Finland’s Presidency drove forward an ambitious climate policy and strengthened the rule of law
Finland’s Presidency of the Council of the European Union ran from 1 July to 31 December 2019. The Presidency’s task was to lead the Council's work and represent the Council in its relations with the other EU institutions. In June, the Finnish government chose ‘Sustainable Europe – Sustainable Future’ as its Presidency slogan. Four priorities were set out for the Presidency: common values and the rule of law as cornerstones of the EU; a competitive and socially inclusive EU; the EU as a global climate leader; and protecting the security of citizens comprehensively.
The number of legislative proposals taken forward during Finland’s Presidency was fewer than normal, because this coincided with a transition period for the key EU institutions. Under the ordinary legislative procedure, agreement was reached between the Council and the European Parliament on 15 legislative proposals, and agreements on a further three await endorsement by the Committee of Permanent Representatives (Coreper). The transition to the next five-year term enabled future-oriented policy debates in matters such as sustainable growth, the economy of wellbeing, and migration and asylum policy.
Finland’s Presidency set about putting the priorities of the EU’s new Strategic Agenda 2019–2024 into the Council’s work and reported on this to the European Council. In addition, the level of transparency of the Council’s work was raised by increasing the Council’s public debates, communicating openly and actively, improving access to legislative documents, and publishing information on meetings with lobbyists. At the end of Finland’s Presidency, a report was produced on these transparency measures and on the development of the Council's working methods (the latter as part of the Strategic Agenda’s implementation), as well as on a videoconferencing pilot scheme for more effective use of digital tools.
At the December European Council, Finland presented a negotiating box with figures as the basis for negotiations on the EU's forthcoming multiannual financial framework (MFF) for 2021–2027. The responsibility for taking the negotiations forward then transferred to the President of the European Council. The Council also continued discussion, in part with the Parliament, on the sectoral proposals included in the MFF. In November, the Council and the Parliament reached agreement on the EU budget for 2020.
The Brexit process for the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the EU did not hinder progress on other important matters during Finland’s Presidency, and the EU27 remained united. At the UK’s request, amendments were negotiated concerning the Withdrawal Agreement Protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland and the Political Declaration. The solution reached safeguards the EU’s interests and protects the peace and stability of the island of Ireland. The EU and its member states finalised contingency measures within the timescale for the event of the UK withdrawing without an agreement (a ‘no-deal Brexit’). A no-deal Brexit was avoided in October, and the European Council granted a postponement of the withdrawal until 31 January 2020.
No agreement was reached among the member states on the opening of accession negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania, but the European Council will revert to the issue in spring 2020.
A strengthening of the EU’s Arctic policy was sought, focusing on a range of perspectives. The subject was discussed at the Informal Meeting of Ministers for Foreign Affairs in Helsinki in August, and the December Foreign Affairs Council adopted conclusions inviting the European Commission and the High Representative to continue to actively implement the policy.
The Agenda on Sustainable Development was promoted through horizontal cooperation. The Council adopted conclusions in December on the implementation of the UN’s 2030 Agenda.
Common values and the rule of law as cornerstones of the EU
Under Finland’s leadership, the EU strengthened the rule of law and developed tools to prevent rule of law problems from emerging. In November, Presidency conclusions – approved by 26 member states – were issued regarding evaluation of the Council’s rule of law dialogue. The conclusions call for the dialogue to be transformed into a general discussion on the state of play as regards the rule of law, and to link this discussion to the Commission's new rule of law review cycle.
Rule of law procedures concerning Poland and Hungary were brought forward by having state of plays and hearings in Council meetings. The hearings were conducted in accordance with standard modalities agreed at Finland's initiative.
The MFF negotiating box presented by Finland contained a proposal for resolving political questions concerning protection of the EU budget in situations where there are generalised rule of law deficiencies in the member states.
Important steps were taken in improving the fight against corruption and fraud. Finland sought to bring forward the start of operation of the European Public Prosecutor's Office (EPPO), and the Council agreed a general approach on a legislative package to facilitate the detection of tax fraud especially in cross-border e-commerce. Agreement was also reached on a return to negotiations with the Council of Europe on the EU’s accession to the European Convention on Human Rights.
A competitive and socially inclusive EU
Under Finland’s leadership, the Council prepared key messages on sustainable growth and a Presidency report was drawn up on the EU’s strategy for sustainable growth. The policy priorities included the single market, digitalisation and skills, research and innovation, and modern industrial policy.
