actor has been extended with the priorities outlined in the EU Global Strategy and its implementation, a clear vision on migration, enlargement, the stabilization of EU neighbours, cooperating beyond them and strengthening development cooperation and trade.

Estonia has clearly defined its priorities, which are a bit less broad than the ones of the Maltese Presidency, focusing more on economic topics and internal governance, while not forgetting the external policy issues that are clearly going to be in the agenda.

The first priority for the Estonian Presidency is to push for an open and innovative European economy to support growth and competitiveness. This is very much in line with the first priority of the trio, clearly pushing for easy ways to provide services in all EU countries.

A safe and secure Europe appears as the link between internal and external issues. Citizens’ safety has been marked as one of the main concerns around the EU, with terrorist attacks all around. The fight against terrorism is high on the agenda.

There is also an increased focus on NATO and the Eastern neighbourhood, shifting from the southern neighbourhood approach by the Maltese.

Another priority is fostering a digital Europe to highlight the links between technological process and cross-border benefits both for businesses and citizens. The Estonian e-residency initiative will prove a key success example to maybe be exported during these 6 months.

Finally, an inclusive and sustainable Europe appears as a key element of overarching topics as education, employment, climate and mobility.

Estonia will enter the Presidency with clear ideas. While Brussels prepares for summer, there are many important topics on the agenda at internal and international level.

Their involvement with Brexit may take the form of a new European political consensus, trying to steer negotiations towards a more visible position of the EU as an asset for its citizens. Regarding the US, Estonia wants to continue a good development and positive engagement of NATO in the continent’s security, and it may possibly prove to bring a fresh approach on the topic.

After Malta left a very good impression after its first Presidency, the expectations are also high for the Baltic country, and if we trust Estonian President Kersti Kaljulaid it may well be a presidency remembered “as the period when the ice started to melt, when we began to take a more positive view of the EU.”

Categories: Europe, Politics

About Author

Daniel Bouzas

Daniel Bouzas is a specialist on EU policies and regulations and their effects in the global arena. He has worked at the European Investment Bank and at the consultancy and interest representation sectors in Brussels. He also has extensive experience on Regional Integration, Political Economy and Security. Daniel holds an MA in International Relations and Diplomacy from the College of Europe in Bruges.