Ireland at EU helm
It has been our mantra in every one of Ireland’s six previous EEC/EU presidencies since accession 40 years ago that our agenda will reflect not internal domestic priorities, not Ireland’s agenda, but that of the EU collectively. We promise to be honest brokers, steering the ship between the rocks of national self-interest in a way many larger states find difficult. To a great extent, that effort has been the secret of past success in the role we assumed yesterday.
The challenge in managing that perceived distinction between national and EU agendas has never been more difficult. To a greater degree than ever before there is in fact no distinction – we are very much partis pris in most of the key issues we will face, in part because of the specifics of the Irish crisis, but also the remorseless onward march of collective economic governance. What is at stake this time is far more than simply reputation.
Ireland’s economy has never been more critically dependent on the immediate decisions of an EU struggling to emerge from crisis. Not least, any resurgence of the crisis could compromise efforts to break free of the bailout next year, a political as much as economic necessity for Taoiseach Enda Kenny. Crucial here is Dublin’s campaign for bank-debt relief which may make the difference between a smooth return to markets or rejection. Such concerns will inevitably play into the unwritten subtext of negotiations on the banking supervision legislation and talks on the creation of a common European bank resolution mechanism whose management is the most important and probably most difficult political challenge for the presidency and Minister for Finance Michael Noonan.
Ireland’s interests are also deeply intertwined in a successful outcome of the stalled talks on the 2014-20 budget. Minister for Agriculture Simon Coveney, in particular, faces a huge challenge in helping reconcile demands for significant cuts in the farm budget and changes in the shape of the Cap with the aspirations of states such as our own. And the political toxicity of the EU budget issue in Britain will require delicate handling. It may be necessary to open a limited renegotiation of the UK’s membership terms to secure London’s agreement to a budget deal, a prospect that will fill Dublin with dread.
Looming elections in Italy and Germany will also affect the presidency dynamic but Ireland will not, as previously, occupy the central role of chairing leaders’ summits, foreign ministers’ or euro zone meetings. But we will chair some 1,600 meetings in the six months attempting to move on a crowded agenda of economic and political issues, a test once again of the diplomatic, administrative and political skills of our political class and civil service.