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What’s behind the rotating EU presidency?

Have you ever wondered who is in charge of the European Union – and what the rotating EU presidency means? The answers are not so simple. To be honest, before I researched this topic I was rather in the dark of what the EU presidency was all about – despite living on the continent of Europe for 40 years. The answer is not simple because the EU has a complex system of governance that involves different institutions and roles. One of these roles is the Presidency of the Council of the EU. This does not refer to a single person, but a rotating position held by a national government of an EU member state for six months.

The Council … and the Council!

The Council of the European Union is one of the four main decision-making bodies of the EU:

  • The European Parliament, representing EU citizens;
  • The Council of the European Union, representing EU governments;
  • The European Commission, representing the EU’s overall interests;
  • The European Council, which determines the EU’s political direction.

So let’s clear up the first area of confusion. The Council of the EU is different from the European Council! The European Council is composed of the heads of state or government of each EU member state, who meet at least four times a year to set the general direction and priorities of the EU. The Presidency of the European Council is a separate position held by a permanent President (so an individual person) elected by the European Council for a two-and-a-half-year term, renewable once. The current President of the European Council is Charles Michel (ex Belgian Prime Minister), who was elected in 2019.

The almost identically named Council of the European Union is a completely different entity. The Council of the European Union is composed of ministers from each EU member state, who meet regularly to discuss and adopt laws and policies on various topics, such as the economy, security, environment, and foreign affairs. The Presidency of the Council of the EU is the role of leading and coordinating the work of the Council for a six-month term. The Presidency rotates among the member states in a fixed order, so that every country (so not an individual person) gets a chance to lead the Council and influence the EU agenda.

The Council Presidency Trio

However, the Presidency does not work alone. It is part of a system known as the “Council Presidency Trio”, which involves three consecutive presidencies working together over an 18-month period. The trio is established to ensure continuity and coherence in the EU’s work. Each trio is formed by three countries that share common goals and priorities, and that agree on a common agenda for the Council for their term. This way, the presidency can also take into account the interests and perspectives of different regions and groups of countries within the EU.

The Council Presidency Trio
The Council Presidency Trio – and a test of your knowledge of European flags!

The tasks and responsibilities of the Presidency

The Presidency of the Council of the EU has a number of tasks and responsibilities that make it a key player in the EU’s decision-making process. Some of these are:

  • Setting the agenda: The Presidency decides what topics and issues will be discussed and addressed by the Council during its term. It prepares and distributes the agendas for the various Council meetings, and ensures that they are aligned with the trio’s agenda and the EU’s long-term goals.
  • Representing the Council: The Presidency acts as the voice and the face of the Council in its relations with other EU institutions, such as the European Commission, the European Parliament, and the European Court of Justice (yes, another European institution that we have not covered yet). It also represents the Council in its external relations with other countries and international organizations, such as the United Nations, NATO, and the World Trade Organization.
  • Chairing meetings: The Presidency organizes and chairs the meetings of the Council at every level, from the ministerial level to the technical level. It facilitates the discussions and negotiations among the member states, and tries to find consensus and agreement on the various proposals and initiatives.
  • Mediating and brokering deals: The Presidency often plays a mediating and brokering role, especially when there are diverging or conflicting views among the member states on certain issues. It works to find compromises and solutions that are acceptable to all parties, and that respect the EU’s values and principles.
  • Implementing decisions: The Presidency is also involved in implementing the decisions and policies agreed upon by the Council during its term. It monitors and follows up on the progress and the outcomes of the Council’s actions, and reports back to the other EU institutions and the public.

The benefits of the Presidency

The Presidency of the Council of the EU is a unique and important role that brings both benefits and challenges to the presiding country and the EU as a whole. Some of these are:

  • Equal representation: The rotating Presidency ensures that every member state has an equal opportunity to hold the Presidency, regardless of its size, population, or economic power. This gives each country a chance to showcase its culture, history, and achievements, and to contribute to the EU’s development and integration.
  • Cooperation and coordination: The trio system fosters cooperation and coordination among the presiding countries, as well as among the other member states and the EU institutions. The trio system also allows for a smoother transition between presidencies, ensuring a continuous and efficient functioning of the EU.
  • Diversity of perspectives: The rotating Presidency reflects the diversity of the EU, as different countries bring their unique perspectives, experiences, and priorities to the Presidency. This enriches the decision-making process and makes it more inclusive and democratic.
  • Smooth transition: The six-month rotating Presidency allows for a smoother transition between presidencies, ensuring a continuous and efficient functioning of the EU.

The challenges of the Presidency

As you can imagine, it’s a tough job, and the Presidency faces some major challenges, such as:

  • High expectations: The Presidency is expected to deliver on its programme and agenda, and to achieve concrete results and outcomes for the EU and its citizens. This can put a lot of pressure and responsibility on the presiding country, especially in times of crisis or uncertainty.
  • Limited resources: The Presidency requires a lot of human, financial, and logistical resources, which can be a challenge for some countries, especially the smaller or less wealthy ones. The Presidency also has to balance its national interests and priorities with the EU’s interests and priorities, which can sometimes create tensions or conflicts.
  • Complex issues: The Presidency has to deal with a wide range of complex and sensitive issues, such as migration, climate change, security, and trade. These issues often require a lot of technical expertise, political will, and diplomatic skills, which can be challenging for the Presidency to manage and resolve.

