Every six months, it is time for another round of musical chairs. One member state gives up the Presidency of the European Council, while another takes over. The outgoing country announces that it is pleased with its excellent work as “president” while the new incumbent pledges that it will break new ground in the drive for European integration. The handover that occurred at the end of 2012 and the beginning of 2013 was no exception.

At a press conference to present a synopsis of the main results of the six-month Cypriot presidency, the country’s Deputy Minister for European Affairs, Andreas Mavroyannis, remarked that "our aspiration was to move even a small step further towards European integration. And, I think that the important results of our Presidency reflect that we succeeded in this.” For its part, the Irish government declared that its term at the helm of the EU, which began on January 1, would be devoted to "the promotion of growth and jobs”.

Once again Europe has demonstrated its mastery of well-worn propaganda and waffle. However, the reality of its current situation is a far cry from such cosy sentiments. First and foremost, the “important results” achieved by the Cypriot presidency should be viewed in the context of the major rift between member states which emerged in the course of talks on the European budget, the United Kingdom’s threat that it would leave the Union, the latest quick-fix solution that will do nothing to resolve the eurozone crisis, and a banking union that remains in limbo. And even then, with regard to the EU presidency, all of this amounts to little more than a side issue. The real problem is that the Cypriot presidency cannot be held responsible for the above summary of “results”.

Limited presidential powers

Nicosia is no more to blame than Copenhagen or Warsaw, the two previous incumbents of the EU presidency. How could Cyprus, a small country of 800,000 people which took over the EU presidency at a time when it was negotiating the conditions of its own bailout, be expected to take the initiative? By the same token, how could we expect Poland or Denmark, two countries that are not in the euro, to "provide the impetus” to cure the EU’s eurozone malaise? And how can Ireland, which is currently negotiating a €60bn reduction to the debt owing to the EU and the ECB in the wake of its banking meltdown, be expected to impose its views on the other 26 EU member states?

There is no end to such questions in an EU caught in a eurozone crisis, which has dealt all of the trump cards to the country that is its main payer, that is to say Germany. Much of European policy is now being decided in Berlin, quite simply because nothing can be accomplished without the agreement of the federal republic. Only major countries and institutions like the Commission or the ECB can still expect — and even then, only under certain conditions — to act as a counterweight.

France and Spain succeeded in forcing Berlin to accept a banking union, but only when they acquiesced to German conditions on its implementation and the size of the banks concerned. Notwithstanding its attempt to coerce Berlin by threatening to leave the EU, the United Kingdom’s ability to oppose German hegemony remains very limited. At the same time, the Commission’s plan for a reinforcement of its budget to combat the crisis as well as French efforts to impose "an agenda for growth” have both been abandoned following objections from Germany.

Given this state of affairs, it is clear that neither Nicosia or Dublin can be expected to impose a vision for Europe on the German taxpayer, or even to obtain concessions from the German government. European policy is now decided by Berlin and Brussels. Of course, you may say that the rotating presidency was never designed to actually run the union but rather to generate momentum, prepare initiatives, and promote compromise. But even viewed in these terms, the rotating presidency is increasingly a formality.

VIP spectators

The 2009 coming into force of the Lisbon Treaty led to the inauguration of a European Council President — a post currently occupied by Belgium’s haiku-writing Herman van Rompuy — with a brief that is very similar to the one granted to the rotating presidency. The main difference is that the permanent Council President is better placed to ensure continuity and coherence in the preparation of European initiatives. At the same time, he is also the one who rules over the secretariat tasked with the organisation of European summits.

It follows that the action of the European Council is largely determined in Brussels, and only on rare occasions by the country charged with the rotating presidency. With this in mind, it is significant that since 2004, European summits have taken place in Brussels rather than, as they did in the past, in the member state charged with the European presidency.

The representatives of the rotating presidency have thus assumed the role of VIP spectators. They bear the privilege of a presidential label, but, like certain dignitaries at the Byzantine court, they are guaranteed respect even though they do not wield any real power. Council press releases that continue to wax lyrical about the efforts and achievements of the countries presiding the EU are merely an exercise in form and devoid of any real substance.

As it stands, the rotating presidency has become a showcase that enables countries to become better known — an opportunity to present well-designed Internet sites vaunting the merits of the nation (the Irish Presidency website even offers a comprehensive selection of recipes for national dishes) or a country’s tourist attractions (as did the Cyprus website). Of course, there is nothing wrong with these efforts to draw in tourists.

However, there are other schemes, like the "European Capital of Culture” programme, that are designed to fulfill this role. With this in mind, and in view of the current austerity, should we not consider doing away with this superfluous institution?