Italy preparing to take on the presidency of the Council of the EU: what is at stake

R.D’Argenio, Seton Hall Un. Law Sch.’s Board of Visitors; G.Romani, Dir., The Charles & Joan Alberto Italian Studies Inst.; N.Quintavalle, Consul General; A.Bartoli, Dean, Sch of Diplomacy&International Relations; J.P.Guasconi, Sr Dir of Principal Gifts

R.D’Argenio, Seton Hall Un. Law Sch.’s Board of Visitors; G.Romani, Dir., The Charles & Joan Alberto Italian Studies Inst.; N.Quintavalle, Consul General; A.Bartoli, Dean, Sch of Diplomacy&International Relations; J.P.Guasconi, Sr Dir of Principal Gifts

Full text of the speech delivered by Consul General of Italy in New York at Seton Hall University on the occasion of a lecture on the role of Italy in Europe. Before an audience of students and academics, the Consul spoke about the forthcoming Italian Presidency of the European Union


Good evening everybody,

It is a pleasure to address the audience of Seton Hall University which is quite different from my usual environment and I would like to thank the Dean of Seton Hall’s school of diplomacy, my friend Prof. Andrea Bartoli and the Director of the Alberto Institute, Prof. Gabriella Romani, for offering me this opportunity.

I am here to tell you something about the Italian Presidency of the Council of the European Union which will take place in the second semester 2014 and I am very curious to understand better which kind of feelings you have towards the European Union, also regarding its relationship with the US.

Let me start by saying that European Union issues are not at the very center of my professional life in this particular moment. As you know, I am currently the Consul General of Italy in New York and I am as far as possible from the coordination job among ourselves we, the representatives of EU countries abroad, are requested to ensure in our daily activity.

I seldom meet with my fellow colleagues, the Consuls General of the EU countries. In fact we meet mainly at social events and we have some coordination only on matters related to the Schengen visa policy. In other words we, the Consuls deal with essentially national and bilateral issues.

But this was not always the case for me especially when, from 1999 to 2011, I was working in the multilateral sector, first in Geneva, at the Italian mission to the UN and other international organizations, then in New York at the mission to the UN and finally in Rome as Principal Director for the United Nations and Human Rights. During 12 years, early morning coordination meetings at the EU delegation offices were a considerably large part of my daily activity.

I underline this difference in my experience because I think it can help you understand what does it mean for a country like Italy to be a member state of the European Union and especially to realize that, depending on his/her position, an Italian Diplomat like me can be asked to represent his/her own country alone, or to represent the interests of the entire EU. And the difference is based on the division of labour between the EU and member States within the domain of foreign policy.

I do remember very well at the United Nations the difficulties our non EU colleagues had to understand when a EU country was negotiating on a national basis and when it was up to the EU delegation or, at that time, the EU presidency or the EU Commission to take the lead of a negotiation.

To make things harder, the division of labour among the EU and its member States, and within the different EU institutions is not static. Lately, with the entry into force of the Lisbon Treaty, in 2009, the institutional set up changed significantly, I am afraid without making it easier for the poor colleagues of non EU countries to understand who does what or, to recall Henry Kissinger’s famous remark, which telephone number they should call when they want to talk to Europe.

So, let me briefly highlight what the Lisbon Treaty has changed especially regarding the role of the Presidency.

Namely it created two new institutional actors:

First, The permanent President of the European Council who chairs all the meeting of the Council, position which was previously held by the Head of State of the country holding the rotating presidency, and which is currently covered by Mr. Herman Van Rompuy. And, second, the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, who chairs the Foreign Affairs Council, and represents the EU in international organizations (both roles which previously fell to the Foreign Minister of the Presidency). The High Representative, Baroness Catherine Ashton is supported by the European External Action Service. I will revert in a while to the role these two new actors have played in the first five years after the entry into force of the Lisbon Treaty.

