Government happy with diplomacy gains at mid-point of Irish presidency
EU officials praise Irish ‘business-like and down-to earth’ style
Minister for the Environment Phil Hogan TD yesterday chaired an informal meeting of EU Environment Ministers at Dublin Castle as part of the Irish Presidency of the EU. He is pictured with Netherlands Minister for the Environment Wilma Mansveld. Photograph: Bryan O'Brien.
“Overall we’re ahead of schedule,” she says over the hum of official chatter that characterises lunchtime in the Belgian capital. “We’ve made real progress on a number of files. Now it’s a matter of looking ahead to our priorities for the next few months.”
It is midway through the Irish presidency of the European Council, and Creighton is in Brussels on one of her many stopover trips in recent months.
Creighton is one of the faces of the Irish presidency of the European Council, travelling between Brussels and Strasbourg to represent the European Council in negotiations with the European Parliament, as well as co-ordinating presidency activity at the different Government departments at home.
While Dublin is playing host to a number of high-profile events and informal European Council meetings during the presidency , the real action is in Brussels, where Ireland finds itself at the centre of political and official life. For six months, the rotating presidency of the European Council gives member states the opportunity to take the reins of European decision-making and diplomacy.
One strand of this is ministerial involvement. Lucinda Creighton is one of a number of Ministers who travel to Brussels frequently, mostly to chair the various council meetings that correlate to their respective departments. For more experienced Ministers, it’s an opportunity to renew old friends and connections, and for newer politicians it offers an unrivalled opportunity to liaise with some of Europe’s top decision-makers and politicians.
But arguably the real work is done by Irish officials behind the scenes.
Like all member states, Ireland has a permanent representation, known as the “perm rep”, based in Brussels, which governs the interaction between the member state and the EU institutions. Typically, the Irish perm rep houses about 90 officials, drawn from different departments. For the presidency that staff has swelled to about 190, comprised of extra officials from Dublin and local staff.
The Irish presidency team in Brussels is led by Rory Montgomery, Ireland’s highly experienced ambassador to the EU, and deputy ambassador Tom Hanney, and comprises personnel from the Department of Foreign Affairs and the relevant Government departments.
Their task is to lead negotiations, with the aim of securing consensus and progressing key pieces of legislation through the laborious EU process. The schedule is intense. On some days officials meet representatives from other member states during the day, followed by negotiations with MEPs in the evening, that can last late into the night.
So how is the Irish presidency rated in Brussels? “It helps that this is their seventh time hosting the position, but there is definitely a sense that they’re extremely capable and get things done,” says one EU official who has seen presidencies come and go. “Really, presidencies are a question of style, and I’d describe the Irish as business-like and down-to earth.”
His views are echoed by a senior US source, who says America is “very enthusiastic” about having the Irish in the chair, particularly in light of negotiations on the US-EU trade deal. “This promises to be a complex and lengthy set of negotiations – similar deals have ended without agreement before – so having a presidency that makes progress matters enormously.”
In many respects the presidency has changed since Ireland last held the position in 2004. Since the Lisbon Treaty, the European Council’s permanent president, Herman Van Rompuy, now chairs the summits of EU leaders, while the EU’s foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, leads the foreign affairs council – positions that would previously been held by the Taoiseach and, in Ireland’s case, the Tánaiste, who is also Minister for Foreign Affairs.
But Creighton believes that the enhanced role of the European Parliament since Lisbon treaty adds a different dimension. “Actually, the workload is much greater. The European Parliament is the new challenge, and a huge amount of time is given over to securing agreement with parliament. “
An Irish presidency official based in Brussels agrees. “As presidency, you don’t so much get to decide what’s on the agenda, but you do control the rate at which things are done, and what to prioritise.”
Setting the agenda was a key factor in planning the presidency, says Creighton. “Intensive preparation has been ongoing for almost two years. I think the fact that we did not try and do everything, but rather focus on specific areas, is really paying off,” she says.
Among the priorities set by the Irish presidency are banking union, Cap reform, and data protection rules. So far, Ireland has delivered – particularly on Cap reform, fisheries and the establishment of the single supervisor, a key strand of the much-vaunted banking union, Europe’s grand plan to tackle the banking sector. But significant challenges remain, including on progressing banking union. The suggestion last week by Germany that the changes in banking policy, which will include the European Central Bank directly supervising banks, could need treaty change, illustrates the challenges that remain in progressing the banking legislation.
Similarly, the capital requirements directive, a mammoth piece of financial legislation that included the proposal to cap bank bonuses, was one of the more challenging dossiers for the presidency. With Britain strongly opposed to the measure, Irish negotiators stood fast in their responsibility to find the broadest possible consensus between member states, the vast majority of which were in favour of the measure.
“I think there was a sense that Ireland was going to be a soft touch,” says one official involved in the negotiations. “But they stuck to their guns. I think that took some of the British by surprise, but ultimately they did what they had to do. In this game you need to be impartial.”