The start of Denmark's presidency was arguably not 1 January, the official launch-date, but 8-9 December, the occasion of a fractious European Council. As hopes of a 27-member deal on economic rules began to fade because of the UK's position, Helle Thorning-Schmidt, recently elected as Denmark's prime minister, intervened in the hope of saving a deal – only to be told by France's President Nicolas Sarkozy: “You're an out, a small out, and you're new. We don't want to hear from you.” The country that would shortly be tasked with minding the European Union's business had been told to mind its own business.
To take over an EU fractured and dominated by the eurozone crisis and by the centre-right's emphasis on austerity was a difficult challenge for a country that was not a member of the 17-member eurozone and for a government that was newly elected and one of just four governments in the EU led by centre-left politicians. It also suggested that Denmark, whose presidencies of the Council of Ministers in 1993 and 2002 were ambitious and successful, might struggle to improve its record.
Thorning-Schmidt's government has achieved some successes. Ambition was not much mentioned as a feature of the Danish presidency. The most common assessments are variations on one given by Maroš Šefcovic, the European commissioner for inter-institutional relations and administration, who described the Danish presidency as “hardworking, dynamic, practical and delivered a lot”.
The verdict might get kinder, by comparison with what comes next. With months of crucial negotiations on reforms of the EU's budget ahead, Denmark's successor – Cyprus – will need to show the same qualities. The concern must be that others will echo Ingeborg Grässle, a centre-right German MEP, who told Thorning-Schmidt during a debate on Tuesday: “I'm going to miss you, I'm going to miss your efficiency as negotiators.”
Grässle negotiated the revisions to the EU's financial regulation. In other economic areas – covering fiscal rules and the financial sector – Denmark will be disappointed that its progress was not rewarded with last-minute deals with the European Parliament.
The professionalism of the Danish diplomatic corps and of its civil servants has long been known.
Assiduous preparation was evident in the dossier with the greatest long-term significance, the multi-annual financial framework (MFF), which will set the EU's budget for 2014-20. Ivailo Kalfin, a Bulgarian Socialist who is one of the Parliament's co-negotiators on the MFF, said the Danes had done well in “streamlining the debate” and “creating the basis for future agreement”. It is an assessment echoed by others, though the trickiest part – talking money – lies ahead.
According to Jeppe Tranholm-Mikkelsen, Denmark's permanent representative, “at one point, we considered adding figures to the negotiating box”, the document that sets out the main issues and options for negotiators – but the Danes then, pragmatically, nipped their own ambition in the bud.
Keeping dossiers moving forward was a hallmark of the presidency. The Danes are relaxed about the question of whether they left any imprint, in the shape of their own vision. “We realised that there shouldn't be grand visions that would not have been taken seriously,” says Tranholm-Mikkelsen, reflecting the characteristics of the presidency, of many of its ministers (see opposite page) – and, arguably, of the rotating presidency as an institution.
Even if Denmark had no grand vision, it had its own agenda – primarily, to make the EU greener. It wanted, for example, to pave the way to a greener Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); but the new CAP that is emerging will be less prescriptive and more “à la carte” than it wanted. Similarly, the position of the Council of Ministers on the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) now talks merely of sustainable fishing “where possible”.
But at least it can feel it has secured an energy-efficiency directive that is stronger than seemed likely earlier.
This will not be judged a great reforming presidency, but perhaps those are in any case a thing of the past since the advent of a permanent president of the European Council, which limits the remit of the rotating presidency of the Council of Ministers.
In two core areas of EU policy – the euro and the Schengen zone of borderless travel – the limits of the presidency and the Danish presidency in particular were evident. As a non-eurozone country, it could be little more than be a bystander in debate about the eurozone.
The Schengen issue spoilt the Danish government's good record on managing justice and home affairs issues and maintaining good relations with the European Parliament. On 7 June, home affairs ministers decided on crucial changes to a Commission proposal on the Schengen area of borderless travel. Those changes deprived MEPs of a role in shaping the mechanism used to monitor member states' compliance with Schengen rules, predictably triggering outrage among MEPs of all political colours.
The Danes, as those chairing the meeting at which the decision was taken, became the fall guys for a move toward inter-governmentalism that was agreed by all 27 member states. The suspension by MEPs of all ongoing negotiations on home affairs with the Council was good political theatre, but it missed this point.
To be consistent, the MEPs would have to maintain their boycott of justice and home affairs negotiations with the rotating presidency now that the Danes have handed over to the Cypriots, but that is most unlikely.
In retrospect, the lasting impression of the presidency may be shaped less by the agreements reached than by the mood music, a point hinted at by Thorning-Schmidt when she told the European Parliament that “we have tried to live up to that obligation [to deliver results]...so that Europe after the past gloom and pessimism can again see a period of growth”.
The mood now is not as dark as it was. The Danish presidency has played its part in creating a more upbeat, less dissonant background music.