Those who watched the annual New Year’s Day concert at the Wiener Musikverein saw the Austrian President, Alexander Van Der Bellen, welcome two heads of state as his guests: the Presidents of Estonia and Bulgaria. Austria is part of a ‘trio presidency’ of the EU Council Presidency, together with Estonia (which held the presidency in the second half of 2017), and Bulgaria (the first half of 2018). Three successive presidencies are known as ‘presidency trios’, a concept that was introduced to enable member states to share experiences and ensure coherence on an 18-months basis.
Estonia has passed the Presidency to Bulgaria for the first half of 2018 and Austria will be presiding over the EU Council in the second half of 2018. Since the entry into force of the Lisbon Treaty, trio presidencies develop a common work programme for a period of 18 months. This mechanism of coordination over a longer period of time aims at increasing the continuity of the Council’s work.
On 1 July 2018, Austria will take over the Presidency of the Council of the EU for the third time since 1998 and 2006. For the other two countries this is their first Presidency. Austria plans to contribute significantly to the legislative and political work of the Council, although the possibilities to shape the agenda are more limited than during its two past terms. Austria was due to hold the Council Presidency only in 2019, but this changed due to the United Kingdom leaving the European Union and deciding to relinquish the Council presidency it was to hold in the second half of 2017. Thus, on 26 July 2016, the Council adopted a decision that established a revised order in which the member states will hold the presidency of the Council of the EU until 2030, by bringing it forward by six months starting from 1 July 2017.
2018 will be a decisive year for the EU, as its institutions will be re-staffed when European elections will take place in the middle of 2019. Austria plans to play a central role in taking over the EU Council presidency in the second half of the year. Solutions for problems addressed in 2017 will have to be found in 2018.
The Presidency of the EU Council could also bring internal political changes. During the last two terms held by Austria the governing parties lost massively in the subsequent elections, and the two Chancellors – Viktor Klima (SPÖ) in 1999 and Wolfgang Schüssel (ÖVP) in 2006 – were replaced. This time around there is speculation that the Presidency will keep the ruling coalition together for the period of its duration, but may fall apart as previous ones did.
However, the coalition in the Austrian government has prepared and adopted a two-year budget for 2018 and 2019 without the challenges that the previous coalitions had. In addition, the traditionally EU critical FPÖ was ‘sworn in’ to a pro EU attitude of the government. Kurz’s government emphasised that it is pro-EU and the Austrian coalition program is not critisising Brussels, or calling for rolling back EU integration, or for stopping the eurozone. This was not previously the case and in 2000 European governments imposed diplomatic sanctions on Austria when FPÖ was in the government
This past March, the Austrian government presented a comprehensive programme for the EU Council Presidency. Among the major challenges that Austria plans to address in 2018 will be internal security, Brexit, migration, and the EU budget. Its motto is ‘Europe that protects’. This motto means security for citizens, increased EU border control, and fighting against illegal migration. A separate EU summit on security and illegal migration will take place on 20 September in Salzburg.
Austria’s priorities are closely in line with the EU institutions. Together with Bulgaria – and Romania, which is next in line for the EU Council Presidency – the legislative priorities of the EU Council were laid down in a declaration in early December 2017.
In addition, there are plans for at least two EU summits in Brussels in October and December, as well as numerous meetings at the official level, encounters with third countries, and cultural events, which usually also belong to an EU Council Presidency. Domestic meetings in particular can be used by the Austrian government to showcase their EU competence at home as well.
The topics planned for the EU Council presidency are already in discussion in Austria. Security, the fight against radicalisation and terrorism, external border protection and the prevention of illegal migration have become hot topics since 2015. The affected the internal politics and elections in Austria and play an increasingly important role as discussions about refugee relocation take place.
Migration is already part of the discussion of the current Bulgarian EU Presidency, but while there are currently some suggestions on how to deal with refugees within the EU, solutions will have to be found. The many EU members have differing opinions on the subject. It was also one of the key issues in the UK’s referendum to leave the European Union, and the question of how to deal with solidarity between member states is vital. A framework for how to build a cohesive EU is critical.
The Brexit negotiations will also play an important role this year. The first phase was completed in December, and during the second phase of negotiations the transitional phase and defining what the economic relations will look like are the focus. Two years, however, is a rather short time to redefine such a complex relationship between countries. While the terms of Brexit are not determined by Austria, they are to be completed under its presidency, and the contract can be ratified the UK officially leaves the EU.
Aside from the priorities of migration, security, and Brexit, the trio programme is comprised five thematic areas:
- A Union for jobs, growth and competitiveness;
- А Union that empowers and protects all its citizens;
- Towards an energy Union with a forward-looking climate policy;
- A Union of freedom, security and justice; and
- The Union as a strong global actor.
In general, the position of the Austrian government, and in particular that of Chancellor Kurz, is that the EU “should do less but more efficiently” and apply more the principle of subsidiarity in relations between the European Union and the member states.
Currently each country seems to focus on the issues that matter most for internal politics, knowing that while they can push through the agenda as it is required by the EU. but depending on the results they may get voted out in the next election regardless.
 In the first phase of negotiations, the withdrawal arrangements were set out. British and EU officials were meeting each month in order to adopt a set of guidelines spelling out their terms for a transition period, and a rough timetable for the following period. The EU27 guidelines that must be decided on in the first phase include: An agreement on the financial settlement; agreement on rights of EU citizens living in the UK and vice versa; and agreement on the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
 The second phase, covering the post-Brexit relationship between the EU27 and the UK must look at the arrangements for the transition towards the UK’s withdrawal from the EU as well as the framework for the future relationship.