Ireland performs a tough act of high-wire diplomacy
Opinion:For a small state to chair a major multinational institution like the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) may be regarded as a singular responsibility. To follow that immediately with the presidency (chair) of the Council of the European Union might reasonably be seen as an enormous challenge.
To then seek out a seat on a third international body, the UN’s Human Rights Council (UNHRC), might well be seen as folly or even hubris. How well is Irish diplomacy coping with these tasks and how, if at all, does the country benefit?
Irish diplomats and officials began this marathon at a low ebb. Economic collapse, the intervention of the troika and designation as a “PIIG” country shattered Ireland’s international reputation. Demoralised diplomats witnessed this at first hand and were immediately thrown on to the front lines to reassure overseas investors, to make the case for international and EU assistance and to defend Irish interests in tough negotiations.
They did all of the above from a diminishing pool of resources. Ireland has, in both per capita and absolute terms, one of the smallest diplomatic networks within the EU, with just 73 thinly staffed overseas offices – half of which operate with just one or two diplomats. Overall, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s costs have been scaled back by almost 20 per cent, with an almost one-third drop in non-payroll budgets from a 2008 peak.
The enormous scale of the department’s agenda in 2012-2013 has also to be assessed. Chairing the OSCE, whose summit closed this weekend, has involved the active engagement of Ministers, diplomats and officials in an extraordinary range of complex, active and sensitive international negotiations on issues as diverse as media freedom across all 57 OSCE member states and the resolution of “frozen” conflicts in Georgia, Moldova, Armenia and Azerbaijan. In addition, the OSCE faces its own crisis in attempting to define its role and ambitions in human rights protection, democracy promotion and regional security more than 40 years after its foundation.
As incoming president of the EU’s Council of Ministers, the departments of Foreign Affairs and Trade and of the Taoiseach have to offer leadership and support to more than 2,000 ministerial and official meetings over the first six months of 2013 in Brussels and Dublin.
The agenda here, of course, is enough to cause anyone sleepless nights: picking up the pieces of collapsed EU budget negotiations; putting flesh on the bones of a European growth and jobs strategy; re-engineering the union’s economic governance (including the creation of a banking union); the start of EU-US free trade talks; and furthering work on the single market, the digital economy and a host of other big-ticket items.
At the same time, officials have to keep a close eye to immediate Irish interests on promissory notes, debt deals and bank recovery.
This, the seventh Irish EU presidency is also being run under the new post-Lisbon Treaty framework. On the plus side, much of the heavy lifting at European Council summits is done by Herman van Rompuy who chairs meetings of EU heads of government, and Catherine Ashton who is responsible for EU foreign and security policy. On the other hand, Irish officials and Ministers have now to work in detail and closely with the European Parliament, its members and committees. MEPs have major new powers over the EU agenda and are keen to wield them.