13th Jun 2021


'Supporting presidency' - Poland at the halfway mark

Foreign-policy activities were among the most important and prestigious prerogatives of the rotating EU presidencies in the pre-Lisbon-Treaty era. The treaty ceded them mainly to the high representative and the European External Action Service (EEAS) and led to the marginalisation of the presidency in EU foreign policy.

After Lisbon, some believed the presidency would strive to shape a new code of conduct. Others bet that ambitions of the country at the EU helm would lead to interinstitutional rivalry.

'Supporting presidency' - the win-win model

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The experience of the first trio of presidencies - Spain, Belgium and Hungary - has so far proved that neither the presidency nor the high representative is really interested in a tug-of-war on foreign relations. On the contrary, they perceive co-operation to be mutually beneficial.

The high representative, who admitted on several occasions that her broad mandate does not allow her to be personally involved in all the aspects of common foreign and security policy, gets a helping hand. By complementing the activities of EEAS chief Catherine Ashton, the presidency remains on the international stage.

This win-win model perfectly fits the new legal order and can be described as a 'supporting presidency.' In a narrow sense, it is based on substituting Ashton and co-operating with her and the EEAS in the organisation of informal meetings of EU foreign affairs (the Gymnich formula) and defence ministers.

Acting on behalf and at the request of the high representative, the presidencies have, so far, conducted political dialogues with third countries, represented the EU in international organisations and spoken to the European Parliament.

In a broader sense, the concept also covers the presidency's involvement in the remaining aspects of the EU's external activities which are horizontally co-ordinated by the high representative. The presidency, in co-operation with the European Commission, copes with the granting of humanitarian aid, crisis management and development issues.

Last but not least, EU foreign policy cannot function in isolation from the EU's domestic agenda. By focusing on internal policies with external dimensions (e.g. border management, asylum and migration or agriculture), the presidency cares about the coherence of the actions undertaken by the EU.

Rome was Not Built in a Day

While the co-operation between the first post-Lisbon presidencies and Ashton was rather spontaneous and based on a trial-and-error method, the current Polish-Danish-Cypriot trio look better prepared.

However, the initial phase of drafting a trio programme faced problems. While the Council's rules of procedure envisages that the high representative should co-operate with the trio on the Foreign Affairs Council agenda, it was noted that Ashton "has not communicated contributions with regard to this council formation."

This initial discord has not however, affected the 'supporting presidency' concept.

Ashton can’t be everywhere

Even before Poland officially took over the helm of the EU Council, Polish foreign minister Radoslaw Sikorski chaired, on behalf of Ashton, the EU-Kazakhstan Co-operation Council.

During the last three months, Poland represented EU business in Pakistan and Afghanistan and during the EU-Albania Co-operation Council. The practice of substitution also put down roots in the European Parliament, which demands a regular dialogue about foreign policy matters at the appropriate political level.

At the last plenary meeting, Polish secretary of state tate Mikolaj Dowgielewicz, acting on behalf of Ashton, informed EU deputies about the situation in Libya, Syria and the Middle East.

The country at the EU helm is traditionally attached to holding informal meetings under the Gymnich formula, especially now that in the post-Lisbon era they are one of the few opportunities for the presidency to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the high representative. Poland proved determined to convene a Gymnich despite sensitivities related to the Palestinian issue.

In the end, the agenda of the meeting co-hosted by Sikorski and Ashton was balanced and addressed priorities crucial for both parties.

The presidency left its footprint in broader EU external activities while working together with the European Commission on humanitarian aid and development issues. Poland organised and chaired, on behalf of Ashton, an informal meeting of ministers of development. The presidency and the European Commission also joined forces to assess the state of the famine in the Horn of Africa.

Last, the presidency's voice on the future of Schengen and the Common European Asylum System may constitute valuable input into policies that, in order to be fully effective, need to be projected externally.

Polish specialities

Poland does not limit itself to supporting the high representative in only a literal sense.

It is also striving to make a substantive contribution to the development of EU foreign policy. The Sopot meetings initiative, which provide a regular dialogue for EU foreign ministers in the "plus-one" formula with an EU strategic partner, could be Poland's input to a new model of co-operation.

Likewise, the idea of establishing a European Endowment for Democracy for the EU's close neighbourhood is an expression of Polish interest in building stable EU surroundings, and as such, gathered the support of the high representative and the European Commission.

The model of a 'supporting presidency' is still in the making. While the early post-Lisbon trios contributed to the further development of the concept, one swallow does not yet make a summer. The further flourishing of co-operation will depend much on the ambitions of both the coming presidencies and the high representative as well as on their mutual readiness to share external policy duties.

The writers are analysts at the Polish Institute of International Affairs, a think-tank based in Warsaw


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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