EU presidency displayed best of what Ireland can offer
Our seventh presidency of the Council of the European Union was not just about putting the best national foot forward: it was about regaining self-respect
Taoiseach Enda Kenny, European Council president Herman Van Rompuy and European Commission president José Manuel Barroso at a joint news conference last Friday at the end of the European Union summit. Photograph: Reuters/Yves Herman
It was only a throwaway remark but it said a multitude about Ireland’s standing in Europe. Earlier this month, as he defended the European Union’s decision to sanction Latvia’s application for euro membership, commissioner Olli Rehn pointed out that Latvia’s banking industry was nothing like the size of the banking sector in some other countries. “Only three countries had such huge banking sectors relative to their size. Cyprus, Iceland and Ireland,” he said, raising his head with a smile. A knowing laugh rippled through the room.
It was one of the many daily reminders in Brussels of Ireland’s standing in Europe. Ireland’s position in the EU has changed dramatically since it last held the rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union.
Context of collapse
While the rejection of the Nice Treaty in 2001 may have coloured the Irish presidency in 2004, Ireland’s slide into economic collapse culminating in an EU-led bailout in 2010 has fundamentally changed the dynamics of its relationship with the continent.
The ceding of economic independence to greater economic governance by the EU has put Ireland into a subset of EU “programme” countries, dependent on the support of other member states for economic survival. Ireland’s defiant rejection of a string of EU treaties during the last decade was followed by unavoidable subservience to the EU, as we continued to draw on bailout funds.
As a result, our seventh presidency of the Council of the European Union wasn’t just about putting the best national foot forward. It was about regaining self-respect. Badly bruised by the ignominy of a bailout, the Government was determined to show it could run a professional and responsible show.
In this sense, the presidency has been an undoubted success.
As that presidency draws to a close, Ireland has chaired almost 2,500 meetings and progressed hundreds of files, including 80 legislative measures.
Important achievements include final agreement on Common Agricultural Policy and Common Fisheries Policy reform, packages that have been winding through the EU process for years, but whose final wind-up has eluded previous presidencies. The signing of the EU-US trade deal, despite a last-minute plea from France to protect its culture industry, was a feat of negotiation, while a string of smaller files was brought over the line.
Presidency of achievement
The notion that “the Irish can get things done” has been a constant refrain in Brussels over the last six months, though it helped that Ireland succeeded Cyprus in the role and hands over to Lithuania, two countries new to running a presidency.
There have also been challenges. The handling of the EU seven-year budget negotiations threatened to scupper final agreement on the package, after the Tánaiste was criticised for prematurely implying agreement had been reached.
For politicians, EU presidencies present an obvious opportunity to increase their profile.
For the past six months, a steady stream of Government Ministers has been shuttling back and forth to Brussels. Taoiseach Enda Kenny, Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore, Minister for Finance Michael Noonan, Minister for Agriculture Simon Coveney and Minister of State for Europe Lucinda Creighton have been the most prominent.