Moreover, the Lisbon Treaty enhanced the influence of the European Parliament. The Parliament has new law-making powers, and now decides on the vast majority of EU legislation, jointly with the Council of Ministers, under the ordinary legislative procedure. Parliament also has the last say on the EU budget.


Natalia Quintavalle durante la conferenza alla Seton Hall University

As far as the rotating presidency, the Lisbon Treaty “institutionalized” the so-called Trio Presidency, under which three successive Presidencies work together to develop an 18 month political program. This ensures a higher level of consistency and coordination in the work of the EU. Italy is part of a Trio program with Latvia and Luxembourg, covering the period from July 2014 to December 2015.

So Italy is now preparing to take on the Presidency of the Council starting on 1st of July 2014.

The Presidency of the Council of the EU in fact rotates among the 28 Member States every six months and each presiding Member State is called to advance the Union’s ongoing work agenda, and has an opportunity to shape and influence EU policy and legislation.

Moreover, the Presidency plans and chairs most ministerial meetings of the Council of the EU, which will be chaired from the 1st of July by Italian Ministers. These Ministerial meetings are prepared by over 150 official-level committees and preparatory bodies, which will also be chaired by Italian officials. Italy will not be in charge of the two Council formations which, following the Lisbon Treaty, have their own permanent chair, namely the European Council and the Foreign Affairs Council.

The Presidency sets out its own program and priorities for its six month term and it contributes to the program of the Trio. This provides the context within which the Presidency sets the agenda for Council meetings. The Presidency seeks to deliver results, which often means putting forward compromise proposals and negotiating agreements. To achieve this, the Presidency must act as an honest, impartial broker.

The Presidency also represents the Council in its dealings with the other EU Institutions, particularly the Commission and the Parliament, most importantly in the law-making process, since the vast majority of the legislation adopted by the EU is based on a proposal by the Commission and requires the approval by both the Council and the Parliament. It is up to the Presidency to finalize the deal with the two other institutions.

The Italian Presidency will happen in a period of institutional transition during which a new European legislature will start: we will have a new European parliament, (the elections will take place end of May and the first session will take place on July First) and a new European Commission will be appointed in November.

Finally in fall a new Permanent President of the Council and a new EU High representative for foreign and security affairs will take office.

This institutional transition will take place in a period of economic crisis, whose most dramatic aspect is the unemployment rate which is declining but still very high at 10.4% in the entire EU and even higher, 11.7% in the Euro area (whit cross-country differences remaining very large). (about 7% in the US).

The economic crisis and its social consequences have determined a profound crisis of confidence in the Union and its ability to respond to the needs of the European people.

The growing disparities within EU countries and among them, unemployment, dire youth prospects and cuts in basic health services and social benefits have given new ammunitions to the opponents of the European project, bringing the public confidence in EU institutions to the lowest level in almost every EU country (including in Italy, who has historically enjoyed very high level of euro-enthusiasm). It is unfortunately undeniable that the financial crisis is turning into a legitimacy crisis of the European integration project.

While the EU can be considered as a success story, it is at the same time a victim of its own success.

Since 1957 EU has grown (from 6 to 28 members), has brought peace in Europe (Nobel Peace Price 2012), has become rich (EU's GDP was 15.4 $ Trillion, US 16.2 in 2012). We have abolished borders and we have a single currency.

But Europeans have lost passion for the EU. According to Euro barometer (which measures the European sentiment on almost everything) in December 2013: 31% of Europeans trust European Institutions, and same 31% have a positive image of EU (they were 52% in 2007, before the economic crisis), 29% believe their voice count in Europe (in Italy only 17%), 51% are optimistic about the future of Europe (69% in 2007), 59% feel they are European citizens (43% in Italy, almost as low as UK and Greece, both 42%).


