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Denmark in the Chair: A Challenging EU Presidency for a Member with ‘Opt-Outs’

Submitted by on 16 Sep 2011 – 11:25

Dr Sara HagemannDr Sara Hagemann, Lecturer in EU Politics, London School of Economics

Denmark will for the 7th time in its history as an EU member take over the EU presidency in January 2012. Known for running hard-working, ambitious and well-prepared presidencies, expectations are generally positive for the small Northern neighbour.

However, this time the Danish presidency will face a number of unprecedented challenges that already raise some questions: Denmark is due to lead important negotiations in a number of areas where its own position is that either it is not a member (in the Euro zone) or has negotiated opt-outs (in the area of Justice and Home Affairs).

The agenda

The detailed agenda for the Danes’ six months in the spotlight will not be announced until December this year, but at least three large topics are pre-determined:

1) Depending on developments in the next few months, EU Heads of States and Finance Ministers will venture into a phase of crucial negotiations regarding increased coordination and governance of the financial markets.

Due to the constellation of a permanent President of the European Council, as well as of the Euro group countries, the task of chairing these negotiations at the most senior political level may actually not fall to the Danish Prime Minister. Still, the extensive work associated with these activities will nevertheless weigh heavily on the agenda, also in other Council meetings, and Denmark will want to stress its role at this defining point in time.

2) Danish ministers and officials will have to lead an important part of the preparatory work for EU’s 2014-2020 Multi-Annual Financial Framework (e.i. the next ‘EU budget’).

The last round of budget negotiations ended in a messy package deal that left most negotiators unsatisfied, and with a ‘less than ideal’ overall budget. This time negotiations are expected to be even less pretty, particularly since alliances have already been informally declared and much-awaited changes have been pre-empted (e.g. the agreement between Cameron and Sarkozy to ring fence CAP funding and the British rebate).

3) Extensive work has been put into preparation of new measures for increased coordination in combating crime, migration, border and asylum laws. Substantial negotiations for the final adoption of these initiatives are due during the Danish presidency.

Here, Danish ministers and officials will have to perform a careful balancing act both in Brussels and at home since these policies are directly affected by the Danish opt-outs. The truth is that most of the Danish negotiators – both ministers and Brussels officials – would rather see the opt-outs abolished. Hence, their conviction is to pursue and support the general political ambitions for more detailed cooperation in the JHA area, although this in turn reinforces Denmark’s special position as an outsider.

A frustrating case of ‘two-level diplomacy’ for the Danish representatives, no doubt.

An ‘honest broker’ – really!

Other topics for the Danish presidency will be determined during the next months as items are either ticked off from the current ‘to do’ list for the Polish presidency, or become necessary to postpone to 2012. Also, all presidencies operate under the assumption that unexpected events – either external or internal – will present themselves, and possibly throw the carefully planned agenda in a new direction.

But as the agenda starts to take shape it also becomes clear that the key to success for the Danish presidency will be to chose well between the two kinds of roles that an EU presidency can adopt: As an ‘honest broker’ or ‘political driver’. Smaller and newly-joined members usually make a great emphasis of pursuing the first of these roles since it automatically invokes sympathetic and supportive reactions from fellow member states and observers. Whether the presidency ‘hat’ is always as neutrally worn by these members is questionable, however.  In fact, the Danes have themselves been in the driving seat when savvy political results appeared after lengthy negotiations. But in the case of the upcoming presidency the choice seems clear: Denmark’s special status in some of the key policy areas, its size, as well as the fact that it will be a newly-elected government that has to lead the ship for 6 months, all point to a better strategy as the ‘honest broker’.