Backgrounder: The EU presidency


It sounds like the opening line of a bad joke: "When a European Union delegation travels abroad on a foreign affairs mission (such as the one to the Middle East last week) who's in charge?
A reasonable person could be forgiven for thinking it's the External Relations and European Neighborhood Policy Commissioner. It's not.
How about: the High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy, Secretary-General of the Council of the European Union? Even with that lofty title, this office holder is not in charge either.
The person actually running the show is also part of the Council of the European Union, but has the bite-sized heading of foreign minister — of the country that happens to be holding the EU's rotating presidency.
That person will only hold the office for half a year because, in the byzantine world of EU politics, the presidency of the Council of the European Union rotates every six months to a different EU country. So every half-year a new set of government ministers take over the corresponding EU portfolios. Thus the country's foreign minister becomes the EU's de facto foreign minister, the country's education minister becomes the EU's education minister, etc.
The constantly shifting leadership largely explains why a bloc of nearly 500 million people, with a per capita income roughly on par with the U.S., wields comparatively little influence, especially when it comes to international affairs, said Irena Kalhousova, of the Heinrich Boell Foundation, a NGO.
"It's difficult to know who is talking for Europe. It's easier to explain, 'I'm the president of France,'" she said, explaining, in part, why French President Nicholas Sarkozy's concurrent visit to the Middle East received considerably more press than the EU delegation.
Now that Sarkozy and France have vacated the presidency, it's the Czechs turn.