Cyprus presidency to-do list shrinks
By Honor Mahony
Cypriots officials have more than doubled in number in the EU capital, are working Sundays, sleeping little and whittling down their to-do list to euro crisis essentials as the country prepares to take over the day-to-day running of the EU.
Displaying the traditional enthusiasm of member states that for the first time contemplate the EU presidency - an increasingly thankless task - Cyprus' EU ambassador Kornelios Korneliou said the island is "ambitious" about what it can achieve.
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The job mainly involves trying to push through EU legislation. For controversial dossiers, this can mean many hours spent cajoling member states and MEPs towards a compromise on highly technical but important parts of laws.
"We feel there is a government of Cyprus based in Brussels," said Korneliou, with the imminent presidency having swelled the personnel ranks from around 80 to over 200.
"The final countdown to 1 July has started. Preparations are underway. It started two weeks ago that we work on Sundays and don't sleep more than four hours a day."
But for all the goodwill in Nicosia, the island nation comes with more political baggage than most. This was reflected during his presidency presentation at the European Policy Centre, a Brussels think-tank.
Korneliou had to field a series of questions on Cyprus' own domestic issues rather than on its presidency programme.
The audience wanted to know about Cyprus' relations with Turkey - which has threatened to freeze EU ties during the presidency; whether it would make any overtures to the northern Turkish-Cypriot part of the island, recognised only by Ankara; about Nicosia's alleged fondness for hiding tax evaders; its warm relations with Russia; its recent gas find in the Mediterranean and its own economic problems.
This last may see it have to follow in path of Greece, Ireland and Portugal in requesting aid from the EU and international monetary fund.
Cypriot lenders are heavily exposed to Greece. But the government's credit rating has been downgraded to junk. Meanwhile it has just weeks to find €1.8 billion to save the country's second largest bank.
"We need to see whether we would be able to recapitalise our banks. If not, then a bail-out would be a possibility," said Korneliou.
On Russia - which last year lent the island €2.5 billion - the ambassador displayed none of the traditional moral handwringing or equivocacy among member states when it comes to relations with Moscow.
"We maintain excellent relations with Russia. We want to maintain this relation because the history of Cyprus with Russia is a different one. We never suffered in the past with Russia," he said.
As for the actual presidency programme; getting member states to agree on the next 7-year EU budget (2014-2021) is Nicosia's headline task.
"This is going to be our baby," said the ambassador.
Experienced Denmark, current holder of the EU presidency, has made little headway on the issue, with the economic crisis exacerbating the fractious talks still further.
The rest, indicated the ambassador, will be everyday trouble-shooting as the eurozone crisis continues to gather pace. "The closer we get to the presidency, the [to-do] list becomes shorter and shorter."