Competent Spring wins friends and influences ministers

 

LAST WEEK he met almost 30 world leaders in four days at the UN in New York. This week the Tanaiste, Mr Spring, steered an EU foreign ministers' meeting to the strongest decisions they have taken for some time.

He discusses and answers questions on the situation in Mostar, the prospects for Cyprus, EMU, the EU/US relationship, the Middle East and the IGC with neither notes nor an adviser whispering in his ear.

Halfway through the Irish European Union Presidency, Spring's capacity for grasping complex subjects at once and getting divided ministers to make decisions is receiving praise from senior officials in many member states. He must be tired but he appears to be thriving.

EUROPE

The Florence summit in June asked the Irish presidency to produce drafts of new EU treaties by December. The treaties are being discussed at the Union's Inter Governmental Conference, now under Irish chairmanship. Proposals to reform the Union which are not agreed by then are to be mentioned in the Irish drafts and passed on to the next EU presidency, that of the Netherlands.

Mr Spring rejects suggestions that the deadline cannot be met. "We are very comfortable with the timetable," he says. "We will wrap a ribbon around the brief we were given, hand it over to the Dutch and say, gentlemen, there is now, let's bring it to a conclusion.

On Tuesday in Luxembourg, the 15 foreign ministers had what he called "the first serious engagement at ministerial level in a new phase of the IGC. We prepared papers for the debate and ministers got engaged".

His view is shared by representatives of other member states, who have praised Mr Spring's handling of the meetings, and the ability of former Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs, Mr Noel Dorr, who chairs the regular IGC meetings.

Those who have attended sessions chaired by Mr Spring say he moves meetings along briskly, pointing out areas of agreement quickly and cutting short discussions that are going nowhere.

His account of Tuesday's meeting matches this description. "We tried to bring it right down to specifics," he says. There was widespread support, for example, for putting a chapter on employment into the EU treaties. There was serious discussion of the proposal to give the EU more input into justice and home affairs issues such as immigration, asylum and borders.

The presidency will progress through all other issues, seeking agreement. But, he says bluntly, "there won't be agreement now" on the most difficult questions.

"Hopefully before the end of the Dutch presidency, people are going to sit around the table and say, OK lads, this is the pool, there's something for everybody, but everybody has to give something as well and at the end of the day that's the way everything works - coalition governments, too," he says.

It appears inevitable that there will be a chapter on employment, for example. In exchange, "those who are against it are going to have to get something back". Heads of state and government would meet foreign ministers next year and engage in the final horse trading.

Asked if member states were waiting for a new British government, he said: "The dogs in the street are talking about the position the British are in. It's a big factor".

Some people, he said, without referring directly to Britain, had to be reminded of the importance of the IGC discussions and the need for agreement. "You have to look at what follows from the IGC: the development of Europe, how Europe is going to function and make its decisions its role in the world, enlargement."

MANY observers, too, have credited "Irish efficiency" for a strong EU statement issued this week on the Middle East, and a decision to take a complaint to the World Trade Organisation about the US Helms Burton and D'Amato legislation, which penalises non US companies including those from the EU - for trading with Cuba, Libya and Iran.

On the Middle East, the Union, this week sharply criticised Israel for the latest crisis is in the Middle East peace process. The ministers asked for speedy withdrawal of Israeli troops from Hebron; the release of Palestinian prisoners; major financial aid for the Palestinians; and the resumption of full Israeli/Palestinian security co operation.

The Union also stepped up its campaign against the US trade legislation, deciding to take legal" action at the WTO.

The strength of these decisions was due "in fairness, to the Irish presidency. My approach to the presidency was made very clear from the start we wanted to have an efficient and effective presidency which got through the agenda. I think it actually shocked a lot of EU observers that it [the campaign] against the Helms Burton legislation was done with such efficiency."

He puts the strong position on the Middle East - at odds with the more pro Israeli US stance - downs to "Irish efficiency" as well as Ireland's lack of political and economic self interest in the region.

EUROPEAN SECURITY

Ireland would have to give "serisous consideration to involvement in a future military force in former Yugoslavia, even if it were under NATO command, as is the present force, Ifor. What is important is that the force would operate under a UN mandate. "In the context of the role being played in Ifor by the Russians, the Swedes and the Austrians, we could look at it in that context. It's an international force under a UN mandate."

Irish personnel from the Defence Forces, the Garda and the diplomatic service are already involve in policing and monitoring former Yugoslavia, he went on. We tend to examine these situations on a case by case basis, and if there is new force being put together in relation to former Yugoslavia I personally believe we would have to give it serious consideration."

This would depend on the availability of troops, he added. Ireland is already involved in 14 overseas missions, and the Defence Forces are going through a major review. But "my own personal view is that the Ifor experience has been an absolute success and it, gives a good guide for the future.

The Government is also give discussions with NATO about participation in the Partnership for Peace programme. PFP involves all European states, including members and non members of NATO, except Ireland and Switzerland.

It has as its aims the strengthening of political and military co-operation in Europe on security matters, and organises training for peacekeeping, search and rescue and humanitarian measures. Different states have different levels of involvement in it, and each state negotiates its relationship with the programme.

NATO'S sponsorship of it has caused some, including Fianna Fail, to maintain that involvement would compromise Irish neutrality. But according to Mr Spring, preliminary discussions about possible Irish involvement are going ahead.

"We are doing our own internal preparation in relation to it," he says. "It's moving ahead. We have said we would have discussions with NATO in relation to PFP, and we are having preliminary discussions with them.

He said there should be more political debate on the issue as our discussions with NATO continue.

"It warrants more political debate at the right time. I felt at the time we became an observer at the Western European Union that there wasn't any debate at all.

"But my own view is that it is consistent with Irish neutrality, and from discussions we have been having with our neutral partners - the Swedes, the Finns and the Austrians - they have no worries at all in relation to it."

Ireland faced a big question over how the post Cold War "security architecture" would evolve and how we would fit into that.

IRELAND'S WORLD ROLE

"We don't have any colonial baggage", he says, and therefore "I would say we are "well, got on the international stage. Let's not exaggerate our international weight, but I would say we have played a not insignificant role in the UN; we have a very good track record in relation to development aid and peacekeeping; our record on disarmament and nuclear issues is well known in world circles.

"Obviously at the moment we are fairly much centre stage because of the presidency, but outside of that we have an international standing far above the size and scale of the country."

He is confident that Ireland's international standing will be enhanced by its handling of the EU presidency. "Enormous effort has been put into it. Meetings are being well chaired, business is being done.

"On December 31st people will ask `What did you do with the presidency?'. We will have dealt with the issues effectively and efficiently, and that will be there to be seen.