Day's timetable mirrors dilemma at heart of Europe
It was a day of two halves yesterday, as the European Commission swept into town for its scheduled trip to Dublin.
The morning was dominated by officialdom, as EU commissioners and the Irish Government retreated behind the austere walls of Dublin Castle for high-level discussions.
In the afternoon, EU officials moved next door to City Hall for a question-and-answer session to mark the European Year of Citizens.
The structure of the day encapsulates a dilemma at the heart of Europe as it battles to bridge the gap between citizens of Europe and the institutions charged with representing them.
“This European year of the citizen gives individuals . . . gives you the chance to consider what Europe means to you, what you can achieve for and in the European Union, how to take the fullest benefit of membership to improve your life and that of your community,” Taoiseach Enda Kenny told the 200-plus City Hall audience.
But perhaps the Tánaiste’s words were more apt, as he opened his address with a reference to the falling level of public trust in the EU and national governments that has accompanied the economic crisis.
In terms of Ireland’s priorities for the presidency, yesterday’s scheduled meeting with the “College of Commissioners”, as they are known, was “productive” and “substantive”, according to sources. The morning opened with a plenary session between the Irish Government and the EU commissioners (24 out of 27 made the trip to Dublin). Commissioners then broke off into small groups for talks with individual Ministers.
In addition the Taoiseach held bilateral discussions with European Commission president José Manuel Barroso.
While Ireland’s debt deal is likely to have come up during that meeting, the rest of the talks were taken up with European legislative issues that are scheduled during Ireland’s presidency.
The meeting between the EU commissioners for agriculture and fisheries and Simon Coveney, for example, was particularly productive, sources said.
Ireland is pushing for the protection of agriculture spending, though any agreement on the Common Agricultural Policy is predicated on the successful conclusion of the EU budget talks. Ireland and the commission yesterday reiterated their hope that the European budget would be concluded in February.
While Eamon Gilmore, as chairman of the General Affairs Council, has a role in this regard, ultimately council president Herman Van Rompuy decides whether the final proposal will be discussed at the next EU summit.
Ultimately, one of the main functions of yesterday was diplomatic. While the Taoiseach and Minister for Finance Michael Noonan are well known in Europe – Kenny, for example, knows Barroso of old through their membership of the European People’s Party – yesterday was an opportunity for lesser-known Irish politicians to make their mark.
As Ireland pleads its case for a deal on its banking debt over the coming months, those relationships will become increasingly important.