On July 1, Austria assumed the six-month, rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union. The Austrian federal government, led by Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, is a coalition between the populist right-wing Austrian People’s Party (OVP) and the far-right Freedom Party of Austria (FPO).
It is not easy for the member state holding the presidency to change E.U. policy. However, the presiding country can influence policy on issues it considers highly important. Austria is likely to use the presidency to try to toughen the E.U.’s stance on immigration.
What is the presidency of the Council of the E.U.?
The Council of the E.U. consists of ministers of the 28 member states, who meet regularly to discuss policy. The council and the European Parliament together are responsible for passing E.U. legislation.
The presidency of the Council of the E.U. organizes and chairs the council meetings. It also speaks on the council’s behalf in interactions with the Parliament and other E.U. institutions.
The 2009 Lisbon Treaty, the latest in a series of international agreements that serve as the E.U.’s constitutional basis, introduced the “trio presidency.” The goal of the trio is to ensure continuity between three successive presidencies over 18-month periods. Currently, the trio includes Estonia, Bulgaria and Austria.
Does it matter which country presides over the council?
The member state holding the presidency does influence the E.U.’s legislative agenda. It is responsible for brokering deals between member states and the Parliament to advance legislative proposals. Member states and E.U. institutions generally expect the holder of the presidency to act impartially.
Earlier studies by Guy de Bassompierre, Martin Westlake, Philippa Sherrington and others in this area have suggested that the presidency should not give much power to the country that holds it. The E.U. bargaining process is complex, and the term of the presidency is only six months. Much of the agenda is inherited from previous presidencies or imposed by other E.U. actors or external developments. Consequently, which countries hold the presidency — and what their governments’ priorities are — should not really affect E.U. policy. And the Lisbon Treaty — which was designed to make the E.U. more democratic and transparent, and which went into force in 2009 — decreased the presidency’s powers.
But recent studies have shown that states in charge of the presidency can influence E.U. policy in several ways.
First, according to Ole Elgström, if a country wants to be effective, it can choose not to act impartially. In fact, being an effective mediator often requires suspending the impartiality norm.
Second, Andreas Warntjen finds that the country holding the presidency can push to complete negotiations and adopt legislation on issues it considers especially important.
Third, while the presidency’s ability to introduce new agenda items is limited, it can amend the commission’s legislative proposals. Framed as compromises, these proposals may be closer to the presidency’s preferred national policies, as Frank Häge finds in a recent analysis of a large data set covering meetings of the council between 1995 and 2014, both before and after the Lisbon Treaty went into force.
Fourth, according to Häge, the presidency can influence E.U. policy by scheduling items on the agenda and thereby determining when certain policy issues are discussed and for how long. This is consistent with political scientist Jonas Tallberg’s argument that the presidency can draw attention to certain agenda items, or exclude others.
Fifth, as shown in studies by political scientists Jelmer Schalk, René Torenvlied, Jeroen Weesie and Frans Stokman, as well as by Andreas Warntjen and Robert Thompson, the presiding country’s bargaining power increases in the final stage of legislative decision-making. During the voting stage, the presidency can move legislation closer to its national policy preferences.
Sixth, Schalk and his co-authors show that control over procedures and information are powerful tools during difficult negotiations. According to Adrienne Héritier and Henry Farrell, the country chairing the presidency can also access information and exert influence by mediating between E.U. institutions.
What is Austria doing?
Austria has pledged to act as a “neutral broker” to reconcile West-East tensions and promote E.U. unity, consistent with the presidency’s institutional role and Austria’s commitment to permanent neutrality. Kurz is a staunch E.U. supporter — but his coalition partner, the FPO, is Euroskeptic. Other members states doubt that Austria can remain impartial on issues that its government considers highly important, especially immigration.
Kurz is a former foreign minister who prides himself on opposing Germany’s policy of welcoming refugees and on shutting down the “Balkan route” in March 2016. (The Balkan route refers to how migrants and refugees made their way to Austria, after landing in Greece, through Macedonia, Serbia, Croatia and Slovenia.) The OVP won the 2017 election by promising to impose tight border controls and limit welfare benefits for immigrants and refugees. The FPO has Nazi roots and ties to the Kremlin — and it harbors strong anti-immigrant views. It controls the Interior and Defense ministries. The foreign minister, an independent, was also an FPO nominee.
Manès Weisskircher’s analysis here at The Monkey Cage suggests that Kurz is a traditional conservative politician who shifted the OVP to the right for tactical reasons. But we don’t yet know whether the chancellor will be able to rein in his far-right coalition partners on an issue that matters to them so profoundly.
The Austrian presidency of the Council of the E.U. has made clear that immigration control is its central commitment, using the motto, “A Europe That Protects,” and listing security and the fight against illegal immigration first on its agenda priorities — framed in stronger terms than in the programs of Estonia, Bulgaria or the trio.
Austria previously sided with Hungary in demanding stricter border control. It now supports closing external E.U. borders to keep the internal borders open, enlarging the E.U. border patrol agency, called Frontex, and establishing migration camps in non-E.U. countries. In July, Austrian Interior Minister Herbert Kickl discussed his country’s migration proposals during an informal meeting with his counterparts from all E.U. member states. The European interior ministers rejected the most controversial Austrian suggestions.
Austria can still serve as an impartial broker if Kurz succeeds in balancing fulfillment of the presidency’s institutional role and the promotion of national priorities. On immigration, this could prove difficult.
Nina S. Barzachka is a visiting assistant professor of political science and international studies at Dickinson College. Her book manuscript examines electoral system reform in Western and Eastern Europe.