Il Console Natalia Quintavalle con gli studenti della Seton Hall University, New Jersey

What determined this sharp decline in the confidence of European towards the EU? The Economic crisis is a key factor, especially in countries most hardly hit who believe that other members are not showing enough solidarity. It was the President of the ECB himself, Mario Draghi, who said that the countries of the Euro area have been induced to “use the second decade of the Euro to undo the mistakes of the first”. The Euro is a landmark of European integration, but it was created without the necessary flanking measures: a monetary union deprived of basic banking, fiscal policy and economic policy tools to underpin it. By building an incomplete and unbalanced economic and monetary union, for countries which, for the most part, suffered already from severe structural weaknesses and high levels of debt, we could have set ourselves up for failure.

But there are other reasons for this decline in confidence. I will mention the one I consider the most relevant of all: there is not yet a real EU political space, and by this I mean a single political arena where all Europeans can share views and debate, select the political parties and leaders they believe better respond to their demands, and elect their President and their Government. In fact, despite the Lisbon Treaty, at the next elections we will be voting only for national candidates and at the end of the electoral process no European President will be elected, rather there will be three competing presidents (President of the Commission, President of the European Council, President of the European Parliament), all of them appointed by different institutions, and not directly elected by European citizens.

Also the two new high profile positions created by the Lisbon Treaty, namely the President of the European Council and the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, are not felt by Europeans as effective symbols of the European political space. Besides their individual merit, they are non-elected figures, who only exert a coordinating role, not a decision-making one, since their action requires unanimity by the 28 member States.

We can fairly conclude that the institutional reforms contained in the Lisbon Treaty have not accomplished the process towards a real Union, at least not in the political domain. And, while progress towards a genuine economic and monetary Union is undeniable (also thanks to the completion of the Banking Union which has been finalized last week) these progresses remain slow and uncertain, especially on the key issue of solidarity among member States; in the meantime, there is a risk of fragmentation, since only 18 members share the common currency, the Euro, the other ten are basically not participating into this process, (UK and Denmark) or are participating only marginally.

Moreover one important country – the UK – is considering exiting the EU: if the conservative party wins 2015 elections there will be a referendum. While other countries have made clear in a way or in another that no further transfer of competences towards Brussels will be accepted, or that it will be submitted to national referenda, which, as we all know by recent history, are very uncertain, to say the least.

So, a mixed feeling is prevailing in Europe and the perspectives for the next elections look rather gloomy, with a very low expected participation rate and a significant share of the vote likely to benefit euro-skeptic parties or clearly anti-European candidates, who will seat in the Parliament with the declared goal of putting an end to the European Union.

Against this background, I would like to examine how much the institutional transition and this lack of confidence can influence the life of the EU in the next future and what can Italy do to address these issues during its tenure of the presidency.

Despite the growing unhappiness, as we have seen, of Italian citizens toward the EU, the Italian Government remains strongly pro-Europe and maintains a federalist goal in the long term.

The role of the Presidency, after the Lisbon treaty is certainly diminished (in particular since it does not chair the European Council and the Foreign Affairs Council) but, as I already said, the Italian presidency happens at a special moment: July 1, a new Parliament will start; October 31, the Commission will complete its mandate; November 30 the President of the European Council, Herman Van Rompuy, will complete his term.

The parliamentary elections at the end of May will be crucial. And I suggest you to visit the site of the EU parliament, if you want to know more.

There is a strong feeling about the next European election that they will make clear the very deep change in the balance of power within the EU that has already started to take place after the entry into force of the Lisbon Treaty especially regarding the role of the EU parliament.

So, in this framework, what Italy can do in its semester of presidency and in 2015 as a member of the Trio? Which kind of priorities can Italy try and advance in these 18 months?

Let me start by emphasizing that Italy is profoundly persuaded that the only way out of the economic and social crisis is by continuing on the path of a closer union in order to achieve shared goals of competitiveness and social justice.

The Italian priorities are currently being finalized by the Government, but I believe I can anticipate some of them off the record.

The first priority is to shape a more competitive Europe, more active on the world stage, able to create jobs, and to guarantee social security and opportunities for business. To do so we need to re-launch the EU 2020 strategy. Specifically, with regard to the industrial policy, with a special focus on the SME which are very important for Italy and other member countries of the EU, through a functioning single market, fair competition, an efficient public administration and a modern regulatory framework.

