Tag: Council

A Baptism of Fire: Croatia’s Council Presidency

  • January 2020
  • Hannah Bettsworth

Negotiating Brexit, the Budget and the Balkans simultaneously is an unprecedented baptism of fire for Croatia.

Source: Pixabay


Only six and half years after joining the EU, on the 1st of January 2020, Croatia took over the rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union. This is a chance for Zagreb to strengthen its EU and diplomatic credentials. Yet, many difficult files have fallen on the Croatian presidency’s desk. These include Brexit, the EU budget, migration and asylum, and the Western Balkans.


The Croatian government has defined 4 main priority areas: a Europe that develops, a Europe that connects, a Europe that protects, and an influential Europe. The official Presidency agenda goes into more detail about these overarching priority areas.


‘A Europe that develops’ entails a focus on regional development and supporting cohesion. In impending budget debates, countries like Croatia will defend cohesion funding against others seeking cuts. This heading also encompasses the European pillar of social rights, acting on negative demographic trends (a key Croatian priority), strengthening competitiveness and skills, and protecting the environment/fighting climate change.


‘A Europe that connects’ deals with European transport infrastructure, data infrastructure, establishing and integrating the energy market, and building stronger connections between European citizens through mobility, cultural heritage and dialogue with young people. These subheadings include some controversial and complex files such as advancing standards for new Artificial Intelligence technologies and increasing energy security. The former will have to be balanced against European technological competitiveness. The latter, largely, involves reducing dependence on Russian gas.


Russian power politics, based on being an essential energy supplier in Europe, have particular geopolitical importance for Croatia. Russia values influence over other countries, and eyes Croatia to have access to the Adriatic Sea. Croatia has European Commission funded Liquified Natural Gas (LNG) terminals as an alternative form of gas provision. As of now, these are not commercially viable (LNG imported from overseas is more expensive than Russian gas) and so their full capacity is not being used.


The energy question could be a springboard for discussing renewables and would provide the Commission with an opportunity to exercise its ‘geopolitical’ credentials.


‘A Europe that protects’ also has the potential to be a controversial priority area. Croatian civil society has raised concerns that the Presidency has classed migration and refugees under this heading. Doing so suggests that people seeking sanctuary are a threat to the European Union. This heading also includes counter-terrorism measures online, the rule of law, democratic principles and fundamental values, and combatting intolerance and disinformation. The counter-terrorism proposals have raised concerns among civil society activists. They fear the use of upload filters and false-positive deletions of legitimate content.


The Croatian presidency’s aim to reform the Common European Asylum System is ambitious. It was impossible to find an agreement over the last few years. Croatia itself faces accusations of violating migrants’ rights. Allegedly, it used illegal and violent pushbacks to Bosnia, in the service of its key goal to join Schengen.
Finally, ‘an influential Europe’ involves upholding multilateralism and the rules-based global order, international development policy, crisis response capacity, and the European future of the Western Balkans. The Western Balkans and enlargement is the biggest challenge, bar the EU budget, facing Croatia’s presidency. Most of these countries (apart from Albania) recently used to be part of Yugoslavia alongside Croatia. They now look to the Croatian presidency to speed up the enlargement process. The European future of the Western Balkans was put at risk by the French veto, in an attempt to refocus the EU’s efforts on internal reforms. Zagreb will need strong diplomatic skills to progress reform files while keeping enlargement at the top of the EU’s agenda. The EU-Western Balkans summit in Zagreb in May will have symbolic value as the 20th anniversary of the initial Zagreb Summit. This will not be enough. To hold value for the people of the Western Balkans, the EU must commit to and follow through on accession within the next decade.


Overall, Croatia’s programme for the Council of the European Union presidency is rather ambitious. The presidency holds an opportunity for the country to show diplomatic skill and increase its value as a partner in the EU. There is also a risk of failure to carry out such an ambitious programme. The twin challenges of internal divisions and geopolitical developments are not unique to the Croatian presidency. However, the experience of negotiating Brexit, the Budget and the Balkans simultaneously is an unprecedented baptism of fire.

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Europe’s Hour

  • February 2019
  • Otto Ilveskero

Europe’s Hour


EU must lose the unyielding unanimity rule to gain credibility as a global actor

Source: Wikimedia Commons


The first week of February showed once again why the EU needs to reconsider the voting rules on certain areas of its foreign policy decision-making. Failure to counter the slowness and inconsistency of EU diplomacy continues to erode Europe’s status as a defender of human rights and rules-based multilateralism on the international stage. Qualified majority voting (QMV) cannot be introduced soon enough.


