By Christina Vasilaki, our correspondent in Brussels.

From the difficult position of being the EU country hardest hit by the Eurozone crisis, Greece is taking over the rotating Presidency of the European Council, as of January 1.

The Greek government will be called on to play an important role on the implementation of significant decisions related to the future of financial and economic governance in the framework of Economic and Monetary Union, which will also affect the country’s road to economic recovery.

In this context, Greece will undertake its 5th Presidency in “interesting” times, as Janis A. Emmanouilidis, Director of Studies and Head of Programme in the European Policy Center (EPC), commented on Friday, introducing an EPC policy dialogue on the topic.

The Greek presidency will focus on “the balance between solidarity and solidity,” said Theodoros Sotiropoulos, Permanent Representative of Greece to the EU. The Greek Ambassador was invited by the EPC to set out the priorities of the upcoming presidency.

Mr Sotiropoulos stressed the pressing need for the EU to deal with serious and urgent issues, such as tackling unemployment, boosting growth and maintaining cohesion. The full implementation of the new Economic Governance with a view to boost growth will be the first priority of the Presidency.

At the same time further integration of Eurozone is also currently “open” with a lot of different opinions making it difficult for the European Council to reach an agreement on crucial issues that relate to the Banking Union. Ambassador Sotiropoulos argued that Greece’s expectations are to reach a compromise as soon as possible in the pending issues of Single Resolution Mechanism, contractual arrangements and solidarity mechanism. “We are not there yet. There is still no common ground in the Council”, he said.

Among the priorities of the Greek presidency is the deepening of the social dimension of the EMU, the implementation of the Youth Initiative in order to tackle the dramatic levels of youth unemployment in the continent and the support to European SMEs, decided by the Council in June 2013.

Immigration and EU asylum policy will also be one of the main priorities, Mr Sotiropoulos said. “There is need for reducing illegal immigration while safeguarding human rights, reinforcing legal migration and enhancing the links between migration and growth”.

Greece was recently heavily criticised for its “push-back response” to the border pressure from Syrian refugees. “The Syrian problem needs a political solution first and it is not the rotating Presidency’s responsibility to deal with the EU’s external relations,” he said.
Finally, Mr Sotiropoulos explained that the EU maritime policy is considered from Greece as “a source of growth” and therefore, one of the objectives for the next semester will be the development of a new EU maritime policy with a view to its adoption at the European Council in June 2014.

As journalists and other stakeholders mentioned repeatedly during the presentation, enlargement is notably absent from the priority list. Mr Sotiropoulos answered that the Presidency’s priorities cannot be more than three or four, but this does not mean that the EU Enlargement policy will not be part of the agenda.

More specifically, the Greek Ambassador said: “for FYROM, the Council has clearly set the conditions which need to be fulfilled for the advancement of the country’s candidacy. Greece will be happy to see its neighbour moving forward as long as these conditions are met”.

On Turkey, he argued that Greece clearly wants its biggest neighbour in the EU, but this depends on the country itself. “Instead of pushing for the visa liberalization first, Turkey should reconsider its position and sign as soon as possible the readmission agreement”, he said.

According to Mr Sotiropoulos the budget for the Greek presidency will be up to €50 million and the government is determined to make the best of use for every euro spent. “It will be a Spartan Presidency. We will stay focused on the legislative work with less people working for the Presidency.  All activities will take place in Athens in a less glamorous environment; there will be fewer gifts or no gifts at all,” he stated. 

First published in New Europe, November 29