Trio Presidency of the Council of the EU: Does it make a difference for the member states

The trio presidency of the Council of the EU was created to bring consistency to EU governance, but has it worked? Ieva Grumbinaitė interviewed diplomats and civil servants from EU member states to find out.

The rotating presidency of the Council of the EU has been in place since the foundation of the European Coal and Steel Community in 1950s. It is held by each member state in turn for six months. Initially a mostly administrative institution, the presidency gained responsibilities with the increasing number of member states and competencies of the EU. The rotating presidency manages the activity of the Council of the EU and acts as a neutral broker in meetings from working party to ministerial level. It has a limited agenda-setting capacity in collaboration with the European Commission and Council General Secretariat, and acts as a representative of the Council with the European Parliament and the European Commission. The presidency is a mechanism of leadership, equality, and fairness in the EU, affording every member state a six-month period of leadership at the Council of the EU regardless of its size or EU membership duration.

The rotating presidency has been repeatedly criticised for being unsustainable in the union of 28 member states. Having new chairs with different priorities every six months disrupts the continuity of the workflow of the Council. Furthermore, as each state only holds the presidency once per decade, it becomes a costly burden rather than a learning opportunity for the member states. These concerns were already evident in the Maastricht Treaty. As an informal solution, so-called “troika” cooperation between the current, preceding, and succeeding presidencies was encouraged to ensure smooth handover of legislative files between individual presidencies.

Changes to the institution came in 2007 with the introduction of the trio presidency. It was formalised in the Lisbon Treaty in 2009, along with the introduction of permanent chairs of the European Council and the Foreign Affairs Council to address the continuity issue. The trio presidency divides individual presidencies into fixed groups of three, ensuring diverse geopolitical interests, EU tenures, and state sizes within each trio. The three countries are required to prepare a joint 18-month common programme together with the European Commission and the Council General Secretariat. Further cooperation, be it through the organisation of joint events or delegation of working party chairs, is not formally defined.

But is the trio presidency fulfilling its promise of streamlining policymaking in the EU? Based on 77 interviews with diplomats and high-ranking civil servants from six countries (Ireland, Lithuania, Latvia, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and Slovakia) I argue that the trio formation does not live up to expectations or add value to the conduct of individual presidencies. In fact, the old mode of troika cooperation between preceding, current, and succeeding presidencies prevails.

Almost two-thirds of the experts interviewed evaluated the trio presidency negatively, identifying it as an “artificial construct” or even a “waste of time”. The main reason they cited is that cooperation between consecutive presidencies is more important to ensure a smooth policymaking process in the Council than cooperation between the first and the last members of the trio. Second, the common programme is often seen as “a convention driven by the Council General Secretariat that member states do not return to”. It often becomes merely a historical document due to unforeseen changes in the agenda before the last member of the trio assumes its presidency. Third, the diverse composition of the trios complicates cooperation or lesson-drawing from trio partners of different size or geopolitical background. New member states in particular emphasised that having experienced trio partners is appreciated but learning from other first-time presidencies outside of the trio is more beneficial. Finally, the trio presidency is seen in a rather positive light by diplomats in Brussels who are directly exposed to their counterparts and EU institutions. However, in the capitals, cooperation between trio partners is less active and often abandoned because of different administrative styles, procurement procedures, and timing of the presidency preparations.

Looking at individual trios confirms the arguments outlined above. The Ireland-Lithuania-Greece trio received the most negative evaluation from interviewees out of the three considered. It was referred to as the “presidency duo” because Greece, ridden by economic crisis, was a difficult partner, so Ireland relied on the preceding Cypriot presidency instead. The Italy-Latvia-Luxembourg trio was troubled by numerous unforeseen events such as the refugee crisis and terrorism in Europe that shifted priorities, making the common programme obsolete for the last two presidencies. Furthermore, Italy was difficult to cooperate with because of its geopolitical interests and size relative to its partners. The Netherlands-Slovakia-Malta trio was the only one of the three to receive an overall positive evaluation because of its innovative approach to the common programme: it was shortened from a detailed hundred-page document to mere 20 pages outlining general priorities, which were easier to follow and designed not to become outdated.

About one-third of the experts interviewed evaluated the concept of the trio positively, highlighting forward planning and the requirement of considering a wider set of shared priorities as the main benefits of the construct. However, this also means that rather than benefiting individual member states, the trio presidency strengthens the agenda-setting capacity of EU institutions, namely the European Commission and the Council General Secretariat, which are closely involved in the preparation of the common programme.

The interview evidence from EU member state officials shows that trio presidency does not live up to the expectation of improving cooperation between individual Council presidencies. It strengthens the agenda-setting capacity of EU institutions but adds little value to the conduct of individual presidencies from the perspective of the member states. Here, the old troika presidency, or cooperation between preceding, current, and succeeding presidencies still prevails, not least because it is more in line with the workflow and policymaking procedures of the Council than pre-defined trios.

Ieva Grumbinaitė is a Researcher in the Department of Political and Social Sciences at the European University Institute.

Photo by the Estonian Presidency of the European Union via Creative Commons license 2.0 (CC BY 2.0)

The opinions expressed in this blog contribution are entirely those of the author and do not represent the positions of the Dahrendorf Forum or its hosts Hertie School and London School of Economics or its funder Stiftung Mercator.