Europe looks to London

The British Government is assuming the presidency of the Council of the European Union for a six-month stint. This is a demanding and diplomatically sensitive role, which comes at a crucial time both for the Union and for Britain.

The World Today
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This article explains briefly what is involved in holding the presidency; examines the opportunities that it o ffers, and the threats that it holds for the incumbent; outlines the tasks that are on the agenda for the British presidency; and suggests what is at stake for Britain’s relations with the Union. The primary task of the member state holding the presidency is to organise and chair meetings of the Council of Ministers and its subsidiary committees. The Council of Ministers is not a single body. It meets in various guises as agriculture ministers, economic and finance ministers, foreign ministers and so on. It has over twenty different manifestations. There are also myriad committees that meet under the banner of the Council

In the course of its six months in charge, the presidency can expect to arrange and chair some 90 separate meetings of ministers, and many more times that number of committees. In addition, there will be at least one summit meeting of heads of government, or European Council, during the six months.

In this considerable task, the civil service of the presiding state is assisted by the Council Secretariat, which is based in Brussels. It is a relatively small body of 2000 people, a tenth of whom are at the senior A-grade. However, much of the burden of administering the presidency inevitably falls on national officials.

To ensure some degree of continuity, the European Union (EU) operates a system known as the Troika, under which the present holder of the presidency co-operates with the previous and immediate future holders. So the British government machine has been mobilised and operating in partial presidency-mode for six months.

Opportunities and threats

Holding the presidency offers any member state the opportunity to put its imprint on the direction of the EU, and a successful presidency can be a great boost to the state’s prestige and future influence. However, the influence that the presidency can exercise is constrained in various ways, and the threats to a successful outcome are considerable. No presidency begins with a blank sheet. Much of the agenda will be set by the initiatives of previous presidencies and by conccerns that need to be addressed annually. In addition, unexpected events can throw a presidency off course.

It is interesting that the issues which Britain inherits from the previous presidencies mostly coincide with the priorities set out by Tony Blair soon after his election, and just ahead of the Noordwijk European Council in May 1997: completion of the internal market; enlargement; reform of the Common Agricultural Policy; promoting labour market flexibility and competitiveness; and improving co-ordination of foreign policy.

These priorities also differ little from those of the previous Conservative Government, which often claimed that it was winning the argument in the EU. Perhaps the happy coincidence of the Labour Government ’s priorities with its inherited agenda indicates that this was a valid claim.

Thrown off course

A prime example of an unexpected event throwing the presidency off course occurred during the last British presidency in 1992 when the monetary crises that forced the removal of sterling from the exchange rate mechanism generated a row between Britain and Germany which coloured judgements of the presidency. It is not remembered as a success, despite brokering agreement on a new budgetary arrangement, getting formal agreement that the central European states should eventually become full members of the EU, presiding over a successful conclusion to the G ATT Uruguay Round negotiations, and reaching agreements that allowed the Danish Government to win a repeat referendum on the ratification of the Maastricht treaty.

This highlights the great threat to any holder of the presidency. If it is seen as successful, its prestige is enhanced; but the perception of failure in the presidency can tarnish the reputation of a member state. It also points to another constraint. Success in the presidency is judged by the rest of the EU in terms of reaching agreements that are generally seen to be in the common interest. This sometimes means that the state holding the presidency has to be prepared to sacrifice something it wants.

Aside from the damaging public bitterness over the exchange rate mechanism, the main criticism made of the 1992 British presidency was that the Government too often chaired meetings in a way that advanced its own narrow interest at the expense of the general good.

A new start for Britain?

Given that London will have limited room for manoeuvre, what initiatives does it want to take during its presidency, and what are its chances of success?

In a speech at the Institute for European Affairs in Dublin on 3 November last year the Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, outlined the Government’s approach. He said it would be based on the concerns of the people of Europe. Unemployment was the top priority; other focuses were crime, drugs and the environment.

Beyond those priorities, Britain inherits an agenda dominated by preparations for the single currency and by the need to move forward the enlargement process. The Foreign Secretary added improving coordination on foreign policy to this list, and specifically mentioned an EU Code of Conduct on arms exports.

A people’s Europe

Tackling unemployment is an issue that Britain inherits, but which it welcomes. Since coming to office, the Labour Government has emphasised the need for the EU to be more relevant to the people of Europe. Both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown have put combating unemployment at the top of their agenda to achieve this. In early June, Gordon Brown circulated Finance Ministers with a three-point initiative entitled ‘Getting Europe to Work’, and said that this would be the top priority of the presidency.

The initial tone adopted by the Government demonstrates the difficulties of operating within the EU. While for domestic political reasons London wants to be seen to give a lead to the rest of the EU, it is a bit difficult for other states to accept that they should adopt British labour market flexibility.

The rhetoric was ratcheted down after the Noordwijk summit, and the phrase ‘employability’ was used more often than ‘flexibility’. Last November’s jobs summit in Luxembourg agreed measures that were based on a text from the Commission, but were in line with British objectives. This will make it easier for the British presidency to pursue their implementation.