“There is a common European Union position on Venezuela and we have expressed it very clearly and together – all the 28.” Speaking at a press conference following the 5th EU – League of Arab States (LAS) ministerial meeting on Monday (04 February), The EU’s High Representative Federica Mogherini sounded all but convincing when asked about the EU’s common stance on the acute crisis in the South American country. Ms Mogherini called the position “very clear”, saying that the EU recognises the legitimacy of both the Venezuelan National Assembly and its President Juan Guaidó. She also pointed to the targeted sanctions the member states placed on Venezuela in November 2017 and extended for another year in November 2018.


That same day, however, Italy blocked the EU’s joint statement on Venezuela. The rejected proposal called for individual EU members to acknowledge Mr Guaidó as the interim President of Venezuela – a proposition that strongly divides the national capitals. Although calling for free and fair democratic elections in Venezuela to give its citizens the opportunity to choose their president unites the EU, many member states have been sceptical about recognising Mr Guaidó’s claim.


Only ten of the EU28, including France, Germany, Spain, and the UK, have recognised the leader of the National Assembly as President ad interim, while members such as Belgium, Finland, Ireland, and Sweden have only issued messages of support without official recognition. Even where the member states share a common view, they struggle to agree on the means, as the EU failed to unite behind the deadline set for President Nicolás Maduro to call early elections. The same problem was also apparent during the Council negotiations to issue restrictive measures on Venezuela in the first place, as the sanctions were delayed for months due to internal disagreements.


Maduro’s key allies – China, Russia, Turkey, and Iran – certainly do not mind. The diplomatic inconsistency has been an easy opportunity for Russia in particular to undermine the EU’s international credibility and motives in setting up the International Contact Group to deal with the crisis. “We would like to understand as soon as possible who is talking and about what,” said the Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov as he questioned the EU’s ability to lead a group intended to mediate the situation in Venezuela. Inconsistent messaging from the EU’s part continues to harm its efforts in international crisis management.


One size fits none: consistently inconsistent external action


Venezuela is hardly a standalone case. On this Monday alone, Cyprus blocked a joint EU statement on the breakdown of the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty between the United States and Russia because of the statement’s wording on Russia, while Hungary and Poland rejected the proposed joint conclusions of the upcoming EU–LAS summit due to a dispute over migration. In the past, achieving unanimity to publicly even condemn China’s human rights violations has been notoriously difficult for the EU, which has understandably weakened the EU’s credentials as a global human rights defender and leading liberal power. In June 2017, for example, Greece’s opposition meant the EU could not issue a common position criticising the use of capital punishment and crackdown of free speech in China at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva. This marked the first time the EU failed to make a joint statement at the UN’s human rights body.


And where joint action has not been completely blocked, European diplomatic efforts have often been delayed by individual members with specific grievances or interests. For instance, as the EU’s E3 team – France, Germany, and the UK – involved in the Iran nuclear deal negotiations alongside the European External Actions Service (EEAS) was expanded to include Italy as E4 after the US pulled out of the agreement, Spain’s disappointment on being left out resulted in the member state delaying the high-priority Council conclusions on Iran this January. Furthermore, ahead of the EU’s deadline to extend its arms embargo on Belarus by the end of February, Hungary is yet again threatening to topple the long-standing measures if the EU does not speed up the adoption of the so-called Belarus Partnership Priorities. The final signing of the partnership document is, however, currently being delayed by Lithuania’s insistence on added safeguards regarding a Russian-financed nuclear power plant in Belarus.


Thus, as things currently stand, the EU does not need revisionist powers pointing fingers at the inconsistencies and slowness of its external action – Europe is perfectly capable of undermining its own credibility. The examples are numerous.


Push for qualified majority voting on foreign policy


In his 2018 State of the European Union speech, the Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker suggested that the EU member states adopt QMV in the Council on human rights issues, sanctions, and EU civilian missions. According to the rules set out in the EU treaties, QMV requires a proposal to be supported by 55% of the member states representing 65% of the Union’s population in order to pass. The Commission’s proposal smartly omits military missions and defence cooperation, where EU joint action has often taken place through ad hoc, informal coalitions of the willing, and leaves them within the realm of unanimity voting. As a concession to member state concerns, the Juncker plan also included an “emergency brake” that individual states could use to block proposals they see has harmful to their national interests.


