At the higher levels of European politics, Ireland wields disproportionate influence. Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe is chair of the eurogroup, European commissioner Mairéad McGuinness holds the powerful financial services brief and Prof Philip Lane is chief economist at the European Central Bank. Irish people run the European Medicines Agency and the office of European Ombudsman. The country has a proud tradition of producing high-calibre civil servants for the European institutions; two have reached the most senior position – secretary general – at the commission. In all of these roles, the office-holders do not represent Ireland, but it would be naïve to think it does not serve Irish interests to have them there.
One of the more deep-rooted causes of the problem is a wider failure to equip enough young people with the language skills they need for international work
The flow of well-qualified young people into the European system has been slowing dramatically, however. A generation gap has opened up, with a bulge among Irish fonctionnaires within touching distance of retirement but very few of their compatriots in the junior ranks. Only one or two Irish graduates are being hired into the system each year – a remarkably poor showing.
The trend has rightly prompted the Government to draft a strategy aimed at reversing it. The plan, drawn up by Minister of State for European Affairs Thomas Byrne, envisages placing 50 new graduates into EU jobs by 2030, increasing the rate to five hires a year. It also aims to send 50 serving civil servants on secondment to EU institutions – double the current number.
A drawn-out application process and an increase in domestic opportunities are cited as reasons for the decline in Irish interest in EU careers. It’s also clear that the State took its eye of the ball. Some member states do much more to train students specifically for the entrance exam, for example. But one of the more deep-rooted causes of the problem is a wider failure to equip enough young people with the language skills they need for international work. That will require a sustained, long-term effort, but without it young people will have neither the inclination to seek these jobs nor the practical skills that will get them hired.