During our Presidency, we will give special attention to the fight against unemployment by focusing our program on more convincing policies to promote employment, especially in favor of young people, in areas such as research and innovation which are crucial for long-term development, as well as the education, training and mobility of the labour force.

The Italian Presidency will support the prosecution of negotiations on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership with the United States in order to achieve a balanced and comprehensive agreement based on reciprocity. Not only the transatlantic agreement will give a boost to the EU Economy (and the one of the US) we expect the creation of 400.000 new jobs, but the TTIP would also reinvigorate the transatlantic alliance and counteract the perception of a declining attractiveness of the western model of economy and democracy.

A special attention will be put on Sustainable development and we will try to work on the link with MILANO expo 2015, the Universal exhibition which will take place in Milan from May to October 2015 whose theme is Feeding the planet: energy for life.

But there are not only economic issues to be dealt by the EU during the Italian presidency and when it comes to migration, Italy is on the front line in order to build stronger solidarity among European states and more coherent and effective initiatives towards the countries of origin of the migration flows. So, Migration and asylum policies are a key priority for Italy. We are strongly committed to creating a large consensus on the need to increase intra-EU cooperation and solidarity in managing migration. There is, on this subject, an interesting Communication issued by the EU Commission on March the 11th with title “An open and secure Europe: making it happens”, underlining the importance of an horizontal integration of the migratory dimension in other European policies. The communication includes also the reference to the possible development of new rules on mutual recognition of asylum decisions, and the idea of creating a European system of Border Control Guards. We will look also attentively at the concrete implementation of the measures identified by the “Task Force for the Mediterranean” to tackle migration and we expect the maximum possible commitment by all Member States. The strengthening of FRONTEX is crucial in view of a more efficient management of migratory flows. Finally we will host in Rome, on November 26 and 27, the fourth Euro-African Ministerial on Migration and Development.

Regarding foreign policy, No EU member, not even the largest one, can go it alone when it comes to major international issues. Europe is usually depicted as an economic giant and a political dwarf, and this is at least in part understandable, since making decision in foreign policy requires unanimity, which is hard to get for obvious reasons. However unity among member states and between states and institutions has spawned the two breakthrough successes of 2013: the normalization of Serbia-Kosovo relations and the interim nuclear accord with Iran.

Recent events in Ukraine also show how unstable our neighborhoods are, not only in the south, but also in the east, and therefore during the Italian presidency we will work for a stronger European commitment towards our neighbours, with a specific focus on the southern shore of the Mediterranean in order to encourage the consolidation of democratic regimes and build an area of peace, stability and democracy around Europe.

Very important is also the Security and Defense policy. We are convinced that the EU can no longer afford the costs of 28 different defense systems (one for each member state). A recent study by an Italian Think Tank suggests that the rationalization of Member States’ armed forces in a single force, with the same standards as the American armed forces, would generate savings of around 120 billion Euros.

Italy took the initiative, in this field already in March 2013 presenting a paper titled “More Europe on defense”. And has been the most strenuous supporter of the whole process which resulted in the December European Council re-launch of European defense.

In conclusion, we are heading towards a very challenging Italian Presidency of the EU council. At a very critical time in the history of the European integration, still ailing from the most severe economic crisis in the last 60 years, and surrounded by political instability at the eastern and southern borders, Europe will rely on Italy to make an institutional transition which is all but ordinary. We feel this responsibility, but we are also optimistic, since history shows that Europe has achieved its best results when it was under pressure and has always come out stronger from former crisis.

Despite mounting euro-skepticism, and while recognizing that mistakes have been made in Brussels in the last years – as they have been made in all capitals of the world – we are convinced that European youth, whether Italians, Germans, Greeks or Poles, have no future outside the European dimension. This is why we are confident that during the rest of 2014 the European will face new challenges, but will in the end come out stronger.

Thank you.


*Natalia Quintavalle, Italian Consul General in New York, Minister Plenipotentiary.


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