Yet, Council voting rules can only be amended by a unanimous decision – and there are many smaller member states which are less enthusiastic about the introduction of QMV in EU foreign policy. For smaller member states in particular, unanimity in EU decision-making represents a powerful tool for asserting their interests and increasing their negotiation position. Under the Commission’s proposal, however, these national interests should be adequately protected under the quasi-veto provided by the aforementioned emergency brake system.


For states preferring more intergovernmental approach to EU decision-making, on the other hand, consensus voting is a means to ensure that EU security and defence cooperation does not undermine their vision of national sovereignty, for example. Some member states have also rushed to point out that if the aim of the voting rule change is to achieve Europe that speaks together as “one voice” on the global stage, then why is the current system requiring complete unity not enough. After all, the Council continues to take a majority of its decision by consensus even in policy areas that do not require unanimity. Others fear a slippery slope towards QMV being used in common defence policy and military operations in the future. But these objections fail to see the urgency of improving the EU’s response capabilities.


With improved effectiveness comes improved credibility


In the global geopolitical landscape that is increasingly dominated by unpredictability and multipolar power politics, where the EU faces an unpredictable administration in the West, a refugee crisis in the South, and a competition over influence by Russia and China in the East, the EU has no choice but to become more decisive. The unyielding unanimity rule, rigid institutional structures, and unclear leadership have more often than not resulted in inconsistent positions and slow responses to crises, eroding the EU’s status as a voice for rules-based multilateralism, human rights, and liberal values in the process.


If the EU means to gain respect from global powers and increase its credibility as an equal actor, then it must address the looming capability–expectations gap head-on. To this end, it needs to become more adaptive to changing political circumstances and more effective in responding to external crises. This can most easily be achieved through simplified decision-making on foreign policy sectors the EU is already prioritising, such as human rights and sanctions. These areas are also less contentious and do not require member states to contribute as many resources as EU military cooperation, which should make it easier to gain the losers’ consent.


The member states will have a crucial decision to make at the informal Sibiu Summit on the future of Europe in Romania on 9 May. Held six weeks after Brexit and three weeks before the European Parliament Elections, the Commission is hoping to receive a decision from the heads of national governments on streamlining the EU’s external action this Europe Day. If the member states are serious about challenging the EU’s international image as an inconsistent and slow actor, then they must prioritise effective decision-making over diplomacy plagued by petty internal disputes.

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And not as I do

  • January 2019
  • Otto Ilveskero

And not as I do

The EU must lead the way in transparency

Source: Daniel Huizinga | Flickr

“We cannot demand openness and transparency from others, if those principles are not followed within our own institution.” Heidi Hautala, the Finnish Green MEP and European Parliament Vice-President hit the nail right on the head with her comment last July after the people’s representatives had once again rejected greater transparency over their use of expenses.


Without even a hint of irony, The European Parliament’s 15-member executive committee – the Bureau – had behind closed doors blocked a proposal to tighten controls over the MEPs’ General Expenditure Allowance (GEA). This ensured that the European parliamentarians could continue to enjoy their €4,416 a month parliamentary expenses without much scrutiny, costing the European taxpayer around €40 million a year. No requirements are currently in place for the representatives to provide information on how these funds are spent and most MEPs claim the full allowance.


Furthermore, in September 2018 the EU General Court even ruled that the Parliament had the right to reject journalists’ requests for greater expenses transparency on the basis of the protection of personal data. This decision immediately begs two obvious questions: 1) what are the MEPs doing with public money that is so private that it cannot be publicly revealed and 2) does the MEPs’ right to privacy really trump the European citizens’ right of access to information as set in the European Charter of Fundamental Rights? The court seems to have regarded the former as a question not worth considering and decided the latter to the benefit of the parliamentarians.


Last week it was revealed that the longest serving MEP currently sitting in the Parliament, Elmar Brok, had personally netted almost €18,000 from four groups of visitors by charging them €150 per person to visit the European Parliament as his guests. Nothing like a representative of the people who makes extra money out of the people he represents. But it is not so much the side hustle itself as the allegations that Mr Brok claimed many of the visitor costs back from the Parliament as expenses that constitute the problem within the context of transparency. Easy money. Doubled.


