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30 Jun 2023

A Changing EU

On 1 July 2023 Spain assumes the Presidency of the Council for the fifth time since becoming an EU member state in 1986. It will hold the Presidency until 31 December 2023. This explainer outlines what the Council Presidency is, what the Spanish Presidency’s priorities are, what role the Spanish election might play, and whether an EU member state can be stripped of its Presidency.

What is the Council of the EU?

The Council of the EU, often simply called the Council, is one of seven institutions of the European Union. Together with the European Parliament, the Council negotiates and adopts EU law. The Council meets in ten configurations, depending on the policy area that is being discussed, for example agriculture and fisheries, justice and home affairs, or the environment.  The meetings are attended by the relevant government minister from each member state.

What does it mean to hold the Presidency of the Council?

The Presidency of the Council rotates between EU member states every six months. In an EU of 27 countries, this means it is a member state’s turn every 13 and a half years. The country that holds the Presidency chairs (almost) all configurations of the Council, ensuring continuity and orderly legislative processes in the Council. The configuration of foreign affairs ministers, the Foreign Affairs Council, is exempt as it is chaired by the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy.

“Apart from planning and chairing meetings at every level of the Council, the Presidency also represents the Council in its dealings with other EU institutions”

Apart from planning and chairing meetings at every level of the Council, the Presidency also represents the Council in its dealings with other EU institutions, assuming the role of an ‘honest broker’ between member states and between the Council and other institutions.

What is the so-called ‘trio’?

The Presidency is carried out by three successive six-months long Presidencies, called trios, that work together closely over a period of 18 months. The trio system was formalised after the Treaty of Lisbon in 2009. The trio develops an 18-months programme, defining their longer-term goals. Each member of the trio then sets out their own more detailed six months priorities. The current trio (as of 1 July 2023) is made up of Spain, Belgium, and Hungary.

Which countries are holding the Presidency after Spain?

Due to the UK’s decision not to assume its Council Presidency in the second half of 2017, the Council adopted a revised order in 2016 which runs until 2030:

  • Spain – July to December 2023
  • Belgium – January to June 2024
  • Hungary – July to December 2024
  • Poland – January to June 2025
  • Denmark – July to December 2025
  • Cyprus – January to June 2026
  • Ireland – July to December 2026
  • Lithuania – January to June 2027
  • Greece – July to December 2027
  • Italy – January to June 2028
  • Latvia – July to December 2028
  • Luxembourg – January to June 2029
  • Netherlands – July to December 2029
  • Slovakia – January to June 2030
  • Malta – July to December 2030

What are the priorities of the Spanish Council Presidency?

The Spanish Presidency will be the last full-term Presidency in the current legislature, with European parliamentary elections taking place on 6 to 9 June 2024. This gives added impetus to the Spanish aspiration “to successfully bring to fruition a large number of open legislative dossiers”, such as the reform of the electricity market, the revision of fiscal governance, and the Asylum and Migration pact. Under the motto ‘Europe, closer’, the Spanish Presidency has also outlined its broader priorities for the next six months:

(1) Reindustrialise the EU and ensure its open strategic autonomy

This goal includes fostering the development of strategic industries and technologies in Europe (from energy to food, health, and digital technologies), diversifying the EU’s trading relations and supply chains, as well as promoting greater European energy sovereignty. With a key summit of European and Caribbean and Latin American leaders (EU-CELAC summit) taking place on 17-18 July 2023, the Spanish Presidency is putting special emphasis on building strategic alliances with Latin America.

(2) Advance in the green transition and the environmental adaptation

This priority entails driving forward a reform of the electricity market and accelerating the legislative files related to Fit for 55, the set of proposals to achieve the EU’s climate goals by 2030.

(3) Promoting greater social and economic justice

This goal makes reference to the push to establish minimum standards on corporate taxation in all member states and the fight against tax evasion by large multinational companies as well as reforms to the EU’s fiscal rules.

(4) Strengthening European unity

Finally, the Presidency wants to focus on the deepening of the internal market and on advancing the Asylum and Migration Pact. Ensuring that member states remain committed and united in their support for Ukraine will be a “horizontal priority throughout the Presidency”.

Will the Spanish election on 23 July 2023 impact the Spanish Council Presidency?

After his Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) suffered a disappointing set of results at May’s local and regional elections, Prime Minister Sánchez decided to bring forward the country’s general election by five months. That means Spain will go to the polls on 23 July; three weeks after having taken over the Presidency.

According to the latest polls, a change of government might well be on the cards. The Conservative People’s Party (PP) is set to win more seats than the ruling Socialist-led minority government, however, is likely to fall short of an absolute majority. This might open the door to a coalition between the PP and the far-right Vox party, as has just happened at a regional level.

Such a result could have an impact on the Spanish Presidency of the Council. For example, some delays can be expected, as is the case for the Prime Minister’s address on the Presidency’s priorities in front of the European Parliament. The speech has been moved from July to September.

“Spain will go to the polls on 23 July; three weeks after having taken over the Presidency.”

If there is a hung parliament or prolonged coalition talks, there could be further delays, which as some have noted could create a political leadership vacuum at the helm of the Council. That being said, holding a national election during a Presidency is not without precedent. France’s Council Presidency in the first half of 2022 also coincided with its presidential election in April 2022.

Furthermore, the ‘trio’ of Spain, Belgium, and Hungary have already prepared their joint programme and Spain has published its own priorities, so even with a change of government, the long-term priorities have been set. As pointed out by Spain’s permanent representative to the EU, the expectation is for the Presidency to act as an “honest broker”, meaning “[w]hen it comes to the files, [the election] doesn’t change much.”

Can a member state be stripped of its Presidency?

This issue has been pushed to the fore following the European Parliament’s adoption of a resolution on the breaches of the Rule of Law and fundamental rights in Hungary and frozen EU funds. The resolution raises questions regarding the Hungarian Presidency in the second half of 2024, and its ability ‘to credibly fulfil this task’ where it is concerned ‘the rule of law has been deteriorating in Hungary [and that] this is having a negative impact on the EU’s image, as well as its effectiveness and credibility in the defence of fundamental rights, human rights and democracy globally’. The resolution asks the Council ‘to find a proper solution as soon as possible’.

“Belgium’s Prime Minister Alexander De Croo said he does not think that stripping Hungary of its Presidency would be a good idea.”

The Meijers Committee, an independent standing committee of legal experts, has discussed possible legal avenues to address the concerns related to Hungary, and immediately following it, Poland, holding Council Presidencies where they are both subject to investigations for breaches of the rule of law. Their proposals range from postponing the Presidency to transferring some of its responsibilities, for example for chairing meetings on rule of law issues, to another member of the ‘trio’.

Whilst a debate on the legal feasibility of the Meijer’s proposals is still ongoing, a judgement on their political feasibility seems to have been made by a fellow ‘trio’ member; Belgium’s Prime Minister Alexander De Croo said he does not think that stripping Hungary of its Presidency would be a good idea.

By Jannike Wachowiak, researcher,  UK in a Changing Europe


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