Astute Irish diplomats are expert at playing the Brussels system

Thu, May 29, 2008, 01:00

OPINION:Irish influence in Brussels is leveraged most by our diplomats and by skilled negotiating - not opposing for the sake of opposing, writes Brigid Laffan 

IRELAND'S VOICE and representation in European institutions is a significant issue in the Lisbon campaign. Two main forces opposing the treaty, Sinn Féin and Libertas, have argued strongly that Ireland got a bad deal in the treaty negotiations and have given up too much in terms of institutional presence. Discussion of the loss of a commissioner and voting weights are prominent.

These claims have not been the subject of sufficient scrutiny. Moreover, discussion of institutional presence must be placed in the context of how Ireland has managed its relations with Brussels in over 35 years of membership.

Successive Irish governments have been very attentive to questions of voice in the EU. Like all small states, Ireland wants a system that gives it sufficient presence to ensure that its core needs are met. In addition, it wants an EU that functions effectively.

The commitment to one commissioner per state was a key principle of Ireland's European policy until Nice. That changed at Nice when it was agreed that there would be fewer commissioners than member states. The Lisbon Treaty makes provision for the rotation of commissioners on a 15-year cycle, with each country having a commissioner for two of three periods of five years.

The Irish government accepted this change because it was based on the strict equality of member states. This was a major concession from the large states and one that may not be on offer again.

All states, large and small, will have to adjust to the rotation of commissioners if Lisbon is ratified. It is, however, misleading to suggest that Ireland depends heavily on having a commissioner in Brussels to promote its interests.

The nerve centre of Ireland's presence in Brussels is the Permanent Representation on the Rue Froissard near the core European institutions. There, Ireland's Permanent Representative, currently Bobby McDonagh, heads a large office of officials drawn from all government departments who act as the eyes and ears of the domestic system.

These officials maintain contact with the European Commission on a daily basis, liaise with the committees of the European Parliament and service the council system.

The representation is a mini-Irish public service at the coalface of EU policy making. Promoting Ireland's interests is at the core of its activities. The representation has adjusted to institutional changes in the past, notably the growing power of the European Parliament, and would adapt to a rotating commission with ease. Opponents of the Lisbon Treaty have also made much of the changes to the voting system. Under Nice, Ireland has seven votes out of a total of 321, which represents 2 per cent of the total pool of votes.

The Lisbon Treaty greatly simplifies the voting system by introducing a double majority system, based on population, on the one hand, and member states, on the other.

A qualified majority will require 55 per cent of the members of the council, comprising at least 15 member states representing 65 per cent of the population. This is both elegant and equitable.

The member state provision favours small member states and the latter balances this with population weight. Those who argue that Ireland has halved its voting power are only doing half of the math. Twelve of the 27 states will be able to block a provision. This gives Ireland almost 4 per cent of the weight on this dimension of the voting system.

Does any of this actually matter to protecting Ireland's interests? Those who argue the details of the voting system have not bothered to check Ireland's actual voting record.

The hard evidence is that the EU system remains largely driven by consensus. Only 25 per cent of decisions that could have gone to a vote between 1994-2004 were voted on.

Qualified majority voting is a facilitator of consensus building rather than the default mechanism in the council. Of those 25 per cent of the decisions that went to a vote, Ireland was rarely in the minority. In 10 years, Ireland only cast seven negative votes and abstained on 14 others.

Irish European policy is not characterised by "no-saying" in the council. Then minister for foreign affairs Brian Cowen put it rather well when he said: "The reality of council business is that our influence depends far more on our capacity to form alliances with like-minded states, large and small, than on minor variations in statistical voting weight."

Since 1973, the Irish governmental system has built up considerable expertise at playing the Brussels system. Although representing a small member state, Irish policy-makers have managed to navigate the multi-level politics of the European Union in a manner that has promoted Ireland's essential interests.

This was achieved by a high level of prioritisation, sophisticated negotiation tactics, high-quality presidencies, not opposing for the sake of opposing, and a problem-solving approach to negotiations. All of those skills will be required as the European Council deliberates on how to meet its ambitious carbon reduction targets in December of this year.

Is Ireland better served by a Taoiseach going into those negotiations with the winds of a Yes or the turbulence of a No? This question serves to bring the choice facing the Irish electorate into sharp relief.

Brigid Laffan is a member of the Irish Alliance for Europe and principal at the College of Human Sciences in UCD