Greece will take on the rotating presidency of the European Union during the first half of 2014, the fifth time Athens has held this position since it joined the continental bloc in 1981. Athens will focus its agenda on several political and economic issues, most notably the EU plans for a banking union and the immigration crisis in Mediterranean Europe.
Because of Greece’s domestic, economic and political situation, Athens’ semester at the front of the European Union will have a very limited impact on the bloc. Political fragmentation in Europe coupled with the declining influence of the EU rotating presidency will also ensure that the most important decisions are still made in Berlin, Paris and Brussels.
The rotating presidency was born in the late 1950s, created by the founding members of the European Economic Community (the predecessor of the European Union) to strike a balance between supranational integration and intergovernmental cooperation.
Today, the main responsibility of the presidency is to establish the political agenda of the bloc for the semester, organize meetings and broker dialogue between EU institutions and member states. While the rotating president still has some degree of influence (for example, this semester’s focus on Central and Eastern European issues was partially a result of Lithuania’s EU presidency) real policy-making power rests with the largest member states (most notably Germany and France), the European Commission and the European Parliament.
Greece’s role in the European Union has substantially changed as well. Athens joined the European Community in 1981, part of the bloc’s process of enlargement to the south (Spain and Portugal joined in 1986). At the time, Athens saw accession as a way to consolidate its democracy and fully integrate with the West after the end of the dictatorship that governed Greece from 1967 to 1974.
Greece held the presidency of the European Community for the first time during the second half of 1983, when the organization only had 10 members. While it was a relatively uneventful presidency, it was a very symbolic moment for the country. Athens held the presidency again during the second half of 1988, while Greece’s third presidency was considerably more significant. Taking place during the first half of 1994, the Maastricht Treaty (which created the European Union) had just entered into force, and in June Austria, Finland and Sweden signed their respective acts of accession. During Greece’s fourth presidency (January-June 2003), 10 countries in Central and Eastern Europe signed their accession treaties, marking the largest wave of enlargement in the history of the European Union.