On 1 January Malta, the smallest member of the European Union, took on the giant task of the presidency of the EU Council.
It is an onerous responsibility in times when the Union’s purpose is noisily questioned by populists, when the United Kingdom is preparing for departure, and when migrants in numbers not seen since the Second World War are arriving at Europe’s external borders.
It is also an onerous responsibility given that the Council presidency is seen by many as archaic, and that small states that lack resources have sometimes managed the presidency ineptly.
From the start, Malta’s presidency has been mired in controversy. The opposition used the opening ceremony to bring attention to the alleged involvement of a minister in the Panama Papers scandal and to their dislike of government’s investor programme schemes.
Malta’s programme for the presidency – which focuses on maritime affairs, migration and the Mediterranean – came under the microscope of pressure groups, who are critical of replicating the current EU-Turkey deal. The Maltese Prime Minister’s statement that Brexit must result in an inferior status for the UK brought ire from Brexiteers.
But much of this discourse is at best window dressing, at worst a distraction. The EU Council presidency is not about the sound and fury of the glamorous international stage. It is not about grand gestures and high politics.
Since the Lisbon Treaty, with its introduction of the role of the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and its upgrade of the European Council, security, defence and foreign policy are generally excluded from the remit of the EU Council.
“The EU Council presidency is neither about the sound and fury of the glamorous international stage nor about grand gestures and high politics”
Nowadays the Council deals primarily with domestic policy – more prosaic, but still important. In the 19th century it was not the drum roll of revolution but the introduction of labour and social laws and rights that slowly empowered and transformed the life of the masses. Today the EU, which has long excelled as a world-leading regulatory regime, attempts to improve the lot of its citizens and serve as a model of good governance globally, one law at a time. The presidency remains at the heart of the Union and characterises what is best about it: a relationship among equals.
Holding the presidency is a demanding task which requires additional resources, foresight, effective coordination and lengthy preparation. The presidency takes place in three stages.
In the first stage the state has to ensure that its institutions and infrastructure are up to the task.
Malta, which joined the EU in 2004, has been preparing for the presidency for the last four years. In 2013, within days of the formation of a new government, an EU affairs ministry and a planning and priorities coordination division were set up.
The civil service took on more experts in EU policy − over a hundred were allocated to Brussels alone. Additional staff were posted to offices in Vienna, the Hague, New York, Rome and London. A new operating system was introduced and policy planning, education, training, communication and logistical support fine-tuned. Malta prepared its own presidency handbook determining protocols, priorities and practices.
In the second stage, which began a year before the presidency, the state has to fine-tune its relations with the EU institutions and work with its partners in the ‘trio’ of presidencies to maximise the potential for positive results.
“What we Maltese want is for people to remember how we facilitated compromise so that solutions can be found”
Malta conducted hundreds of meetings to a rapport with the Council secretariat and with the Commission. The European Parliament was consulted widely on issues relating to the presidency. Malta worked with the Netherlands and Slovakia to formulate a common programme that focused on jobs, growth, competitiveness and environment. The trio shared working practices: Malta assisting Slovakia on fisheries; Slovakia assisting Malta on forestry policy. Malta prepared provisional agendas for every Council meeting, chairs for every committee were appointed and then trained, and position papers on different policy areas drawn up. Local meetings were held with civil society and projects developed to further the European agenda.
The final stage kicked off on New Year’s Day. Over the next six months many meetings and conferences will take place, tackling contentious issues such as migration. However, the detailed work will take place in the Council formations, where Malta will chair debates, steer discussions and build compromises on about 150 pieces of legislation.
This work includes laws relating to the digital single market – ending roaming fees, ensuring portable online content, removing geo-blocking and facilitating parcel delivery. Malta will lead discussions on updating crucial legislation on the posting of workers within the Union and on social security, including long-term care. Laws on competitiveness and copyright will be revised. New anti- discrimination legislation will be discussed, including introducing quotas for women on company boards and bolstering laws to protect women’s rights.
As Neil Kerr, Malta’s Deputy Permanent Representative to the EU, explained, what we Maltese want is for people to remember our presidency for sweating the small stuff; to remember how the government conducted its business, including everyone and not keeping anyone out in the cold; and to remember how we facilitated compromise so that solutions can be found.
Malta’s aim for its six months at the heart of Europe is to act in the interests of its citizens, make a better life for them, and bring a greater appreciation of the EU to its people. Through small acts by a small country, we can achieve these bigger goals for the whole of Europe.
IMAGE CREDIT: CC/Flickr – European Council President