This article analyses the formation and development of Member State preferences and positions before and during the European Union (EU) Presidency term. The empirical analysis focuses on the Federal Republic of Germany's policy concerning EU–Russian relations, especially regarding energy policy. The extent to which liberal intergovernmentalism (LI) furthers our understanding of state behaviour in the context of the EU Presidency is questioned. The findings suggest that LI adequately explains the formation of German positions prior to assuming office, as its policy objectives are chiefly influenced by domestic producers' interests. However, LI cannot satisfactorily account for German governmental action after taking on the Presidency role, during which time it largely downplayed domestic preferences. Instead, Presidency norms dominated its action. In this article, institutionalist approaches are drawn upon for a significantly enhanced understanding of governmental behaviour during the Presidency. Rational choice institutionalism (RCI) highlights Germany's restraint from defending its original domestic preferences due to rational calculation embedded in normative Presidency constraints. Sociological institutionalism (SI) accounts for the reprioritization of objectives through the ‘taken-for-grantedness’ of thoroughly internalized Presidency norms.