HANDING OVER TO THE DUTCH

 

There may be a temptation on the part of politicians or among the general public to pay less attention to European affairs, after the conclusion of a most successful European Council and Irish EU Presidency. It should be resisted. The broad EU agenda which has been brought forward effectively under Irish chairmanship in the last six months will continue to require the close attention of politicians and citizens alike. This is because it contains many matters that will have a profound impact on our affairs - and can be shown to extend and enhance Ireland's exercise of its political sovereignty.

After handing on the responsibilities of the EU presidency to the Dutch government on January 1st there will be an opportunity to look afresh at what has been achieved in Dublin over the weekend and particularly to examine whether the agreements reached are all in Ireland's interests. The presidency imposes a disinterested role, particularly on a smaller state, which can obscure or delay such a necessary exercise in self-examination.

But there is no room to question the Government's success or its long-term value for the international interests and reputation of Ireland as a small open economy, society or polity. Not to have conducted the EU presidency well would have had damaging consequences across a range of affairs; to have succeeded as well as it has will have positive and unanticipated benefits for Ireland's position in the international community - the indispensable setting of economic prosperity and growth - for years to come. The Irish representatives and officials involved deserve congratulations and public recognition for the achievement.

There is little room either to question that Ireland will gain advantage from the compromise reached at the summit on a Stability and Growth Pact to accompany the introduction of a single currency, which preserves the political discretion of governments. Much work still remains to be done on how precisely the pact will work; there will, too, be much political argument in coming years about whether the design of the project is flawed or incomplete. Now that this summit has signalled so unambiguously that the EMU timetable is likely to be met, it is time for a deeper debate on what design would best serve Irish interests. It must take full account of the special difficulties this State would face if Britain opts out of a single currency. It must also come squarely to terms with the need for more flexibility in the economy to compensate for loss of the power to adjust currency values.

In the last generation membership of the European Communities has been a crucial factor in the transformation of Irish political, social and economic performance. It has helped to confirm and enhance national identity, to multilaterise economic and political relations with the rest of the world, provided a stimulus for the modernisation of Irish society, and transfers to sustain economic growth. This very success, together with changing international circumstances after the end of the Cold War, means that Ireland's position within the EU has changed. The next six months' negotiations in the Inter-Governmental Conference will severely test the ability of the Government to defend Ireland's interests as the EU prepares for enlargement as well as EMU. This successful summit in Dublin should serve to focus attention and provoke debate on what is at stake in these negotiations.