Scandals such as this are political gold for Eurosceptics looking to challenge the institution as wasteful and opaque – even if the same Eurosceptics are not any better with their own expenses. For example, last summer the far-right Europe of Nations and Freedom (ENF) was ordered to reimburse the Parliament over €500,000 of misspent public money, while in December the right-wing conservative Alliance of Conservatives and Reformists in Europe (ACRE) was asked to repay over €530,000. This kind of behaviour can only be challenged with greater accountability, which does not exist without greater transparency on the MEPs’ expenses.


Overall, European institutions need to become more mindful of the public’s perceptions as well as more open regarding their activities. Simply put, Europe of today cannot be run on the Monnet method of integration by stealth. The politicisation of the EU since the Maastricht Treaty together with the rapid expansion of access to information has resulted in the increased power of political narratives and brought with itself the need for public institutions to repair information gaps between what they do and how they are represented by other political actors in particular. As a directly elected political body, the European Parliament has so far been able to defend its democratic credentials to those willing to listen, but without greater transparency it cannot challenge the wide-spread dissatisfaction with the European project. Opaque expenses spending and unaccounted for meetings with unregistered lobbyists are powerful ammunition to those wanting to portray the Parliament as an inward-looking elitist institution distant from the masses.


On the other side of Rue Belliard, the European Parliament’s co-legislator is not making things any easier either. Despite recommendations from the European Ombudsman, the Council has failed to systematically record member state positions on legislative issues and routinely marks documents as not to be published. Transparency in the Council has been viewed as a hindrance to the negotiations between the EU’s 28 members despite academic evidence to the contrary. The secretive nature of the Council has turned lack of transparency into an artform that allows member state governments to take credit or shift blame depending on whether a particular decision made in the Council is likely to be viewed as popular or unpopular within their domestic electorates. In addition, due to inadequate measures for parliamentary scrutiny on EU affairs in many member states, the positions taken by national governments in Brussels can remain hidden and uncontested throughout the decision-making process. This legislative black hole allows for European populists to further stoke the fire of public dissatisfaction by representing “Brussels” as a malevolent entity oblivious to the needs of the people.


More often than not, however, this Eurosceptic blame game has centred around the Commission. Yet, as an unelected political institution, the Commission has actually been more sensitive to the calls of unaccountability and lack of democratic credentials than the EU’s co-legislators and has attempted to improve its transparency accordingly. Achieving greater openness was in fact one of President Juncker’s first pledges after assuming the role. For example, the Commissions has staff rules in place for limiting the so-called ‘revolving door’ phenomenon, it conducts trade negotiations in a more transparent manner and has been highly responsive to the recommendations of the European Ombudsman, while commissioners and senior officials are mandated to publish their travel expenses and meetings with lobbyists (who must be registered with the Commission’s transparency register). Currently only seven member states have passed national legislation regulating lobbying and only five have a mandatory code of conduct for lobbyists similar in scope to the Commission’s standards.


After years of demanding openness and transparency from market actors in the name of competition and trust, the EU’s institutions must reform and unify their own transparency rules for greater accountability and credibility for the Union as a whole. And the first opportunity of the year is rapidly approaching, as the European Parliament will be voting for the first time on binding transparency rules for lobbying activities in its Rules of Procedure tomorrow (31 January).


Yet, without a hint of irony the Parliament will be conducting another transparency vote in the opaquest manner possible. This time the European People’s Party (EPP) voted in a secret ballot within the group to demand that the votes on the transparency amendments to the Parliament’s Rules of Procedure be conducted by secret ballot. As the EPP currently holds over 20% of the parliamentary seats, they were able to force a secret ballot on the vote based the Parliament’s Rules of Procedure. On top of this, tomorrow’s vote is shadowed by a particular declaration made by the Parliament’s lawyers in November 2018. According to the EP’s legal minds, mandating MEPs to meet only registered lobbyists and even only voluntarily publishing information about these meetings is illegal based on the MEPs’ ‘freedom of the parliamentary mandate’ – an argument that has also been supported by the EPP. Both the EPP and Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) groups have previously voted against rules allowing MEPs to meet only with lobbyists in the transparency register, which is already compulsory for commissioners and the Commission’s senior officials. It is time to unify the measures.


An increasingly politicised union has no choice but to increase the openness of its law-making. Accountability and trust have been burning topics in the current European debate on election manipulation, disinformation, and social media in particular, and the EU must be on the front lines of delivering reliable information to the voting public as well as ensure the accountability of its own actions. Greater institutional transparency is certainly the key to both of these ambitions.


Update: On 31 January the European Parliament approved the amended rulebook, including transparency rules and measures to prevent psychological or sexual harassment, by 496 votes to 114.

