The last two years of the European Union was rich in changes and important discussions about how the EU should evolve in the future. The Council of the European Union as voice of the member governments and as main legislative body of the EU alongside with the Parliament, had a key role in these debates which worth to recall. The countries who shared the trio presidency between January 2019 and June 2020 were: Romania, Finland and Croatia.
The presidency of the Council lasts for 6 months and rotates among member states of the EU. However, since 6 months is not considered a long time in decision-making, a system was introduced by the Lisbon Treaty which allows member states to set long-term goals in groups of three and cooperate on a common political program.
The four priorities on agenda of the last “trio programme” with the participation of Romania, Finland, and Croatia, included a greater focus on common EU values: freedom, security and justice, a sustainable growth and forward-looking climate policies, as well as an economically strengthened EU in the global arena.
While Germany’s takeover of the presidency of the Council of the EU and the priorities of the next triple-shared-presidency between Germany, Portugal and Slovenia have been all over the news lately it is also important to look back on the last trio’s legacy.
Romania’s Presidency: A Good Kick Off for the Trio
First of all, the “triple-shared presidency” started with Romania in January 2019, whose mandate was partially defined by Brexit negotiations and European elections held in May 2019.
Nonetheless, 90 pieces of legislations were already presented in the first 100 days in various topics, from heavy vehicles emissions, through copyright reform, to the update of the EU’s General Food Law.
“Cohesion, a common European value” was the slogan for Romania’s Presidency and the idea that all member states should be treated as equals was nicely reflected on the decisions made.
Because of the timing, this presidency witnessed the beginning of a “new Union of the 27”, as it was envisaged in the Sibiu Declaration written by the leaders of the EU, after discussing the internal and external dimensions of the Union’s future following the Brexit and the next Strategic Agenda for 2019 to 2024.
Besides the agenda, Romania also progressed talks on the Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF) – the EU’s next long-term budget for 2021-2027 -. Then, most importantly, it got surprisingly close to a landmark climate deal, the European Green Deal firstly proposed by the European Commission enable Europe to become climate neutral by 2050.
Finland on Board with Some Proactive Plans
Finland embarked on these well-began projects and focused on the Green Deal, the question of the rule of law in Europe – and mainly in Poland and Hungary -, and the Negotiating Box with figures as part of the elaboration of the next MFF.
As a consequence of the transition period in EU bodies after the elections, the Finnish presidency presented fewer legislative proposals than usual, but contributed greatly to some important debates about the Union’s future.
The Ambitious Climate Deal Towards a Carbon Neutral Economy
The task of the Council of the European Union, also called Council of Ministers, in regard of the European Green Deal is to discuss legislative and other initiatives with the participation of ministers and to draft conclusions.
Finland put the topic on the agenda of almost all the Councils and devoted a great focus on green policies and on a sustainable economic model, under the slogan “Sustainable Europe, Sustainable Future”. This programme was nicely harmonised with the Commission’s proposal for the Green Deal. Finland showed its commitment also by reducing the Presidency’s carbon footprint by 70 percent in comparison by standard presidencies.
Overall, the Green Deal proposes actions to rebuild the EU economy and solve the sustainability crisis. The proposals mainly include new target numbers which will be legally binding goals for the Member States in case of admission.
However, Poland already refused to commit to implementing the climate neutral objective to 2050 and more states could retreat in these financially difficult times following the pandemic.
The Rule of Law in Hungary Under Scrutiny
Whilst Romania focused on cohesion as a common European value, bringing closer East to the West, Finland chose to emphasis on the rule of law as foundational element of European democracies.
Therefore, it proceeded with two hearings of Hungary as a part of the Article 7 process initiated by the Parliament in September 2018. Poland already assisted the hearings between June and December 2018.
The role of the Council in these cases is to determine the existence of a clear risk of a breach of EU values. In addition the Council should also strengthen the rule of law dialogue and address specific recommendations in order to prevent an actual breach.
However, the conversation between Hungary and Finland seemed to be anything but constructive. According to the Hungarian government the question of the rule of law became a political weapon, a “witch-hunt” against Hungary who said no to migration.
The Finnish Presidency published a conclusion about the evaluation of the annual rule of law dialogue, which would use in the future the European Commission’s planned annual rule of law reports. But again, the resolution only passed as a notice since Poland and Hungary vetoed it.
The EU’s Long-Term Budget: MFF 2021-2027
Finland, however, did not let go of the rule of law question but presented the Multiannual Financial Framework’s negotiating document, the Negotiating Box, proposing a “regulation on the protection on the EU’s Budget in case of generalised deficiencies as regard the rule of law in the Member States” in line with the Commission’s 2018 proposal.
Other than that, the Negotiating Box with figures presented a total 1 087 billion euros for the period 2021-2027, representing 1.07% of EU GNI which was less than the Commission’s proposal (1.11%) but more than the net payers wanted (1%).
In the first round in February 2020, the European Council was unable to reconcile these different concerns then during the negotiating period, the EU was hit by an economic and social fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic.
This lead in May 2020 to the Commission’s proposal for a revised long-term EU budget of ~1 100 billion euros completed with an emergency recovery instrument, the Next Generation EU of 750 billion euros in grants and favourable loans.
After extensive consultations with the Heads of State between July 19 and 21, 2020, the European Council agreed on the recovery package, meaning that EUR 390 billion will be distributed in the form of grants to member states and EUR 360 billion in loans.
Regarding the rule of law question the meeting was communicated as a success by Hungary and Poland – who are sharply against any connection between finances and the rule of law situation -, since there were no decisions on concrete measures yet.
However the truth is that the adopted document mentions the underlined importance of the EU’s financial interest and the respect of the rule of law.
In addition, there is a line saying that “the Commission will propose measures in case of breaches for adoption by the Council by qualified majority”. This means that the Commission will elaborate mechanisms and sanctions in the question and the final decision will be made by the qualified majority of the Council, so the two above-mentioned countries won’t be able to veto it anymore.
The Last Member of the Trio and the COVID-19 Pandemic
Croatia took over the rotating presidency of the Council of the EU on January 1, 2020 with the motto “A strong Europe in a world of challenges” and indeed it had to face the challenge of the COVID-19 pandemic turning the programme into crisis management, personal meetings into virtual ones.
Despite all the difficulties, one very important achievement should be highlighted which was not issued by the Finnish Presidency: the opening of accession talks with Albania and North Macedonia.
On one hand, it was known that the rule of law question was unlikely to continue in Croatia. On the other hand, many debates were also delayed involuntarily. Further improvements of Green Deal initiatives and the facilitation of MFF discussions would have been important for the continuation of the trio programme.
Overall, despite the difficulties and obstacles due to major events like the Brexit, the transition period after the EU elections, or the global pandemic, the trio held a quite remarkable Presidency of the Council of the EU.
Yet, most of the above mentioned topics are still under discussion and will be further developed by the next triple-shared-presidency.
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