It was only a throwaway remark but it said a multitude about Ireland's standing in Europe. Earlier this month, as he defended the European Union's decision to sanction Latvia's application for euro membership, commissioner Olli Rehn pointed out that Latvia's banking industry was nothing like the size of the banking sector in some other countries. "Only three countries had such huge banking sectors relative to their size. Cyprus, Iceland and Ireland," he said, raising his head with a smile. A knowing laugh rippled through the room.
It was one of the many daily reminders in Brussels of Ireland's standing in Europe. Ireland's position in the EU has changed dramatically since it last held the rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union.
Context of collapse
While the rejection of the Nice Treaty in 2001 may have coloured the Irish presidency in 2004, Ireland's slide into economic collapse culminating in an EU-led bailout in 2010 has fundamentally changed the dynamics of its relationship with the continent.
The ceding of economic independence to greater economic governance by the EU has put Ireland into a subset of EU “programme” countries, dependent on the support of other member states for economic survival. Ireland’s defiant rejection of a string of EU treaties during the last decade was followed by unavoidable subservience to the EU, as we continued to draw on bailout funds.
As a result, our seventh presidency of the Council of the European Union wasn’t just about putting the best national foot forward. It was about regaining self-respect. Badly bruised by the ignominy of a bailout, the Government was determined to show it could run a professional and responsible show.
In this sense, the presidency has been an undoubted success.
As that presidency draws to a close, Ireland has chaired almost 2,500 meetings and progressed hundreds of files, including 80 legislative measures.
Important achievements include final agreement on Common Agricultural Policy and Common Fisheries Policy reform, packages that have been winding through the EU process for years, but whose final wind-up has eluded previous presidencies. The signing of the EU-US trade deal, despite a last-minute plea from France to protect its culture industry, was a feat of negotiation, while a string of smaller files was brought over the line.
Presidency of achievement
The notion that "the Irish can get things done" has been a constant refrain in Brussels over the last six months, though it helped that Ireland succeeded Cyprus in the role and hands over to Lithuania, two countries new to running a presidency.
There have also been challenges. The handling of the EU seven-year budget negotiations threatened to scupper final agreement on the package, after the Tánaiste was criticised for prematurely implying agreement had been reached.
For politicians, EU presidencies present an obvious opportunity to increase their profile.
For the past six months, a steady stream of Government Ministers has been shuttling back and forth to Brussels. Taoiseach Enda Kenny, Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore, Minister for Finance Michael Noonan, Minister for Agriculture Simon Coveney and Minister of State for Europe Lucinda Creighton have been the most prominent.
All five have solid links with European parties and EU institutions, a key advantage for Ireland politically during this presidency. But the real work has been done by officials. The centre of gravity of the presidency has been the Irish Embassy to the EU in Brussels, which has hosted seconded staff from various Government departments. Irish officials and diplomats have found themselves at the very heart of high-level EU decision-making, be it staff from the Department of Agriculture thrashing out last-minute negotiations on single farm payments, or Central Bank employees drafting the latest clause in the 1,000-plus-page capital requirements directive.
In Dublin, presidency activities have centred on Dublin Castle, which has hosted a series of events throughout the presidency. Whether the boost to tourism and investment outweighs the €60 million-plus cost of running a presidency is debatable.
Ultimately, however, the success of this presidency was always going to be measured in terms of its benefits for the country nationally.
The confirmation early on in the presidency of a deal on the Anglo Irish bank promissory notes defined the tone. Despite the fact it had no direct connection with Ireland’s presidency of the council, failure to secure a promissory note deal threatened to sour public perception of the presidency and Europe.
The subsequent decision to lengthen the maturity of Ireland’s bailout loans and last week’s commitment to consider whether the euro zone’s European Stability Mechanism fund can be used to directly recapitalise banks retrospectively, also gave a welcome boost to Ireland’s pledge for debt relief.
The latest revelations about Anglo Irish Bank, however, threatened to overshadow the final week of the presidency.
As Ireland grows in confidence as it approaches the end of the bailout this year, the excruciating insight into the culture of Anglo was a timely reminder the root of the Irish bailout lay at the feet of its dysfunctional banking sector rather than being due to unfair pressure from Europe.
Successful European image
But ironically, the emergence of the tapes in the final weeks of the presidency underlined the reason why a successful, professional presidency was so important for Ireland. The contrast between the crude incompetence of senior Anglo executives and the professionalism of the Irish presidency machine is striking.
Through efficiency, drive and impeccable negotiation skills, the seventh Irish presidency showed the best of what Irish people have to offer. As Ireland continues to seek the support of Europe as it moves towards exiting the bailout, promoting this has never been so crucial.
Suzanne Lynch is the European Correspondent