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An honest broker?

  • January 2019
  • Otto Ilveskero

An honest broker?

Romania assumes its first EU Presidency amid difficult times

Source: Max Pixel


Welcome to the year that will shape the future of Europe – a year marked by uncertainty over Brexit, European Election results, and the multiannual financial framework (MFF). All four of the EU’s top positions – the Commission, Council, Parliament and Central Bank presidencies – will have new holders before the year is done. (Assuming that the fragmented Parliament can find a majority to confirm a new Commission leader, that is.) It is against this backdrop that Romania assumed the six-month rotating EU Presidency this January for the first time since joining the EU in 2007.


The Presidency offers Romania an indispensable window to improve its image among the other member states and grow its influence on European policy topics such as common defence and accession negotiations with the Western Balkans countries. Responsible for chairing the meetings of Council configurations and preparatory bodies, the country will have the ability to shape the EU’s agenda with issues of national importance from security policy on the Black Sea neighbourhood to redefining the future vision for Europe. On the latter, the informal Sibiu summit on Europe Day to conclude the Future of Europe debate provides Romania with an additional opportunity to host and present its views to both EU and national leaders at a crucial time – six weeks after Brexit and two weeks before the European Elections.


The Presidency will also present Romania with a useful tool to build trust and alliances within the EU, which it has so far struggled to develop as a member of the bloc. Indeed, trust and coalitions will certainly be needed as Romania tries to guide and coordinate the policy positions of 28 member states on the MFF, Brexit, and a vast number of legislative proposals in time before the end of the Parliament and Commission’s mandates. This is Romania’s chance to rise to the occasion, and according to the Romanian EU Affairs minister George Ciamba the country wants to act as an “honest broker” that creates cohesion, maintains unity, and oversees the successful transition between parliamentary terms and EU budgets.


Yet, the Romanian EU Presidency has been largely shadowed by the debate over the country’s domestic political situation and doubts of its preparedness to assume the responsibility of presiding over EU members. Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, for instance, expressed his concerns three days before the turn of the year, stating that “the Bucharest government has not fully understood what it means to chair the EU countries”. The EU has been frustrated with the governing coalition’s efforts to undermine judicial independence and the rule of law, which turned the relationship between Brussels and Bucharest particularly sour only months before the start of the Presidency. In November, the Commission issued eight new recommendations to prevent the misuse of the criminal code in Romania while the European Parliament passed a resolution addressing its deep concern with the government’s revision of judicial and criminal legislation, but no European disciplinary measures have been adopted yet. The proposed legislation, which includes the decriminalisation of some corruption offences and reduces prison sentences for politicians, has also triggered large protests in the country.


This challenge on the rule of law bears a particular risk to the country’s long-standing fight against corruption. Thousands of Romanian political figures have been successfully convicted on corruption charges especially in the last five years, largely as a result of the anti-corruption operations led by Laura Codruța Kövesi, who was appointed as the National Anticorruption Directorate’s (DNA) chief prosecutor in 2013. Following the 2016 electoral success of the Romanian Social Democratic Party (PSD) under the leadership of party leader Liviu Dragnea, however, the anti-corruption wave has faced increasing resistance and hostility from the political elite. Dragnea, who received a two-year suspended sentence on electoral fraud in 2016 and thus cannot serve as the prime minister, controls the cabinet and has led the appointment of three prime ministers in two years.


Chief Prosecutor Kövesi was controversially ousted by the government from her position in July 2018 – a month after Dragnea had received a new three-and-a-half-year prison sentence on corruption, which is currently pending appeal. The party leader has also recently filed a lawsuit against the Commission after its anti-fraud office OLAF accused Dragnea of misusing €21 million from EU funds, while the SPD is perhaps unsurprisingly drafting a new legislative proposal to grant amnesty to anyone serving an under 5-year sentence on corruption. Meanwhile, the interim chief prosecutor who replaced Kövesi, Anca Jurma, announced her resignation this week citing a “hostile environment”. But despite the corruption and growing contempt for the rule of law, the opposition parties have been unable to put together an alternative coalition, leading to the SPD-led government to survive a no-confidence vote on 20 December.


It remains to be seen how much the domestic political turbulence will affect the Romanian Presidency during the next six months. Responding to the concerns in an interview with Politico, EU Minister Ciamba dismissed the dysfunctional national scene, saying that the presidency will be largely in the hands of civil servants and Romanian diplomats. We can only hope so.

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