As presidency draws to close, ebullience fades

With Denmark again becoming a rank-and-file EU member on Sunday, the government’s rosy outlook on the union has turned somewhat more dour

Denmark’s term as EU president comes to a close on Sunday, ending six months in which Danish cabinet members and civil servants took responsibility for organising and chairing EU meetings and ensuring the European machine kept on ticking over.

Before the term started, The Copenhagen Post predicted that Denmark would succeed due to its reputation for pragmatism and focus on consensus building. Now that it’s over, the question is how well did Denmark do and whether it left with more political capital than it started with.

First it’s worth remembering that the presidency is no longer what it used to be after the signing of the Lisbon Treaty. Many of the presidency’s primary responsibilities were removed with the creation of the president of the European Council and the high representative for foreign affairs (currently Herman van Rompuy and Catherine Ashton, respectively).

“Its not prestigious any more and there is no influence,” Marlene Wind, an EU expert from the University of Copenhagen, told The Copenhagen Post. “You’re just taking over tasks from other presidents. So the ritual has become rather stupid because really it basically consists of a few thousand civil servants taking over from others and passing it into the next.”

While this may be the case, the presidency is vital for a smooth-running EU. And according to Peter Nedegaard, also an EU scholar at the University of Copenhagen, Denmark has done quite a good job.

“The presidency’s civil servants put everything they had into the relationship [with the EU], which maintained [Denmark’s] reputation for being unimpressed and non-hierarchical while also being substance and solution-orientated,” he wrote in an editorial in Politiken newspaper.

Did it leave a mark?

The Danish presidency also seems to believe that it has done a good job and this week released a list of 55 achievements during its six month stint. Some of them, such as the passing of the energy efficiency directive, will make fundamental changes to Europe in the years to come.

The difficult question, however, is whether Denmark really placed a mark on the EU as a result of the presidency. With the Lisbon Treaty it has become much more difficult for presidencies to push and set their own agendas and as a result the role has slipped to becoming a thankless administrator who is only noticed after a scandal erupts.

This was the case earlier this month, when the justice minister, Morten Bødskov, had to be the unfortunate messenger to the European Parliament that the governments of EU member states would not consult parliament when enforcing rules about Shengen, the agreement that allows free movement between most EU members states.

Bødksov was slaughtered by MEPs, who accused the Danish presidency of populism and undermining European democracy. But while the incident proved embarrassing, the decision to bypass the parliament was made months before Denmark even took over the presidency.

“Now that the smoke has settled after the European Parliament’s plenary session, most people can see that the European Parliament’s reaction was part of an extraordinary battle for power between the EU institutions (the European Parliament and the European Commission) on the one hand and the governments of the EU members states,” Nedergaard wrote.

Forever on the fence

The major problem for Denmark was always going to be the fact that it is outside the Eurozone while also managing Europe as it struggles with the worst crisis the single currency has faced in its short existence. As a result, the major agreements, such as the budget-balancing fiscal compact treaty, were made without much input from the Danish presidency.

Despite not using the euro, however, Denmark supported almost all the measures proposed to resolve the euro crisis and signed the fiscal compact in March to demonstrate that it was serious about keeping government spending in check.

But as its presidency ends so too is its open optimism about Europe. In January, Thorning-Schmidt said that it was necessary to restore faith in the European project. “The path out of this crisis goes through more Europe, not less Europe,” she said as the presidency got underway.

According to Wind, however, the government failed to deliver on this promise and is now distancing itself from Europe, probably as a result of its plummeting popularity. Most notable was the announcement that there would be no referendum on the Danish opt-outs on defence, and justice and home affairs, in the near future, despite her election pledge

“She didn’t need to say it. She is being perceived as distancing herself from the problem. It is emphasising once again that Denmark believes itself to be an island. But we are not an island, almost all our exports go to Europe. In my opinion it is naïve to pursue this very national agenda as it gives people the impression that we can survive without the European project.”

Euro-sceptic MEP Morten Messerschmidt also seized on this point and argued that the government set itself up to fail by announcing high expectations from the presidency.

“She set the tone at the start of the presidency when she said that Denmark should be close to the EU, that Denmark would join the fiscal compact without a referendum and Danes would be able to vote in the opt-outs,” Messerschmidt wrote in a press release. “But that fizzled out after the PM feared the verdict of the voters and dropped the vote on the opt-outs and ran from the thought of a common banking union.”

Messerschmidt also chastised the government for not completing the negotiations for the EU’s seven-year budget and agricultural reform before the end of their presidency.

It’s hard to criticise a presidency for its ambition, however, and to suggest that Denmark performed poorly because it didn’t achieve all its goals is perhaps to underestimate the complexity of the task in hand.

The significance of the Danish presidency may not be the scope of its accomplishments, however. The recent proposals by van Rompuy to create a more federalised Europe demonstrates the belief that only greater integration of European countries can offset another crisis. But Thorning-Schmidt has already dismissed many of the proposals, such as a banking union, out of hand.

What the presidency best expresses is the paradoxical nature of the Danish relationship with the EU. The country respects it and need it to survive, but when it comes down to it Danes hesitate, unsure of whether it’s better to be friends-with-benefits or in a full-blown relationship – is it worth risking getting left behind when smoke is rising from the ship you’re about to board?