Negotiations on the single market agenda were begun with the European Parliament. The Council reached agreement on a draft Directive on representative actions, which would put in place a new system for protecting consumer rights. The digital economy was discussed at various Council configurations. The issues included skills requirements concerning artificial intelligence, related legal questions, a human-centric data economy, and digital transport services.
Legislative matters were taken forward in the transport sector. Political agreement was reached with the European Parliament on the EU Mobility Package concerning social and market aspects of road haulage, on energy labelling for tyres, and on electronic freight transport information.
Finland set in motion an EU-wide debate on the ‘economy of wellbeing’, which focuses on the mutually supportive relationship between the economy and people's wellbeing. The Council’s conclusions on this theme call for the Commission to present a long-term strategy for the EU that reflects the economy of wellbeing and is aimed at ensuring the EU becomes the world’s most competitive and socially inclusive climate neutral economy. The Council’s conclusions on gender equality present policy priorities for the Commission's forthcoming gender equality strategy and emphasize the mainstreaming of a gender perspective, particularly in economic and budgetary policies.
Ministers also discussed the future of work, skills needs, lifelong learning and the need to reinforce non-discrimination and equal treatment. The Finnish Presidency was also the first to arrange a joint meeting of EU ministers of finance and education, which focused on the importance of education, training and skills in building a strong foundation for the economy.
In the field of trade, the agenda included the multilateral trading system and the challenges it faces, and the advancement of the EU’s bilateral trade relations, particularly with the United States. Finland also highlighted climate issues and trade relations with China in these discussions.
The Council discussed legislative proposals on a euro area budgetary instrument. The instrument forms part of the MFF negotiating box submitted to the European Council.
The Council adopted conclusions on the future of the capital markets union and on the strategic priorities for anti-money laundering and countering the financing of terrorism. In December, the EU reached political agreement on a classification system (‘taxonomy’) for sustainable finance.
The EU as a global climate leader
The December European Council endorsed the objective of making the EU climate neutral by 2050, in line with the Paris Agreement. One member state could not, at this stage, commit to implementing this objective, and the European Council will come back to this issue in June 2020.
Finland brought the climate perspective to the agenda of almost all the Councils and several of the informal meetings of EU ministers. The discussions focused on matters such as a just transition to a climate neutral economy, emissions reductions in the transport and energy sectors, food security, and soil carbon sequestration in agriculture.
The 2030 climate and energy goals were taken forward. There was also discussion about the EU’s commitment to accelerated climate ambition, and agreement was reached on the EU’s positions for the Conference of Parties to the UN Convention on Climate Change in December 2019.
The conclusions adopted by the Environment Council gave out a strong message on incorporating the circular economy into the new Commission's work programme. The circular economy offers solutions for mitigating climate change and halting biodiversity loss.
The December Environment Council adopted conclusions on a global biodiversity framework and on protecting and restoring forests, recognising the climate impact of the world's forests. The biodiversity framework forms part of the EU's preparations for the Conference of the Parties to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity.
Protecting the security of citizens comprehensively
Finland’s goal was to strengthen the EU’s internal and external security and its defence cooperation, in order to ensure the security of citizens comprehensively. In measures to counter hybrid threats, a concrete step forward was taken with the establishment of a horizontal working party for coordinating the Council’s activities in this field. A number of high-level scenario-based discussions were also held with the aim of supporting situational awareness and resilience. The results were presented in a Presidency report and the next steps are set out in the Council conclusions.
The need to improve cyber security was also highlighted. Significant progress was made in developing the EU’s concerted approach to the security of 5G networks.
Although it is the responsibility of the High Representative to deal with matters of security and defence cooperation in the Council, the Finnish Presidency drove forward discussion of the effects of digitalisation and artificial intelligence on the defence sector, and discussion of the climate aspects of security and defence. The strategic debate on the EU's security and defence cooperation was also stepped up.
Finland’s Presidency included 52 Council meetings. In all, 131 Presidency-related meetings were held in Finland, six of which were informal meetings of EU ministers.
The meeting arrangements adhered to the principles of sustainability. The Finnish Presidency’s carbon footprint was reduced by as much as 70% in comparison with a standard presidency. The money traditionally reserved for presidency gifts was instead used to offset the greenhouse gas emissions generated by travel to and from the meetings.