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Towards the Estonian Presidency of the Council of the EU: Lessons from Latvia

In the second half of 2017, Estonia will chair the Council of the European Union (EU). It will be the first presidency for Estonia, as it was for the other two Baltic States – Lithuania and Latvia – who had their turn in 2013 and 2015 respectively. There is little reason to believe that Estonia will not manage, although predictable and unpredictable factors and actors can constrain its ambitions.

Footprints of the Latvian Presidency

For Latvia, its first presidency was both a test of its capabilities and reputation. Preparing and conducting the presidency can be considered a strategic foreign policy objective, just like acceding to the EU, NATO and OECD and adopting the euro.

The conduct of the Latvian presidency has mostly been considered successful. There were issues and policies in which more progress could have been achieved. Nevertheless, no significant mistakes were committed.

The overarching priorities of the presidency were Competitive Europe, Digital Europe and Engaged Europe. The latter referred to the external policy of the EU and the EU Eastern Partnership initiative in particular. The central event during the presidency was the 4th Eastern Partnership Summit in Riga in May 2015. Even though no game-changing deals were reached, the eastern vector of EU external policy was reinvigorated. That would not be the case under many other EU member states holding the presidency.

Considering the other two priorities – Competitive Europe and Digital Europe – progress with the proposed European Fund for Strategic Investments, the proposal for a Single Telecommunications Market, the European Energy Union initiative and the proposal for Data Protection Regulation formed the main highlights. The effects of the first two are a reality: the new investment fund provides additional investment opportunities across the EU, while the second has established the first EU-wide open internet (net neutrality) rules and has reduced retail mobile roaming surcharges with full abolition set for the coming months.

Between National and European Interests

As every presidency is expected to act as an honest and neutral broker, in theory, the respective country should abstain from its national interests and act in the common good. Usually, this contrasts with the expectations of the public and stakeholders at home who might consider the presidency as a perfect opportunity to pursue national interests. As conducting the presidency also bears considerable costs, such expectations are not illogical.

To be fair, most presidencies are driven by their national interests, and at the least, tend to put more emphasis on issues their care more about. For example, the Latvian presidency prioritised the Eastern Partnership in external affairs. It is not surprising that the current presidency, Malta, puts more emphasis on the EU’s southern neighbours instead. Therefore, agenda-setting is the, or one of the main powers of presidencies. Application of this power is tolerated by the other member states as far as that use is proportional.

There will always be some must-do issues such as EU-level priorities or emergencies that cannot be neglected. However, when it comes to lower profile issues, each presidency can decide whether, how and when (how often) to work with a given file. No or little attention to an issue can effectively delay adoption or even make the issue obsolete. To push for one or another solution in support of national interests is much harder unless these interests converge with a significant number of the other member states. Under such favourable circumstances, the powers of the presidency can be sufficient to determine the final result.

Unpredictable and Predictable Obstacles

No matter how well a presidency is prepared, not all developments during the six-month term can be predicted. For example, financial crises, natural disasters, political crises, terrorist attacks, wars or the spread of disease can emerge unexpectedly. Some issues of the sort will impact the work of the Council of the EU, others will not. Most however, will be out of the reach of a small country chairing the Council. During Latvia’s term, the armed conflict in Ukraine, the financial crisis in Greece as well as the growing migration crisis cast shadows over the whole presidency, even though Latvia was not able to play a major role in the resolution of any of them.

Estonia will undoubtedly give due attention to “Brexit” and other internal challenges as well as to impending external issues; however, crises can evolve at times and locations they are least expected. Therefore, flexibility and readiness to adapt will be necessary, as well as the readiness to merely observe situations when the powers of the presidency are not sufficient to do more.

The most predictable obstacle for every presidency is the time span of only six months – a term that for Estonia will be even shorter given the summer holiday break. This limitation is often mentioned as one of the main points when arguing that presidencies have very limited opportunities to achieve significant results. However, precise planning and effective implementation of those plans can significantly increase the chances of achieving tangible results.

If the time for action is limited, then the number of parties interested in the work of presidencies is almost unlimited. Not only does each of the 27 other member states have its own interests, but the European Parliament and the European Commission also have their own and often contrasting agendas. Furthermore, lobbyists in Brussels, in other member states and at home will try to wield influence. In the end, if and when decisions will be made, it should come as no surprise that none of the parties will be completely satisfied.

Why it Will be Difficult for Estonia to Fail

Smaller EU member states often manage to perform better than the larger ones in chairing the Council of the EU. Even though their resources are usually less, smaller nations tend to be more focused and better at maximizing the resources at their disposal. The tasks of the presidency are usually also central among their foreign policy activities, whereas larger nations usually have different other high profile issues concurrently. Presidencies can also take advantage of external support – not only the General Secretariat of the Council of the EU, but also the European Commission, other member states and lobbyists will be ready to assist. No doubt, each of these will have their own interests.

The way Estonia prepares for its first presidency leaves a decent impression. Its overarching aim to ensure the unity and decisiveness of the EU, as well as the priorities – to foster an open and innovative economy, safety and security, digitalization, inclusiveness and sustainability in the EU – currently encompass vital and topical issues. However, it will be difficult to excel in all of them. In some, especially those concerning the unity and decisiveness of the EU and its external relations, the political weight of Estonia will be too light. Much from Estonia will be expected in regard to the digital priority given the “digital reputation” of Estonia. Therefore, the success of the whole presidency might be measured based on achievements there – concrete decisions rather than announcements, declarations or guidelines will be the best way for Estonia to leave its footprint.

Holding the presidency earlier than initially expected, combined with limited experience of the political leadership can pose challenges. In the case of Latvia, its low international profile and insufficient foreign language proficiency of both the president and the prime minister did not allow full maximization of the potential of the presidency; nevertheless, neither did it significantly damage achievements as the bulk of the work was carried out by civil servants. Things are likely to be similar also in the case of Estonia whose diplomats and other civil servants have a decent reputation.

In the end, no matter how presidencies perform, both more and less successful are usually soon forgotten, as work under subsequent presidencies continues.

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