Greek Presidency of the European Council: a change in the course of the EU?

By Isabel Winnwa | 15 February 2014

To quote this document: Isabel Winnwa, “Greek Presidency of the European Council: a change in the course of the EU?”, Nouvelle Europe [en ligne], Saturday 15 February 2014, http://www.nouvelle-europe.eu/node/1793, displayed on 13 December 2018

Greece takes over the presidency of the Council of the European Union at a particularly trying time - for Greece and the whole Union. Before the European Parliament, Prime Minister Samaras underlined that Greece has suffered more than any other country before in the EU. Despite, Greece tries on its commitment to implement structural reforms. In the context of tense EU-Greek relations, are we to expect a radical reorientation of EU policy from the Greek presidency?

The main priorities set by the Greek government seem to fit well with the overall European agenda

Emphasizing the importance of solidarity among member states and European citizens, Greece pushes for more democracy, accountability and transparency in the EU, as well as the evolution of a European social community of shared values. On this basis, Greece is determined to move forward to economic recovery and a deepening of economic integration in the EU. This has to happen by structural reforms of the Economic and Monetary Union (EMU), it will be necessary to eliminate inherent deficiencies of the Eurozone area and the lack of cohesion in the Eurozone economies while preserving the Euro. As for new economic governance mechanisms, Greece wants to push forward the European banking union and encourage European investment opportunities as well as partnerships between European firms to create jobs, combat unemployment and even out competitiveness gaps between member states.

Giving a social dimension to the EMU and achieving equilibrium between solidity and solidarity between member states prove the ambition of the Greek government. However, this still has to be supported by other member states as well as the Greek population. And the tidings are not particularly good. Immediately after the announcement of the priorities, the Greek far-left party SYRIZA has criticized the Greek government for its economic objectives. According to them, Greece is not taking its chance to profit from the Greek presidency to question the EU’s strategy on fiscal adjustment and austerity measures. On the European level, the project of a banking union is highly controversial. The adoption of the Single Resolution Mechanism, a tool to supervise banks and effectively manage failure, has not at all been agreed upon, as the leader of the social democrats (S&D), the Austrian Hannes Swoboda, has pointed out at the launch of the Greek presidency in the European Parliament.

The Hellenic Presidency distinguishes itself by two priorities, which are of particular importance to Greece

Firstly, Greece encourages European cooperation in migration policy, especially external border control and security of free movement within the EU. The two main goals will be a common solution for preventing illegal migration, human trafficking and cross-border criminality, as well as a closer cooperation and solidarity between member states and third countries in terms of asylum and refugee applications. This last point will certainly prove to be quite a challenge, as member states continue to disagree on the handling of refugee inflows, currently illustrated by the Syrian refugee crisis. While being aware of the problems external border countries, such as Greece and Bulgaria, face in terms of huge migration inflows and inapt migration management infrastructure, other member states, such as Germany, are not inclined to agree to more burden-sharing. A potential dead-end…

Secondly, Greece insists on re-launching European maritime policy, because it is a particular issue-area for Greece and other sea-border countries such as Cyprus, but also the UK, Italy, Spain. By focusing on maritime security as well as maritime growth and energy policy, Greece aims at developing different strategies for maritime spatial planning, transport, energy exploitation, coast security tourism and sea migration.  

These priorities, however significant, seem to leave out certain issues, which can be of considerable importance to the European agenda in the upcoming year:

Data protection is very briefly mentioned in the Greek program, a hint to regulation of data transfer to the EU, but especially third countries, before passing to migration policy.

Despite the saliency of the issue after the revelation of the NSA spy affair in several European states, like Germany and France, this seems to receive very little attention. It appears from the Greek program that the Council prefers to leave this matter to the European Parliament.

The informal abandon of neighbourhood policy as a priority might appear less salient to non-external border countries, but it is nevertheless important. In fact, despite considering the issue for its program in 2013, Greece decided not to include enlargement and the EU-Western Balkans into its priorities. According to press sources, Greece had originally intended to use the presidency to contribute to the EU’s neighbourhood policy, especially the states of the Western Balkans aspiring accession to the EU, like Serbia and Kosovo.

However, the question of FYROM (“Former Yugoslavic Republic of Macedonia”), or “Republic of Macedonia”, is still unresolved for Greece, the best example being this on-going debate about the correct name of FYROM/”Republic of Macedonia”. Equally unclear is its international status as well as a possible accession to the EU. A possible explanation for discarding this topic might be political prudence on behalf of Greece, which has no reason to push for enlargement at a moment when the EU’s economic and political situation is by no means consolidated enough to cope with more members.

A far more pressing matter, which does not seem to be an immediate concern of the Council of the EU, but could massively impact EU decision-making in the near future are the upcoming European Parliament elections. The Council is mistaken to disregard the rise of populism and extremism and the increasing influence of Euroscepticism in several member states, as these tendencies might soon be even more present at the European stage.

To get this last point across: as the Greek Prime Minister Samaras defended the Greek presidency before the European Parliament, he was scathed by Nigel Farage, leader of the British Eurosceptic UKIP, who affirmed that the priorities set by the Greek government reflect Greece’s powerlessness in front of the European troika, making a free and democratic leadership impossible. Farage pointed out the rising populism in Europe as a result of the citizen’s dissatisfaction with Europe’s undemocratic and bureaucratized governance. Well, one might disagree with Farage, but it is true that none of the recent statements of Europe’s leaders give reason to believe that they found a strategy to combat populist tendencies. And eventually answer to EU’s desperate and disappointed citizens, like the Spanish, the Portuguese… and last but not least the Greek.

So, can we expect radical changes in the EU agenda from the Greek presidency?

At this stage, it is difficult to judge. There certainly seems to be an earnest desire on behalf of the Greek to push the EU to the right direction, which would be solidarity and prosperity. If the Greek will succeed in altering the EU’s course however remains uncertain. Achieving agreements on topics of high national salience, like employment, growth and migration policy will prove to be a tough challenge in a Club of 28 where no one wants to lose. 

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Source photo : © European Union 2014 - European Parliament. Debate on priorities of the incoming Greek Presidency of the Council with Prime Minister Antonis Samaras and Commission President Manuel Barroso on Flickr

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