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Keep Calm and Carry On…

Submitted by on 16 Sep 2011 – 11:42

Caroline Howard GrønCaroline Howard Grøn, Assistant Professor, University of Copenhagen

Demark is facing the EU presidency in the spring of 2012. Preparations have been going on in Copenhagen and Brussels for quite some time and a buzz of excitement can be heard coming out of the government offices which deal with EU matters. The Danes want to be prepared, just as most other EU countries they would like to appear a success. But what really constitutes a success when running an EU presidency?

When looking at the aspirations of the Danish presidency and comparing them to the recently started Polish presidency, it becomes clear, that not everyone will agree as to what constitutes the much wanted successful presidency. But looking at the different strategies, it also becomes clear that the target audiences differ substantially. Basically, a presidency can be aimed at a Brussels audience or, but perhaps not and, an audience consisting of the broader public.

The Polish presidency, and its rather grand aspirations, has been much debated. For the Polish, running a successful EU presidency is a way of establishing themselves as a skilled and important member state. So far, evaluations of ‘new’ member states presidencies have been far from positive. Poland now gains the opportunity to show that it is in a different league than the smaller states, which have so far had the opportunity. As put by a new member state Brussels correspondent: Doing a successful presidency is just like winning the Eurovision song contest. Both events will generate a positive image of your country. It’s basically about public diplomacy, underscored by the contract signed by the Polish government with the PR firm Burson-Marsteller. Poland could hence use its presidency to establish itself as a central and pro-EU player in Brussels, much needed after the Kaczynski-period, and as a well-functioning and modern state in the minds of the rest of Europe.

The Danes however see success in quite different terms. While not exactly being the prize pupil in the classroom, the Danes have a sound reputation as skilled, not least backed by the last presidency which ended with an agreement on EU enlargement in 2002. It might be that Denmark is haunted by opt-outs and current potential conflicts with the Schengen agreement. But its reputation as well-functioning is not questioned. So what do the Danes see as their criteria for success? Probably reflecting Danish history and sheer size, a Danish saying goes ‘the one who lives quietly, lives well’. This saying is indicative of the Danish strategy: a successful presidency is a presidency where things already on the table get done. Denmark has no need to make a grand entry on the European stage, and can aim quite narrowly, and quietly, at a Brussels target audience. Furthermore, expectations as to what a Danish presidency can change are limited. It is not that Denmark is devoid of ambition.The debate on the presidency started out by Danish Minister for Foreign Affairs Lene Espersen declaring that Denmark would work to abolish the CAP during its presidency. However, it became clear quite quickly that such an ambition was perhaps not realizable. Following this, for a while it looked like the Danes would be in charge of closing the EU budget. This however also seems out of reach due to the timing of the Commission proposal. What seems to be left is an ‘Internal Market Package’ to commemorate the 20 years anniversary of the Internal Market. Something which will go down well with domestic audiences and general Danish policy, but which is far from the big bang enlargement of 2002. The Danes aim at a rather low key but internally well-functioning presidency, basically because the public diplomacy part of the presidency does not seem to be part of the ambition.

So which way is the better? The Economist was quite clear July 7th 2011 in its Charlemagne column:

“The exemplar of the competent, post-Lisbon presidency is Belgium. It was barely visible during its turn in the chair in the second half of 2010. With only a caretaker government, its ministers had lots of time to devote to EU business.”

With the election in September of a centre-left coalition led by Helle Thorning-Schmidt, the Danes may be tempted to modify their approach. However, it could very well be a safe bet to suggest that we shall be heading towards a Belgium-style presidency. A presidency, which mainly focuses on audiences internally in the EU system and where success should be measured not by grand gestures but rather by smaller diplomatic achievements.