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The EU Council Presidency 2.0: New treaties, new member states, new communication

The description of my blog says that “I attempt to translate between political science and political practice in EU matters“.

Yesterday was a day full of opportunities for this. I could start talking about the combination of science and practice for the blog post and paper “Transparency in the Financing of Europarties” that I wrote together with colleagues. I could also describe the interaction between scientists, consultants, civil society representatives, EU officials and Members of the European Parliament in the expert meeting on “The misuse of EU funds by organised crime” I participated in yesterday afternoon in the EP.

But maybe most interesting, for many reasons, was the bloggers’ meeting that we – Europasionaria, Mathew, Jean-Sébastien, and me (all co-editors of as well as Dániel – had with Gergely Polner, spokesperson of the current EU Council Presidency held by Hungary in the Hungarian Permanent Representation to the EU.

In more than two hours of a very open, informal, and discursive discussion, we covered many different topics, which, from a political science point of view, would each offer an own research paper.

Gergely agreed that most of the discussion would be “on the record”, so apart from some personal comments he made, we were talking frankly while being able to blog about the topics touched upon in our discussion. We spent a long time on possible relations between EU and national bloggers and the HU presidency (i.e. EU Council communication 2.0), but since I expect the others to write about this, I’ll focus on some issues more interesting for political scientists.

The first thing is the new role of the Council presidency, now that the Lisbon Treaty is fully in place. In this new role, relations with the EU Parliament (EP) have become more important since this institutions has much more powers than before.

Gergely estimated that about 50% of what they as the presidency do today is involving the EP. He said that this was a gut figure, but even the perception of the relevance of the EP may change its actual influence. Also very remarkably is that Gergely is in fact an employee of the EU Parliament, seconded to the Hungarian Presidency. In political science, I had mainly heard about national officials being seconded to the EU Commission, but Gergely told that it was a common practice before that Commission officials would be seconded to the Presidencies. However, he and a colleague of his are (as far as he knew) the first EP employees ever to be seconded to a presidency. Before joining the Hungarian team, Gergely was working at the EP’s representation in London; he’ll return to the EP afterwards.

Another observations related to the Lisbon Treaty that could be observed while we were there is the relevance of the new European External Action Service (EEAS): Early during our meeting, the secretary of the communications team came to tell that a large international media company was calling. Gergely left the room and we started joking around what a similar call we could get as bloggers. But before we could come up with a good idea, Gergely was back in the room and told that the question that he had been asked by the media laid in the competence of Catherine Ashton and that he’d refrain from interfering in her field.

The latter shows that, beyond losing the leadership in the European Council (held by European Council President van Rompuy) and having to share powers with the EP, the presidency has clearly lost an important part of its former external action role, including in communications.

Apart from that, the Hungarians after the Czechs and the Slovenians are only the third member state that has joined since 2004 to take over the Council presidency, and Gergely made clear that for the country, its administrations and politicians, the amount of preparation – several years of training for diplomats and officials – and the subsequent rise in qualification was confirming the old (EU) saying that a country only becomes a real member after it has held the Council presidency.

We also discussed some policy issues, including the Hungarian media law – a topic Gergely had offered to talk about when we started to prepare the meeting some weeks ago. You should know that we at the started a “European Blog Action against Censorship in Hungary“, so there was some interest in this topic on both sides.

He told that this topic had been on their monitoring agenda before the presidency started, but that the amount of international media reactions still had surprised them. He himself was kept busy by this topic all along his Christmas and New Year.

What he said about the Hungarian Presidency’s role in this matter resembled a the argumentation his colleague György had voiced on the Presidency Blog in December: The officials involved in the Presidency feel themselves as representatives of the Council as an institution, in a way being the representatives of 27 member states and not the representatives of a country.

They see their role in making the Council work smoothly, bringing decision-making in important fields forward, and not to represent their country as such. This has to be seen in the context of the long training many of these officials have had over the recent years, trying to become experts in EU politics and EU policies, not defenders of a single law in their home country.

I’m not sure whether this is the case for all officials, but Gergely made a convincing case of this. Yet, he said that he still accepted that we’d see this differently, that this professional separation of roles is something the outside world might not be able or willing to accept.

In the end, the work of the Hungarian Presidency would be judged on a number of issues, and the focus that the Hungarians have can be well understood by reading the conclusions on the Czech EU Council Presidency that Vit Benes and Jan Karlas came up with last year (September 2010) in the scientifically quite important “Journal of Common Market Studies”:

The Czech Presidency performed especially well in the sphere of external energy security and in EU relations with eastern Europe. […] The Czech Presidency also managed to handle institutional issues well. Due to a number of successful results, the Presidency was (though with varying success) able to disconfirm the view that it would be marked by a lack of competence and enthusiasm.

However, with regard to several other issues the Presidency could be considered less effective. […] [T]he stress on external energy security came at the expense of progress in environmental issues. […]”

The Hungarians thus will be faced by different policy issues, and although the outside world may not really take note, they will be evaluated on how they deal with these issues within the EU and diplomatic community. On the other hand, the Hungarians will face global phenomena and intra-EU struggles, as did the Czechs (same source as before):

“The global financial crisis was arguably the main issue on the EU agenda in the first half of 2009 which provokes a few further observations. First, the clash between the Presidency representatives and their French counterparts revealed the consequences following from the complexity of the Presidency roles. […]

Second, the way the Czech Presidency handled the financial crisis also showed how the functioning of the Presidency trio and the co-operation between the Presidency and other EU institutions depend on the convergence of preferences. […]

Third, the Czech Presidency’s actions on the financial crisis also showed that the new Member States as Presidency countries are not very likely to serve on a permanent basis as the defenders of the new Member States’ common interests.

In the end, the media law or the upcoming constitutional reform in Hungary will dominate the international image of the Hungarian Presidency, but for the officials involved in the EU Council work, these policy-struggles and the way they have managed them will count more than how their government or majority party in the parliament have governed at home.

We may not like this, but this is how they think and how they feel. And even though we may not like this, it was great that Gergely took the time to discuss all this (and more) openly with a bunch of bloggers he had never met before. If all officials and institutions had such an approach to the non-traditional-media outside world, we’d witness a minor cultural revolution…

In the end, he has offered to continue these talks in the near future to give more background insights into the work of the Presidency, both in substance and in procedure.

The next meeting will be in two weeks, and we’ll discuss cybercrime issues coming up in the Council and the complex world on interpretation regimes in the EU Council. If anyone is interested in joining, just tell!

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