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EU: Cyprus takes the helm
CYPRUS TAKES charge of the rotating presidency of the EU Council today, the third and last in line of the Trio Presidency after Poland and Denmark.
Eight years and two months to the day after Cyprus' historic accession to the European Union, this tiny island state gets to sit at the head of the highly complex European decision-making machinery.
Poland, with a population of close to 40 million, used its first time at the helm to run a 'big' presidency, matching its ambitions in Europe as a medium-sized state. Denmark, with a much smaller population of five and a half million, is no less important or influential. With nearly four decades of experience as an EU member, the Scandinavian state hands over the baton to Cyprus after completing its seventh EU presidency.
Clearly, Cyprus will have its work cut out to handle the ongoing economic and eurozone crisis while monitoring alongside the EU's foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton the unpredictable situation brought on by the winds of change in the Arab world.
Its inexperienced institutions and civil service will be put to the test on a daily basis, tasked with managing the same challenges that each and every member state, large or small, faces when running the presidency, along with the unforeseeable ones.
This time last year, the secretariat, charged with steering Cyprus safely through the six-month presidency, was leaderless for three months following the resignation of its then head Andreas Moleskis.
When his replacement was finally appointed, Deputy Minister for European Affairs Andreas Mavroyiannis showed he was fully cognizant of the enormity of the mission.
“Cyprus will face one of its biggest challenges as an EU member state, but also as a state,” he told the Sunday Mail.
He likened the presidency to a “maturity test” for the country which has suffered a turbulent existence since gaining independence in 1960. This was the chance to build a picture of Cyprus as a credible, equal and responsible EU partner, he said.
It's also a chance for public servants to really get a grip with what's going on in Europe, which as we all discover bit by bit, day by day, has a massive impact on our daily lives.
The hope is that the knowledge and experience gained will trickle down to the rest of society, making the public more concerned and engaged with the goings on and decision-making processes of this union of 27 states and five hundred million people.
And true enough, for those observing preparations for the presidency, the public service has undergone a facelift in recent months, along with the capital's roads and pavements.
There is more information on the Cyprus EU presidency's official website on who is responsible for what and in which department than you could ever find on any Cyprus government website.
What would have taken hours and days of phone calls, being bandied about from one helpless operator to another, now takes minutes on the presidency website where one can find the name, contact number and even welcoming photograph of the Cypriot official responsible for any subject matter that comes under EU competences. And for the record, that's quite a lot of subjects.
One of Cyprus' greatest challenges is dealing with the distance between Nicosia and Brussels. The government's response has been to make the presidency a Brussels-based one, with the permanent representation considered the frontline, boosted by new staff and public officials seconded to the EU capital. It has also been given a lot more autonomy than usual to make quick and important decisions.
Cyprus has a hugely demanding organisational role to play as well as that of an honest broker while showing political leadership by acting in the general European interest.
Cypriot officials will have to chair hundreds upon hundreds of meetings at various levels, and manage a number of tough issues, including working with the European Parliament to push through a load of European Commission legal proposals, completing negotiations on the Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF) for 2014-2020, handling the economic crisis, strengthening economic governance, promoting growth and jobs and concluding a Common European Asylum System (CEAS) by the end of the year.
Those chairing the meetings have a decisive role to play, since they have to find the right balance among the different positions of the EU member states to reach a compromise consensus that would meet the interests of the member states as well as the overall interests of the EU and its citizens.
At the same time, there are certain national interests that can not be entirely ignored, like the €510 million shortfall in funds earmarked for Cyprus in the next EU seven-year budget. Or Turkey's belligerent approach to the Cyprus presidency and its questioning of Cyprus' right to make use of its energy resources.
Most of the policy priorities for which Cyprus will guide discussions and negotiations on are inherited from the existing EU agenda. Cyprus does have its own priorities of course but it remains to be seen whether these will be used to bring nuance to the debate on the inherited agenda or as a springboard for entirely new policies.
Mavroyiannis has said he wants to avoid “unproductive debates” on whether we want to see more or less Europe, a stronger or weaker, wider or deeper Europe.
Instead, the Cyprus presidency will aim to promote the idea of working towards a ‘Better Europe’; which is also its slogan, the idea being to find ways to make citizens feel closer to the union, shining the spotlight on solidarity and the effectiveness of EU policies, while making the EU more relevant in the world.
“We’re not talking about theoretical debates. We’re saying when your house is on fire, you need to improve the situation,” he said.
Earlier this month, the cabinet approved the Cyprus presidency's four main policy priorities: to make Europe more efficient and sustainable; develop a better performing and growth-based economy; make Europe more relevant to its citizens through solidarity and social cohesion; and, bring Europe closer to its neighbours in the world.
Within each of these priorities lie a host of inherited policy objectives. The issue is how to meet them and where to put the focus on.
Cyprus clearly wants to see the strict austerity measures adopted to clean up member states' fiscal policies complemented by measures for sustainable economic growth and job stimulation, particularly among the young. The dearth of job prospects for the EU's youth is having a massive social as well as psychological impact on the region, particularly for countries like Spain and Greece.
The presidency wants to see the 20th anniversary of the EU's Single Market welcomed alongside a stronger regulatory framework of financial services to ensure greater market transparency and consumer protection.
It wants to promote measures to improve infrastructure in Europe, and strengthen economic, social and territorial cohesion.
Cyprus will also focus on the sustainable management of resources, especially water, and re-energise the EU Integrated Maritime Policy.
The Mediterranean island will also use its close ties to the region to enhance relations with Europe's southern neighbours.
This Wednesday, President Demetris Christofias will officially present the Cyprus presidency's priorities and programme to the European Parliament (EP) in Strasbourg while his ministers will do the same throughout the month before the EP's 20 committees. On July 5, the opening ceremony will be held at the ancient Curium amphitheatre.
Taken alone, the above 'wish list' for the presidency far supersedes in size, number and importance anything ever seen on a presidential election manifesto.
Let's hope the brilliance of the shimmering moonlight on the Mediterranean waters facing the Curium will not be the only thing to dazzle our European partners during the next six months.