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Stepping up to the task: a look back at Cyprus’ EU presidency
IT’S DONE. The Cyprus EU presidency ended on the last day of 2012 without any major mishaps, collateral damage, or blowback expected.
On the contrary, the Cyprus government and its Europeanised mandarins passed the reins over to Ireland with their heads held high amid praise from the centres of EU power, confirming Cyprus’ coming of age as an EU member state.
Swedish Member of the European Parliament Cecilia Wikstrom said before the Committee on Legal Affairs last month: “We will feel the effects of the Cyprus presidency for the decades to come. (The) Presidency did a groundbreaking work.”
Rewind back to 2011 and expectations were pretty low when Cyprus began preparations for its first EU presidency.
One EU diplomat- in discussions with the Sunday Mail- scoffed at the idea of the Cypriot civil service taking their performance up a gear to meet the 24-hour demands of the EU presidency.
Another said the best one could hope for would be no major mess ups or international incidents during the six months in charge.
Many worried Cyprus would use the opportunity to stand on a soap box and castigate EU candidate country Turkey for the continued occupation of the island’s northern third.
Turkish President Abdullah Gul had this to say: “Southern Cyprus is a half state, which represents only half of its population. Now this half-country will become the rotating EU president. What a coincidence: a half-country will become the president of a pitiful Union.”
When former cabinet secretary Andreas Moleskis was given charge of the Cyprus EU Secretariat he decided to create independent, parallel structures from the civil service to handle the workload of running the EU presidency.
According to one source, this created a sense of ‘not my problem’ within the ministries as everyone thought the presidency was someone else’s job, muddying the waters about who was supposed to do what.
When Moleskis resigned over dubious hiring practices, the position was empty for three months. In October 2011, just eight months before the EU presidency, diplomat Andreas Mavroyiannis was appointed Deputy Minister for European Affairs.
In his first meeting with the permanent secretaries of the ministries at the presidential palace, he told them to forget everything they thought they knew about the presidency. He effectively told them: you will be doing the job of the presidency, not me.
It was a heavy burden that fell on them that day, but once the clouds dispersed, each ministry saw a clearer picture of what it was they had to do. There was no longer any place to hide. If you were part of the civil service, one way or another, you were going to be a part of the EU presidency.
According to Mavroyiannis, the state machinery truly stepped up its game during the presidency, after losing its way a little post-Mari. Eight years after joining the bloc, the notion that you could farm out or separate EU affairs from day-to-day governance was finally being challenged.
In his first press conference in October 2011, the deputy minister explained that the EU works on the basis of the old Athenian democracy, which was fully participatory. If you don’t participate properly, things will happen, and be imposed on you.
“If you want to secure your interests, you have to participate as early as possible in the decision-making process, because 75-80 per cent of issues are closed at working group levels... You need to be there, have an opinion and understanding if you want to shape decisions,” he said.
Another government official involved in the running of the presidency said: “It’s about maturity. When we entered the EU, we first came under criticism for having an ‘empty seat’ policy- for not turning up- then we were accused of being an ‘empty suit’, ie, you’re there but not contributing. Now, we have to become fully-fledged participants.”
Apart from low expectations, the government also faced the threat of Turkey cutting all ties with the EU presidency, and the Turkish Cypriots pulling out of the peace talks. Compounding the challenges, less than a month before the Cyprus presidency, President Demetris Christofias requested an international bailout, leading one German economic adviser to compare Cyprus taking over the EU Council with putting “the dog in charge of the sausage supply”.
Another matter to contend with- both existentially and practically- was the three-year implementation of the Lisbon Treaty, which reformed and modernised the rules on how the EU’s 27 members work together.
The new treaty, designed to overcome the failure of the European public to endorse an ‘EU Constitution’, had created a cacophony of distinct voices representing the five main institutions of the EU, each desperate to consolidate their powers under the new setup.
A mingling of discordant sounds made up the EU, coming from the Presidents of the European Council; European Commission and European Parliament, as well as the Presidency of the EU Council and the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy.
With this backdrop, ready or not, Cyprus took charge on July 1, 2012.
The first crisis Cyprus had to deal with was an inter-institutional one. The European Parliament (EP) had cut off all ties with the Danish presidency over a disagreement on Schengen border controls. Within a month, Cyprus replaced Denmark and the EP was still not in the mood for talking.
The Cyprus presidency spent the next two and a half months finding ways to get the EP to relaunch dialogue with the EU Council. They succeeded the Brussels way, finding the right compromise that gave all sides something to take home as a victory.
However, the mini-crisis pushed back efforts to close a deal on a Common European Asylum System (CEAS), leaving Cyprus with little time to get agreement on all five dossiers related to CEAS.
According to Mavroyiannis, the chapter is all but closed, and with one more week, Cyprus could have done the deal before its six months were up.
A second major challenge was the creation of an EU patent. Negotiations had been ongoing for 30 years and were near completion last June until a dispute between the UK, Germany and France over where the court settling patent disputes should be based.
In a nutshell, the Council changed the provisions of an agreement with the EP, creating another massive institutional crisis and a hostile face-off between the Council and the Parliament.
According to sources, it took five months of intense mediation with all interested parties until the Cyprus presidency could announce a deal on the 30-year-old negotiations.
