Greece at the Helm of the EU

Greece at the Helm of the EU

Dimitrios Triantaphyllou
Much is being written in Greece and elsewhere these days, as the country took over the rotating 6 month Presidency of the European Union on Jan. 1, 2014 for the 5th time in its history. The governing coalition in Athens is putting on a brave face and keeps stating the relevance of the Presidency as crisis-ridden Greece is attempting to project itself at the European level and internationally as a power broker rather than the defensive actor it has been. At the same time, Greece’s international detractors are skeptical about its potential, going as far as calling it a “black sheep” presidency.

For all the bravado, much is at stake, including the uncertainty regarding the country’s political fortunes, another round of doubts regarding its ability to remain in the Eurozone, and a general pessimism that the worst is yet to come. Undoubtedly, the rotating Presidency does not hold the same aura as it did before the Treaty of Lisbon came into being in late 2009, as much of the work falls upon the permanent European Council President, Herman van Rompuy. Likewise, the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Catherine Ashton, will continue to be the EU’s foreign policy face rather than the Greek foreign minister. Finally, the agenda setting capability of the Presidency is limited by the 18 month trio presidency program, which Greece, together with the preceding presidencies of Ireland and Lithuania in 2013, devised some time ago.

Nevertheless, although the Presidency has become a sort of a service provider to the European Council, its political significance should not be discounted. For Greece proper, it comes at a time where much of the political and economic convergence the country had achieved with the EU since its last Presidency in the first half of 2003, has turned to divergence today as the result of the economic crisis and the prolonged recession. Like in 2003, much is at stake this time as well. While the 2003 Presidency was marked by the division bells of the invasion of Iraq, which pitted EU member states against each other and almost tore the Union apart, especially its foreign policy; this Presidency coincides with European Parliament elections expected to be held in May. The prolonged EU wide crisis has led to the advent of populism, threatening to make its mark on the European Parliament elections with far right and radical left parties expected to gain as many as 200 seats in contrast to the 140 they hold today. This is especially relevant as a bellwether of the sort of Union that its over-500-million citizens aspire to.

In this sense, the shifting political dynamics of the country holding the Presidency, which includes the emergence of, a wishy-washy when it comes to the EU and the Euro, radical left opposition and populist and extreme nationalist parties on the right of the political spectrum do not augur well. On the one hand, they reflect the general tendencies of Europe’s politics; on the other, the fact that many countries in the rest of Europe evidence a rise in populism impacts on the inability of the Greek political scene to stabilize and fully ensconce itself on the convergence track. In fact, the latest Eurobarometer poll of December 2013 found the Greeks at 69% to be the most pessimistic nation by far when it comes to the EU.

Herein lie the stakes for the Greek Presidency. Will it be an example of further muddling along or can it project a few positive outcomes that will bring the EU closer to its citizens. In 2003, in spite of the divisive invasion of Iraq, the Presidency is remembered, among other things, by the Thessaloniki agenda, which gave the countries of the Western Balkans a European perspective. What will this Presidency bring? Is further progress on EU-Turkey relations or a breakthrough on Cyprus on the cards? Can the Presidency be inspired by the thousands calling for more Europe in the streets of Ukraine and, in turn, inspire a debate on Europe within the EU as well? In the convoluted world of the European Union it takes more than two to tango and the Presidency is only one of many partners.
The question that needs to be asked is whether any Presidency could achieve much in these troubled times. The answer is obviously a qualified no. Yet, the Greeks and the rest of Europe need a pleasant surprise and this Presidency has at least that going for it.