Presidency a chance to recast State's battered image


If Ireland’s EU presidency puts Enda Kenny’s administration at centre of the historic task of safeguarding the euro against the ravages of the debt debacle, previous Irish presidencies have also come at pivotal moments for Europe.

It was during the 2004 presidency that the EU’s biggest enlargement took place with the entry into the union of Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia. With Bertie Ahern at the height of his powers, the Irish presidency also struck a deal on an ultimately doomed EU constitutional treaty.

The challenges posed by enlargement and the constitutional treaty played to Ahern’s strengths as a negotiator. Thanks to the arrival of Herman Van Rompuy as permanent president of the European Council in 2009, the opportunities for Kenny to play a similar role are more limited.

Van Rompuy is chief of the summit chamber, not the Taoiseach. While it is Van Rompuy’s job to bring heads of state and government together, it will still fall to the Fine Gael-Labour Coalition in coming months to drive the legislative process in ministerial councils. This is complex, nuanced work in which major political schisms between member states and subtle political differences must be ironed out to the satisfaction of all countries.

With new laws to advance Europe’s “banking union” and a new seven-year budget round on the table during the latest Irish presidency, the opportunity to shape the European agenda remains. In this respect at least, the work is similar to that of previous presidencies.

Ireland’s 1996 presidency forged agreement on the terms of the (now discredited) stability and growth pact, which compelled member states to keep their budget deficits below 3 per cent of national economic output and their public debt below 60 per cent of output.

Crucial stepping stone

This was a crucial stepping stone towards the introduction of the single currency in 1999, although the debt crisis exposed dangerous weaknesses in the pact itself.

The 1990 presidency came months after the fall of the Berlin Wall as the collapse of Soviet communism reshaped Europe’s postwar configuration. It was at a summit in Dublin that EU leaders adopted a common stance on German unity and the transition to democracy of a swathe of central and east European countries.

The Irish presidency in 1984 took steps to reinforce the European monetary system, precursor of the euro.

It was during the Irish presidency in 1979 that Margaret Thatcher made a play for a rebate on Britain’s contributions to the then European Economic Community.

Ireland first held the presidency in 1975, only two years after joining the EEC. Four decades later, the latest presidency provides a window to recast the State’s battered image.