Six months ago, Denmark’s reputation in Europe was suffering, after the center-right government had reinstated border controls even though Denmark is a part of the passport-free Schengen area.
But the new governing coalition in Denmark, led by the Social Democrats, immediately did away with the border controls when it took office this fall. This greatly improved relations between Denmark and the rest of the EU just ahead of the Nordic country’s turn to take over the EU’s rotating presidency. And for the first time in Danish history, new Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt appointed a minister for Europe - another sign she plans to stick to a Europe-friendly course.
But how important is the rotating presidency anyway, especially these days when all that counts are the hard facts of the euro crisis ? Since the Lisbon Treaty came into force two years ago, Herman Van Rompuy has served as the Council’s long-term president, subtly shifting the balance of power in Europe.
Denmark’s brand new minister for European affairs, Nicolai Wammen, said that the coming presidency would be one of the hardest ever.
"The crisis will heavily affect our agenda and we will do our best to secure what we can to bring Europe forward within the limits of our role," he said. "We see it as a key task of the Danish presidency to be a mediater between the countries inside and those outside the eurozone."
A country on the edge of Europe
Denmark itself has kept itself out of the now deeply troubled eurozone, while leaders of the EU’s two biggest economies - Germany and France - have increasingly taken the reins in Europe to manage the euro crisis. This power play by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy has annoyed many, including Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the Eurogroup, but also prime minister of the tiny Luxembourg.
"Why does anyone think that it’s enough for Germany and France to reach agreement ? We’re dealing with 17 governments, 17 countries, 17 parliaments," he said.
In order to dig themselves out of this crisis, most member states agreed at a recent summit to commit to more fiscal discipline. Only Britain, wielding a veto, made it clear it would not participate in any sort of fiscal union, while Sweden and Denmark remain ambivalent.
"We expect the president of the European Council to play the leading role in crafting this new agreement," Wammen said. "As for the question of Denmark and the agreement, we will participate actively and constructively in the process and when we know the details, our government will assess the economic, legal, and political consequences of the agreement and determine our position in consultation with the political parties in the Danish government."
Each EU member is required to join the eurozone as soon as it meets the economic requirements. But Britain and Denmark have an opt-out clause and can decide for themselves if they want to adopt the euro or not. Sweden does not officially have this opt-out clause, but Commission has tolerated its refusal to join after a 2003 referendum rejected the idea.
To mediate between all of these difficult partners will not be easy for Denmark, which itself tends to position itself more on the edges of EU processes. But then again, not much is expected of Denmark. The rotating presidency has become too insignificant. Some in Europe might think it’s a shame, but many are happy that so little depends on one country and one government.