Limited space does not permit a further analysis of the work of the presidency but it is worth noting that few would hold it against Cyprus for not securing agreement on the EU’s seven-year budget (2014-2020), given the massive discrepancies between the positions of the net contributors to the EU and the European Commission and Parliament.
However, it did get the EP to sign off on the budget amendments for 2012 as well as the 2013 annual budget. Some commentators had expected the EP to hold the 2013 budget ransom to secure concessions from the Council on the EU’s multi-annual financial framework.
One source told the Sunday Mail: “Human relations played a 99 per cent role in the Cyprus presidency, which focused on getting the people behind the institutions to talk amongst themselves at every opportunity to achieve specific results. And we made this a practice in inter-institutional relations. This is the effect of the Cyprus presidency that will have an impact for decades.”
Another source said the Cyprus presidency succeeded in making the EU system, which is more complex today than ever before, to function and enhance communication, creating a greater link between the people and the institutions.
Cyprus also successfully kept a buffer between the presidency and issues related to Turkey, the Cyprus problem and negotiations with the troika for an international bailout.
Perhaps most interesting for Cypriot taxpayers, from the €61.7m approved for the presidency budget (of which €28m was spent on the Filoxenia Conference Centre), the organisers spent only €28m, leaving a €5m surplus.
So, what plans for the legacy of the Cyprus presidency?
Those behind the presidency want to see the structures and mechanisms set up to continue to be used as a kind of cabinet office coming under the presidential palace, ensuring the smooth flow of information and consistency of policies on EU matters throughout government departments.
According to Mavroyiannis, the experience of the last six months should permeate throughout the whole state machinery. Also, it’s time for new faces to take over, he said, with the presidency having proven that Cypriot civil servants can step up to the task when challenged, regardless of rank.
As another presidency official put it: “The authority of expertise and not the position of the person came out the winner.”
The experience of the last six months have shown that meritocracy, higher productivity, greater efficiency and a willingness to take on responsibility are all possible in Cyprus. It helps of course when those running the show lead by example.
THE CYPRUS EU PRESIDENCY IN NUMBERS
By Stefanos Evripidou
NOW THAT the Irish have safely taken the baton and the 184 days of Cyprus’ first EU Presidency are officially over, the Sunday Mail took a retrospective look at the numbers involved in this huge endeavour.
Within the six-month period, over 1,500 meetings were chaired and organised by the Cyprus EU Presidency in Brussels and elsewhere abroad, including approximately 30 European Council meetings, 63 at ambassador level and over 1,400 at technocratic level.
Putting emphasis on the development of close relations and productive cooperation with the European Parliament (EP), Cypriot Ministers visited the EP no less than 60 times in the past six months, attending the plenary sessions, presenting issues before the competent Committees, and participating in informal political meetings with the European Commission, Council and Parliament.
Meanwhile, back in Cyprus, with its famed 160 days of sunshine, 225 meetings and conferences were hosted, 15 of which were informal Ministerial Councils. Many of the meetings took place in the coastal areas of Limassol, Larnaca, Paphos and Famagusta, while the majority were located at the ‘Filoxenia’ Conference Centre, in Nicosia which turned into a multilingual microcosmos hosting all EU languages for interpretation, as well as Greek and English sign language.
While discussing and negotiating important EU issues, approximately 19,000 delegates spent about 26,300 nights in total in hotels all around Cyprus.
The Cyprus Presidency also gave the floor to various institutions and foundations to organise more than 140 meetings and conferences under its auspices, not only in Cyprus, but all over the world, in an effort to engage the private sector more closely with the Presidency.
Apart from the highs and lows of political battles, machinations and eventual compromises, the Presidency offered thousands of people the opportunity to enjoy and become acquainted with Cypriot culture and civilisation through over 350 cultural events organised in Cyprus and around the globe.
In total, around 1,800 people, including 140 volunteers, were involved in the Cyprus EU Presidency, covering the entire range of policy issues, logistical operations and communications.
Running a smooth and successful operation required the key ingredients of cooperation and coordination, for which the Presidency offered 310 training sessions.
The Presidency’s official website, cy2012.eu, was the gateway to all relevant information, reaching out to the European public in five languages. The hard-working folk behind the website ensured 400 press releases and features were posted, along with 4,760 photos and 170 videos. The website welcomed an average of 87,000 visits per month, while keeping up-to-date around 3,200 newsletter and news alert subscribers.
Showing a more modern face of the Cyprus Republic, the Presidency’s three twitter accounts– one central and two Presidency spokespersons in Brussels – made in total about 2,520 tweets. At least 3,346 twitter users followed the central Presidency account, while 2,235 followed the ones of the Brussels spokespersons.
In an effort to raise from the ashes Cyprus’ once famous hospitality, the Presidency offered 14,200 ties and 8,200 scarves to delegates participating in the various meetings. And in a sign of careful and comprehensive planning, the 1,750 media representatives who attended meetings in Cyprus received a total of 605 adaptors to plug in their hardware to Cypriot sockets.
While the debate over registering Halloumi cheese as a product with protected designation of origin still rages, the unique flavour and texture of the Cypriot cheese will hopefully remain in the memories of the thousands who enjoyed some of the 650 kilos offered during meetings at the Filoxenia Conference Centre.
A total of 21,000 pockets of basil seeds and leaves provided delegates with the opportunity to take a hint of Cyprus aroma home with them, while the 70,000 limited edition postage stamps have set off on travels to the four corners of the world, spreading the word on the Cyprus Presidency.