With important high-level European Union appointments due to be discussed again at the EU summit starting today, it is important to consider where Ireland’s interests lie.
Five influential European jobs are at stake. The president of the European Council, the high representative for foreign policy and the president of the European Central Bank will be designated by prime ministers and presidents meeting in the European Council.
The president of the European Commission, the most important of the jobs, will be chosen by the European Council taking account of the outcome of the European Parliament elections. The European Parliament will, of course, choose its own president. Despite these different procedures and time frames, the five positions are being treated as a closely interlinked package.
The EU is facing immense challenges at a time when its continued effectiveness has never been more important for our continent and for the wider world. Ireland’s most important interest, therefore, is that each of these key positions is filled by the most able effective candidate available. It’s not an exaggeration to say that we can’t afford to get this wrong. The complex balances which will necessarily shape the overall package do not guarantee that competence will be the predominant criterion in filling the vacancies; indeed the need to reflect an equilibrium of interests could, as the last pieces are added to the jigsaw, conceivably hinder that objective.
At the same time, Ireland shares an important interest with our European partners – that the package be a balanced one, not only because that is the path towards agreement but, more importantly, because we know that Europe is stronger when it respects the interests and talents of different political families, of large and small member states, of east and west, and above all of women and men.
The question also arises as to whether specific Irish interests would be best served by particular candidates. In general, Ireland would hope for a president of the European Council who is respectful and sensitive to all member states, irrespective of size; a president of the commission who places the emphasis on the common interest; and a high representative for foreign policy who is both a respected figure on the international stage and sensitive to the traditions of all member states.
More specifically, the continued support of the European institutions for Ireland on Brexit is of profound importance. If Michel Barnier were to become the European People's Party (EPP) candidate for commission president, he has a proven understanding of Northern Ireland. However, there is no reason to fear that any potential candidate for any of the positions would diverge from the strong EU consensus on Brexit. Ireland also has a strong interest in the ECB broadly maintaining Mario Draghi's open and flexible approach.
As regards the possibility of Ireland itself filling one of the top jobs this time around, the only Irish person in the running seems to be Mairéad McGuinness, who could emerge as a candidate for president of the European Parliament. She would do the job well. In the past, Ireland has had several serious potential candidates for president of the commission, notably Peter Sutherland, Bertie Ahern and Enda Kenny. On this occasion, there is no one in the offing. However, assuming he is re-nominated as Ireland’s commissioner, Phil Hogan is well placed to maintain an important portfolio, something far from guaranteed for all commissioners. He could, were he so minded, be considered for an even larger commission role.
Another increasingly important factor in determining the approach of members of the European Council to the appointments package is party political affiliation. Taoiseach Leo Varadkar will be seeing the upcoming discussions not only through Irish eyes but also, as it were, through the eyes of the EPP to which Fine Gael belongs. This is both normal and politically legitimate. However, it can be distinguished from Irish interests as such.
The Spitzenkandidat process, favoured by the EPP and others, is designed to confer on the European Parliament elections a determining role in choosing the commission president and thus to strengthen further the party political dimension. While the process has its attractions, it does not seem to maximise the chances of identifying the most qualified and experienced candidate. It remains to be seen how significant the Spitzenkandidat dimension will prove to be on this occasion, especially given the opposition of French president Emmanuel Macron. The overall spread of senior appointments between the larger political families is likely to be more even than on the last occasion.
The multilateral institutions which have contributed so much to international peace and prosperity, most strikingly here in Europe, are today facing an unprecedented threat from a cocktail of rampant populism and narrow nationalism. The EU cannot afford the luxury of “jobs for the boys”, in any sense of that term.
Bobby McDonagh is a former Irish ambassador to the EU and UK