And Over to You, Too, Mr Socrates

Portuguese Prime Minister José Sócrates Carvalho Pinto de Sousa will need all of his namesake’s wisdom, and none of his taste in last drinks, as he takes over the rotating presidency (careful, the page has an annoying soundtrack) of the European Council this weekend.

Chancellor Merkel’s quiet persuasion has brought the EU much closer to a renovation of its institutions than seemed likely at the beginning of 2007. The governments now have a mandate to negotiate the details and prepare, by the end of the year, a treaty revision that can be ratified in 2008, or at the very latest in early 2009.

This half-year will also be a test of the “trio” approach to the rotating presidency. Starting this year, groups of three presidencies will work together to present a common agenda for the 18 months of their collective tenure. Anything increasing continuity in an office that countries can expect to hold about once every two decades (a far cry from the period when the rotation principle was established) is good news. Germany, Portugal and Slovenia worked together to set things up; now is the first actual transition within a trio.

The Portuguese don’t plan on wasting any time, and the intergovernmental conference will begin in late July. Coming just three weeks after the mandate, this is something like record time for the EU. And the plan is to wind it up by the end of the year. Given that past IGCs have tended to sprawl over about 18 months, this would be quite the accomplishment as well. Coming up with a Treaty text will, of course, be no small task, even with the former constitutional draft to serve as a basis.

On the other hand, there’s this “In addition, other priorities urgently deserve our attention.” That’s the horse’s nose under the tent. There follows a long list of things Portugal wants to do, including summits with Africa and Brazil, to say nothing of following up on the Lisbon Agenda (which to my thinking is what one should say at this point). The country’s leadership has limited personnel and resources. Taking their collective eye off the ball of institutional reform is asking for trouble on the Treaty front. It’s an accident of the calendar that Portugal has ended up with this responsibility for the Union, and that its more self-interested topics ought to take a back seat, but on the other hand, it’s an opportunity for a small state to have a historic achievement. Word to the wise, Mr S.

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