Six months to show Europe all we can do


Analysis:So it begins. As Europe’s 500 million citizens woke up to a new year yesterday, the State took over a new role and began to get ready for six months of intensive EU activity in Dublin.

This is our seventh time to hold the rotating position, but this time sees Ireland assume managerial responsibility for the workings of the European Council at a decisive moment in Europe’s history.

The concept of a rotating presidency has been at the heart of the European Council since its inception.

The idea that an individual country, whatever its size, could chair the activities of this EU institution has been central to the democratic idea of the European project, and a way of assuaging concerns about the relative lack of power of the smaller states.

Lisbon Treaty

The office of the presidency has evolved considerably over the years. The Lisbon Treaty made two important changes to the office since Ireland last held the presidency in 2004.

All meetings of the European Council are now chaired in Brussels by the council president, Herman Van Rompuy, rather than the prime minister of the host country. Similarly, the foreign affairs council is chaired by the EU’s foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, rather than the Minister for Foreign Affairs.

While this will lessen the responsibilities of the Taoiseach and Tánaiste, the real change since 2004 has been to the union. The landscape has changed radically since then when the State presided over the enlargement of the EU, marked by a ceremony at Farmleigh to celebrate the accession of 10 new countries to the union.

Those were happier times. In contrast to that mood of expansion and possibility, today Europe finds itself racked by dissent and disquiet, as it desperately tries to find a response to the financial crisis.

Despite the Government’s stated agenda of delivering “stability, jobs and growth” during this presidency, in reality it is likely to be dominated by the question of debt relief, particularly the bid to recast the terms of the Anglo Irish Bank promissory note, as it seeks to return fully to the bond markets and exit the IMF-EU rescue programme.

How the State balances its domestic agenda with its responsibility to the greater European good demanded by the role may turn out to be the defining feature of this presidency.

Showcase opportunities

Nonetheless, the next six months present opportunities to showcase this country as a business, investment and tourism destination, and to shape European policy and debate.

Ireland will chair about 1,600 meetings during its presidency, about 180 of which will take place here, while hundreds of spin-off events are scheduled to take place.

Most significantly, Government Ministers will chair their respective council meetings in Brussels. This will see, for example, Minister for Transport Leo Varadkar chairing the ministerial council on transport, while the increasingly important informal ministerial meetings will take place in Dublin. There will also be enhanced responsibility for Irish officials behind the scenes.

The 150 or so official-level committees and preparatory bodies that feed into the work of the European Council will also be chaired by Irish officials.

A key function of the presidency is to represent the council in its dealings with the other EU institutions, particularly the commission and the parliament. Here the State’s strong track record and reputation in building relationships within the union will stand it in good stead.

For Irish citizens, the next six months offers an opportunity to familiarise themselves with the main players and policies of the European Union if nothing else.

If you don’t know the Latvian finance minister from the Italian prime minister, this is your chance to change that as senior officials from across the EU descend on Dublin and a lot more black Mercedes-Benz cars and security personnel are to be seen on the streets of the capital.

Complex legislation

For the Government, its main task during the six months will be to shepherd complex legislation through the ministerial councils.

Finalising agreement on the EU budget for 2014 to 2020 – also known as the multi-annual financial framework – will be high on the agenda, as will reform of the Common Agricultural Policy, a major policy priority for us. Alongside these crucial issues, financial and economic affairs will continue to dominate as Europe tries to find a response to the financial crisis.

As Europe enters the fourth year of the financial crisis, the predominance of European financial affairs shows no sign of changing.