Denmark to battle for European unity

30.12.11 @ 09:36

  1. By Honor Mahony
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BRUSSELS - Denmark takes over the six-month EU rotating presidency on Sunday (1 January), kicking off what is expected to be another traumatic year for the eurozone and its single currency.

  • Thorning-Schmidt has pledged to keep the EU as unified as possible (Photo: The Council of the European Union)

Like all presidency countries, Denmark has a specific to-do list, but the eurozone crisis means that its most pressing task will be political in nature: ensuring that euro and non-euro states do not drift apart.

Not being a member of the single currency means that politically it is already on the back-foot however.

Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt, one of the few centre-left politicians in the European Union, had a taste of what this means during her first EU summit in December.

When she spoke out about the importance of keeping the EU 27 together, French President Nicolas Sarkozy rejected the overture: "You're an 'out', a small out, and you're new. We don't want to hear from you," he said, according to an account in the Financial Times.

While Sarkozy's outburst came during the summit, the actual results of the summit make Thorning-Schmidt's EU cohesion task yet more difficult.

By the end of the long and fractious evening, the 17 eurozone countries said they would forge ahead with an intergovernmental pact on tightening fiscal discipline. Nine non-euro countries - including Denmark - pledged to eventually sign up to it, while the UK is not taking part at all.

The coming weeks will be dominated by efforts to nail down the details of the pact. But this presents its own set of problems for Copenhagen, which is keen to make sure its contents will not trigger a referendum.

Internal Danish politics means that this will be a difficult tightrope for Thorning-Schmidt, whose coalition government is propped up by a eurosceptic left-wing party that is against the pact and is calling for a referendum on the issue.

Like Poland - a non-euro member whose presidency finishes at the end of 2011 - Denmark is expected to spend much of its time trying to keep minds focussed on everyday policies even as the eurozone crisis continues to push member states into yet more emergency summits, meetings and decisions.

One big issue that requires member states' attention but where Copenhagen may struggle to make itself heard above the efforts to deal with the eurozone crisis will be the EU's next long-term budget (2014-2020).

EU budget talks are traditionally ill-tempered affairs. But the tough economic climate promises to make the talks more difficult than usual.

Denmark will be in charge as fresh new legislation on economic governance begins to be felt. The six new laws, massively increasing Brussels' oversight of national budgets and committing member states to a new European Semester, came into force mid December. The March summit will be the first test of the new system, with member states supposed to agree European Commission recommendations on their budget spending policies.

Another event that Denmark will have to factor into the running of its presidency is the French presidential elections in April.

Past experience shows that when large EU countries are facing elections, domestically awkward topics are pushed off the EU table while spurious topics - which may help the incumbent - find their way on to it.

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