View all news

What makes a good EU presidency?

1 January 2007

A structured comparison of the Italian and Irish presidencies of the EU.

While conventional theories would put Italy’s size and superior resources, in both personnel and bargaining power, as a distinct advantage, Dr Quaglia and Professor Browne's research suggests that a small nation, Ireland, performed the core functions of the presidency more effectively and legitimately than one of the largest EU nations.

Italy and Ireland successively held the Presidency of the European Union for six months each at a crucial time in its history.  Italy held the Presidency in the second half of 2003 and Ireland in the first half of 2004.  On the negotiating table was the proposed expansion from 15 nations to 25, and the European Constitution, designed to reshape the very nature and functions of the EU in order to facilitate this proposed expansion.

Dr Quaglia and Professor Browne used 3 main criteria in order to compare how the two nations fared in their respective presidencies.  Firstly, four key roles are selected in order to benchmark presidencies.  Secondly, these roles are applied to the empirical record as criteria to devise a scorecard of the two presidencies under consideration.  Thirdly, more subjective ‘intangible resources’ are taken into account, such as knowledge of EU affairs, political credibility and reputation and attitudes towards EU integration.

The four key roles used as a framework to enable comparison in the study, seen as key to a successful EU Presidency are; the business manager, organizing, coordinating and chairing all the councils, working groups, and other EU meetings including the IGC (intergovernmental conference) sessions; the mediator, furthering consensus in negotiations and brokering agreements, tabling compromises, seeking to accommodate sensitive interests of all parties involved; political leader, promoting political initiatives and specific priorities, with a view to further the process of European integration, or promoting better functioning of the Union; and internal and external representative, the liaison point between the Council and other EU institutions and the outside world.

One of the main failures of the Italian presidency in comparison to the Irish has been seen as the breakdown of the intergovernmental conference.  The final European Council on 12-13 December 2003 failed to reach agreement on a new EU voting system, with Germany and France on one side, and Spain and Poland on the other.  An overall agreement on the Constitutional Treaty was eventually achieved at the end of the six months of the Irish tenure in office. 

The Italian government was relatively inexperienced in comparison to the Irish

While there were specific factors that affected the performance of the Italians that were beyond their control; the increased complexity of having 25 delegations involved instead of 15, the establishment of a new position, the High Representative, which diminished the power and influence of the Presidency, and the nature of the six month rotating Presidency itself, which limits the amount of time available for notoriously long and drawn out EU negotiations (Italy had only three months to conclude the IGC), the way in which hurdles such as these are negotiated is seen as a good indicator of the effectiveness of a Presidency.  In other words the way in which Italy and Ireland performed their roles as business manager and mediator during the IGC substantially affected the outcome and is essential in evaluating good or bad presidencies.

Italy’s large size and relative inexperience hampered its success in the often complex and intricate world of European Union politics.  Whereas the Italian government brought their own civil servants and foreign office delegates to handle the administration of its presidency, the Irish, with their comparative lack of personnel resources, had to forge good contacts with officials in the Commission, European Parliament, and in particular the Council Secretariat.

The Italian government was relatively inexperienced in comparison to the Irish.  Their centre-right coalition was elected in 2001 so their exposure to socialisation in EU forums was quite limited, a situation made worse by their national political leaders who had previously paid little attention to EU affairs.

In comparison the Irish could rely on a range of consolidated expertise on EU affairs at the level of political authorities and civil servants, helped by the political credibility of its leadership.  The Irish Prime Minister, Bertie Ahern, enjoyed a solid reputation in EU negotiating forums, as well as good relations with Tony Blair and the British government forged through working together on various crises in Northern Ireland.

In sharp contrast the Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi was widely perceived as lacking sufficient understanding of, and expertise in, EU affairs, diplomatic skills or personal credibility to broker deals in difficult negotiations.  Moreover, several European governments held him in rather low esteem.  This situation was exasperated by the now infamous incident when, during the stormy session in which the Italian government presented its programme before the European Parliament, the Italian Prime Minister likened a German MEP to a ‘Nazi concentration camp guard’.  Brokering a deal in complex and time-consuming EU negotiations requires a considerable amount of political credibility and diplomatic skills by the president in office, something that Mr Berlusconi severely lacked.  Mr Ahern’s subtle use of quiet diplomacy was much more warmly received than Mr Berlusconi’s ‘bombastic’ style.

The success of the Irish presidency can be attributed to the good relations it enjoyed with the other Member States

In fairness Mr Berlusconi was not helped by the unstable nature of Italian politics in general, and more specifically, dissident voices from inside his own centre-right coalition.  His government was perceived as being euro-sceptic from the onset of the Presidency, which did not foster the willingness of other governments to co-operate with their objectives.  To make things worse, the President of the European Commission was Mr Romano Prodi, a staunch political opponent of Mr Berlusconi’s, who turned out to be his main competitor in the preceding Italian general election. The tension this created was both unusual and damaging to the Italian Presidency.

The Irish enjoyed much better relations with ‘the big three’ nations; Britain, Germany and France, whose approval are crucial for the success of any negotiations in the EU.   It is very telling of the lukewarm relationship between Italy and the other main EU players that, on such an important matter of defence and security policy, the Italian government, which held the EU presidency at the time, was systematically excluded from the discussions taking place between France, Germany and the UK.  In contrast the success of the Irish presidency can be attributed to the good relations it enjoyed with the other Member States.  Its small size as a nation made it difficult for it to be accused of having an aggressive agenda and this facilitated relations with the other smaller sized countries, as well as ‘the big three’.

In conclusion there were many varying factors that contributed to the relative success of the Irish and the Italian Presidencies of the European Union, many being related to broader political/economic factors beyond either government’s control.  However this study leaves us in little doubt that the Irish style of skilfully building consensus, seeking compromise and relying on extensive EU networks was more successful than the Italian’s relatively inexperienced direct and overbearing approach. 

The Constitutional Treaty currently in the process of being ratified by the individual member states contains a provision for a major reform of the Presidency, whereby the European Council will elect its President for a term of two and a half years, rather than the six months described above.

Lucia Quaglia/Department of Politics

Edit this page