Belgium takes the hot seat

Presidency of the Council of the EU falls to Belgium in January 2024
Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo and Foreign Minister Hadja Lahbib launch Belgium’s presidency of the Council of the EU

Belgium’s motto for its Presidency is “Protect. Strengthen. Prepare.” and it focuses on six thematic areas:

  • Defending rule of law, democracy, and unity: Belgium aims to uphold and promote the EU’s core values and principles, such as the rule of law, democracy, human rights, and solidarity. It also seeks to strengthen the EU’s unity and cohesion, especially in the face of external threats and challenges.
  • Strengthening our competitiveness: Belgium wants to boost the EU’s competitiveness and innovation, by supporting the digital and green transitions, enhancing the single market, and fostering research and development. It also aims to improve the EU’s social and economic resilience and recovery, by implementing the Next Generation EU plan and the European Pillar of Social Rights.
  • Pursuing a green and just transition: Belgium is committed to advancing the EU’s green agenda, by implementing the European Green Deal and the Climate Law, and by leading the global fight against climate change. It also wants to ensure a just and fair transition, by addressing the social and economic impacts of the green transition, and by supporting the most vulnerable regions and groups.
  • Reinforcing our social and health agenda: Belgium prioritizes the EU’s social and health agenda, by enhancing the EU’s social protection and inclusion, promoting gender equality and diversity, and fighting poverty and discrimination. It also focuses on strengthening the EU’s health capacity and preparedness, by improving the EU’s health systems and coordination, and by supporting the global response to the COVID-19 pandemic and its variants.
  • Protecting people and borders: Belgium strives to protect the EU’s people and borders, by enhancing the EU’s security and defence policy, combating terrorism and cybercrime, and managing migration and asylum. It also supports the EU’s enlargement and neighbourhood policy, by fostering cooperation and dialogue with the candidate and potential candidate countries, and with the Eastern and Southern neighbours.
  • Promoting a global Europe: Belgium advocates for a global and multilateral Europe, by strengthening the EU’s strategic autonomy and leadership, and by promoting the EU’s values and interests in the world. It also supports the EU’s partnerships and relations with key regions and countries, such as Africa, Asia, Latin America, the United States, and the United Kingdom.

What lies ahead for Belgium?

Belgium is taking on the role of the president of the Council in a challenging time. The evolution of the European Union has never been a straight line. And it is often in the most difficult moments that the greatest strides forward have been made.

Alexander De Croo, Prime Minister of Belgium, 8 December 2023

A challenging time? You can say that again Alexander! It is up to the Belgian Council Presidency to finalize over 100 outstanding legislative projects in the EU together with the European Parliament until the end of April. Among them are thorny subjects such as reforming asylum processing in the bloc and regulating artificial intelligence.

Why the end of April? Because then the European Parliament will meet for its last plenary session before the European elections are held in the first week of June. Any legislative projects that have not been completed by then will have to be tackled by the next European Parliament and a newly formed EU Commission in the autumn. The Belgian government therefore has little time to waste.

What’s more, at a special summit on February 1, the Belgian government must try to work out a way for the EU to provide financial aid to war-torn Ukraine. At the last summit, in December, Eurosceptic Viktor Orban from Hungary prevented this aid from going ahead. And of course, Belgium and Hungary have to work together (with Spain) in the Presidency Trio!

Can Alexander De Croo work with Viktor Orban?
Can Alexander De Croo find a way to work with Viktor Orban?

Other potential challenges include possible Russian expansionism towards EU borders; negotiations with Ukraine and Moldova to join the EU; a potential lurch to the political right in the European elections; and the possible re-election of Donald Trump in the US.

And just to thrown another spicy ingredient into the mix, in June local, regional and federal elections are being held in Belgium. It is far from clear whether Belgium’s seven-party coalition government – led by De Croo – will be able to stay in power. Right-wing parties are on the rise, which could make forming a government a complicated affair. After the last election, it took almost 500 days for the current coalition to form! All in all, the next six months are definitely going to be newsworthy, to say the least.

I hope this article has helped you understand the workings of the European Union and specifically the Presidency of the Council of the EU. I know that Discovering Belgium is read by people who are very closely involved with the EU institutions, so if you find an error, please point it out to me! If anyone has questions, I’ll do my best to answer them. Thanks for reading.

8 thoughts on “What’s behind the rotating EU presidency?”

  1. Denzil, until now, the various institutions governing the European Union were a mystery to me. You’ve done an excellent job in simplifying what is a very complex system of governance. I had no idea that there were two Councils, much less the differences between them. I can appreciate the need for a six-month rotation of the presidency of the Council of the EU. I wish your Prime Minister De Croo all the best in working with Hungary’s Viktor Orban. I’m not a fan of his.

    1. I agree Rosaliene. Mr Orban is like a relic from the 1930s. Incidentally, the current President of the European Council that I mentioned – Charles Michel – has just announced his retirement in June. If a successor is not chosen by then, the position reverts to the head of the country holding the next six-month presidency of the Council of the EU … namely, Hungary!

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