Academic journal article New Zealand International Review

EU Agenda: The 1998 British Presidency

Academic journal article New Zealand International Review

EU Agenda: The 1998 British Presidency

Article excerpt

Martin Holland suggests that the United Kingdom's tenure of the EU presidency offers it an opportunity to claim a central role in shaping the European Union's future.

Symbols are important. For the first time the European Union flag has been raised alongside the Union Jack at the British High Commission in Wellington, reflecting Britain's tenure of the EU presidency for the first six months of 1998. Perhaps at no other time since Edward Heath's Conservative government of 1970-74 has the United Kingdom had such a positive relationship with fellow EU member states. The British tenure provided the new Labour government of Tony Blair with an early opportunity to redefine its position within the European Union as well as influence Europe's political and economic agenda. This article examines the United Kingdom's objectives and priorities and suggests how we might distinguish between a successful and an unsuccessful presidency. To begin, the practical constraints and limitations on the office of the presidency are outlined.

The office of the EU presidency rotates among the fifteen member states every six months. The British presidency was preceded by that of Luxembourg and will be followed by Austria. To facilitate policy consistency across presidencies, the European Union developed the troika system under which the countries holding the past, current and future presidencies work collectively. The incumbent presidency country, however, does have the power broadly to determine the European agenda. The rotation sequence was set in 1996; rather than following any alphabetical order, the guiding principle is that there should be one `large' member state in every troika (see inset).

The ability to shape the EU agenda for six months does not provide the presidency with unfettered power. The presidency is responsible for seeking a consensus among the member states on EU policy. A presidency that fails to forge necessary compromises will find progress elusive. Further, while the presidency sets the policy agenda for six months and certain national priorities can be highlighted, typically the majority of issues self-select as they are a continuation of unfinished business from previous presidencies. However, each presidency during its tenure represents the collective voice of the Fifteen and consequently elevates its international profile and status. Whenever the European Union is called upon to make a decision, sign an agreement, or issue a public statement it is done through the presidency. Hence it is the United Kingdom that spoke for Europe for the first six months of 1998.

The administrative demands that the presidency places on national bureaucracies can be substantial -- particularly for some of the smaller member states. Clearly, the administrative resources available to Luxembourg cannot match those available to France or Germany. The calendar of meetings scheduled under the British presidency reflected this substantial task. First, three special government meetings were arranged: the March European Conference focusing on enlargement; a Special Council Meeting on Economic and Monetary Union (EMU) in May to decide upon the selection of countries for monetary union; and the concluding presidency Cardiff European Council meeting of 15-16 June. Second, the British presidency also arranged a series of summit level meetings with Japan, Russia, China, Canada and the United States. Third, several group-to-group dialogues were held, among them the EU-San Jose Group, the EU-Rio Group, the EU-ACP Group as well as a special meeting with the EU Commission in London at the start of the British presidency.

Formal meetings

On top of these high-level commitments, the presidency has to organise the regular formal ministerial meetings. As the accompanying table shows, this is in itself a considerable task. Eighteen separate Councils of Ministers were convened, which collectively required more than 40 meetings within 26 weeks. …

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