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Euro Crisis In Focus As Denmark Takes EU Presidency

Ukraine and its President Viktor Yanukovych can likely expect to be put on the back burner for the extent of the Danish time at the EU helm.
BRUSSELS -- The last time Denmark held the six-month rotating presidency of the European Union, it crowned its stint at the helm with a historic achievement.

At the end of 2002, Denmark's prime minister at the time, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, secured an agreement to allow the EU's biggest enlargement to date to go ahead with 10 countries, mostly from Central and Eastern Europe, joining a few years later.

On January 1, Denmark takes over the rotating presidency for another six-month stint. This time around, it could not be more different.

First off, the presidency is no longer what it was, since the bloc now has a permanent president, a position currently held by Herman Van Rompuy.

And the EU's current neighbors to the east and in the Balkans will find a bloc preoccupied with the biggest economic crisis to hit the continent in decades.

"I believe Denmark will keep things ticking over but they are not going to be putting their foot on the accelerator," says Amanda Paul of the European Policy Center, a Brussels-based think-tank, "simply because Denmark is not a country that is pro any further European integration to any great extent."

Outside Looking In

Just like last year, the eurozone's travails are likely to continue to grab the headlines in 2012 and another make-or-break summit has already been called for January.

This coming spring will see tough negotiations on the fine details of the new fiscal compact agreed by leaders in December, a deal that might lead to an EU fiscal union.

Denmark -- not a euro member -- will also face the daunting challenge of bridging the divide between the increasingly prominent 17 countries inside the eurozone and the 10 EU member states that don't use the single currency. And as outgoing presidency holder Poland found out before the Danes, it is hard to influence events from the sidelines.

Unlike the Poles, there's unlikely to be any specific geographical focus during the coming six months. Whereas Warsaw was allowed to push for a somewhat eastern agenda, Copenhagen will let the EU's diplomatic corps, the External Action Service, run the show.

One of the reasons was that it didn't go quite as planned for Poland, with Belarus's boycott of the Eastern Partnership summit in Warsaw in September a particular setback.

In 2012, negotiations are likely to continue with most of the Eastern European countries on issues such as visa facilitation and free-trade agreements.

The association agreement with Ukraine that was agreed in the dying moments of 2011 is also expected to be initialized.

Neighbors In The Cold

But after a year of strained relations between Brussels and Kyiv that culminated in the imprisonment of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, the EU is likely to hold off signing the document until after the Ukrainian parliamentary elections in the autumn. And the ratification process by all 27 member states might take even longer.

Olga Shumylo-Tapiola from Carnegie Europe says she believes the EU will continue to keep tabs on Ukraine but that Kyiv must come up with the freest and fairest elections yet next year for the EU to maintain some sort of interest.

"The EU has patience for a certain period of time but then other things take over. Internal crises, regions that are developing in a different way like the Arab world, so the EU will be distracted if things don't change on the Ukrainian side," Shumylo-Tapiola says. "But I would say till autumn of 2012 Ukraine will still be on the radar screens of some member states but also the EU institutions."

She is also skeptical whether things will change in EU-Belarus relations, as President Alyaksandr Lukashenka has so far appeared unruffled by EU sanctions imposed on his regime.

"My reading is that Belarus is put on the shelf until better times and I think that for many member states it is a very comfortable situation because they still wait for Lukashenka to go and that things will change in a dramatic and positive way," she says.

The EU froze personal assets and imposed a visa ban on more than 200 individuals linked to the regime after the violent crackdown on demonstrators that ensued after the flawed presidential elections in 2010.

The largest and potentially the only real success in the immediate neighborhood during the Danish presidency might instead come in the Balkans, as Serbia looks set to be given EU candidate status in February.

Belgrade had hoped to achieve this already at the last EU summit in December but staunch opposition from Germany made it impossible. Reluctance to dismantle roadblocks set up by ethnic Serbs in northern Kosovo and scant progress in the ongoing, EU-sponsored Belgrade-Pristina dialogue might scupper a deal once again, however.
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    Rikard Jozwiak

    Rikard Jozwiak is the Europe editor for RFE/RL in Prague, focusing on coverage of the European Union and NATO. He previously worked as RFE/RL’s Brussels correspondent, covering numerous international summits, European elections, and international court rulings. He has reported from most European capitals, as well as Central Asia.