Room for progress

Robin Cook linked the question of jobs to progress on the single market. In broad terms, the British Government would like to extend the single market to energ y, financial services, and aviation. These are difficult areas, and the Government has sensibly not given hostages to fortune by committing itself to achieving a long list of precise objectives.

It has, though, identi?ed two areas where it wants to see progress, on the effective implementation of the directives on the liberalisation of electricity and of telecommunications.

Both are sectors where Britain has already been through privatisation and the introduction of competition, and its companies are well placed to bene?t from an opening of the European markets. The government also wants to ensure simpli?cation of single market rules at a national and EU level.

Finally under the heading of a people’s Europe, Robin Cook mentioned the importance that the Government attached to ?g h ting crime, particularly drugs-trafficking, and to environmental protection.

On the first, it is part of the new start for Britain for the Government to show itself more committed than its predecessor to getting Europol launched and promoting cooperation between customs authorities.

On the second issue, using the presidency to bring environmental considerations to the fore in EU affairs will appeal to a domestic constituency. However, the Government may face some difficult environmental decisions as a result of climate change negotiations, particularly with the US Government. Both issues should help in the domestic campaign to give the EU a more positive image.

Off to a good start

It is ironic that the final preparations for the launch of the Euro will be under the presidency of a state that has decided not to participate in the ?rst round of monetary union. However, the opportunity for the new Government to overcome some of the British reputation for awkwardness in the EU is especially strong in this area.

Success in brokering agreement may even be easier for a state that is not directly involved in the ?rst round. Both the Foreign Secretary in Dublin and the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown, in his statement on the single currency in the House of Commons on 27 October 1997, stressed that the Government wants the single currency to be a success, and that Britain would do its best to ensure that it got off to a good start.

The most difficult issue that the British will chair is the decision about which states will be in the first wave of members of the single currency. The size of the diplomatic task involved should not be underestimated.

There is still considerable concern in Germany about allowing Italy to join. On the other hand, the French are determined that Rome should be included if any reasonable case can be made for it having met the criteria.

The situation will probably not be clearcut, and there will be a lot of work for the presidency to achieve a mutually satisfactory agreement. Here is one of the biggest opportunities and one of the biggest threats to Britain using the presidency to enhance its reputation.

Fast and slow

On enlargement, the decision on which states will be in the ‘fast lane’ and which will have to wait was made before the British took over. It will be for the British to get the enlargement negotiations started with the ‘fast lane’ states. The other states will also need encouragement that they can progress to membership at a later date. To this end the British presidency will organise the first meeting of a standing European Conference in which all the applicants will take part, including Turkey.

This Conference, however, is the subject of some disagreement about whether it will be just a public relations exercise for the governments of the ‘slow track’ states or a substantive meeting which might spawn working parties to tackle the problems facing all applicants, including those not in the first wave. The British Government want the latter; other member states areless happy with the implied commitments, especially to Turkey.

Related to enlargement, there will be discussion centring around the Commission’s Agenda 2000 programme, which involves reform of the common agricultural policy and the structural funds. These are highly contentious, and will test the diplomatic skills of British ministers and their staffs in bridging the north-south divide about spending priorities.

The issues do not actually have to be resolved under the British presidency, and any progress made will be seen as a very positive contribution, so there is a good opportunity to enhance the credentials of the Government as a cooperative partner. The risk is that it will upset one or more influential players.

Making a success of foreign policy coordination is important for the British Government because, like its predecessor, it wants to defuse the pressure for any erosion of the veto in this area. To do this it needs to show that intergovernmental procedures can work.

Getting an agreement on a Code of Conduct on arms exports is aimed more at the domestic arena, though. The Foreign Secretary has declared that Britain under Labour will follow an ethical foreign policy. This includes restricting the sale of arms to repressive regimes. However, if Britain acts unilaterally on this, it is certain that other suppliers will simply step in to take the orders that British ?rms are not allowed to take.

One of Britain’s main competitors in the arms trade is France, so if agreement can be reached on an EU Code, which will also be respected by France, it can be demonstrated to the domestic audience that working through the EU pays dividends.

Of course, France is not the whole of the competition, so the adoption of an EU Code is likely to be accompanied or followed by a joint diplomatic offensive to get the United States, Russia, and other arms-exporting nations to sign a global agreement.

End of awkwardness

The British presidency offers a tremendous opportunity for the Labour Government to make a break with Britain’s reputation for being an awkward partner in the EU. London has always been able to handle the presidency technically, although it has not always managed to get full credit for its achievements. This time, barring unforeseen shocks, there is every possibility that it can be seen to be successful.

The timing could hardly be better. The extent to which the agenda of the EU coincides with the concerns of the Government is really quite remarkable. Although there are some problems with the issue of enlargement, there is no need to reach final agreement during the presidency on any of the more controversial issues, except for the decision on the membership of the single currency, in which Britain is not directly involved.

This issue above all will test diplomatic resources, but if it is handled well the positive impact will be as great as was the negative impact of the British handling of the monetary problems of 1992. It is perhaps the greatest opportunity and the greatest threat to the presidency marking a new start for Britain in Europe.