TODAY, FEBRUARY 19, marks the 50th day of Ireland’s presidency of the Council of the European Union.
The presidency – which, though slightly downgraded by the Lisbon Treaty, still remains a significant role – sees Ireland take the chair at meetings of ministers from EU member states.
These meetings – of the ‘Council of the European Union’ – form a major role in the EU law-making process; along with the European Parliament, the Council has to formally approve any proposals for new laws that are laid down by the European Commission, and often sets the Commission’s agenda.
To mark the 50th day of the Presidency, here are seven things Ireland has managed during its stint so far.
1. Helped reach a deal on the EU’s seven-year budget
The Multi-Annual Financial Framework (MFF) is a fairly fundamental part of the running of the EU – and while the immediate outlook for the deal isn’t great (the European Parliament looks likely to reject the deal), the simple feat of helping to reach accord on a budget that assigns €960 billion of spending over seven years is significant in itself.
To put it in context: no previous MFF has been put to the European Parliament for its approval, and no previous MFF negotiations had so many nations taking part.
With Europe’s economies on the precipice, and with significant differences in the stances of some countries (France wanted an increased budget; Britain wanted it cut) agreeing a deal was nearly impossible.
Ireland’s role now becomes more hands-on: it is responsible for trying to win the approval of MEPs in splitting the budget amongst European institutions.
2. Ending marathon disputes on a single patent system for the EU
Talks on creating a single unified patent system have been going on for years – but with good reason: the whole idea of a single ‘common market’ can’t become a reality if multiple people can claim ownership over the same idea.
Overcoming this hurdle requires not just the creation of a new patent registration system, but also some way of tackling disputes where different parties have existing, older, conflicting patents.
This should be brought to an end by the signature in Brussels today of a deal to create a Unified Patent Court – which sets up a trio of sister institutions, each of which will responsible for governing disputes in particular areas when they take legal effect from next year.
Be aware, by the way: Ireland’s success in helping to reach an accord means we’ll need a referendum to recognise the new court. There’s always one…
3. Getting a green light for trade talks with the United States
The process of deciding what goes into the US President’s State of the Union address takes months – so the very fact that talks on a free trade agreement between the EU and the USA was mentioned in the first address of Barack Obama’s second term is an immediate sign of the potential that both sides see in a deal.
A report released by a high-level taskforce last week estimated that the European and American economies could benefit to the tune of €150 billion a year by giving companies on either side of the Atlantic the ability to export to each others’ markets.
This could be particularly helpful for Ireland given the mushrooming group of American multinationals that already have bases in Ireland to exploit.
As the president country it’s up to Ireland to get the talks underway – so Enda Kenny’s visit to Washington next month, and Richard Bruton’s chairmanship of the council of enterprise ministers, will be particularly important.
4. Helping to spur action on the horse meat saga
Though the start of the horsemeat saga had nothing to do with Ireland’s EU presidency, the government has taken a particularly hands-on role in ensuring that the scale of the problem throughout Europe is appropriately identified and tackled.
As the chairman of the Agriculture and Fisheries Council, Simon Coveney convened a meeting of his counterparts from the affected countries – and won an agreement to carry out mandatory DNA tests on beef products in all EU member states before the end of March.
This will be given formal approval when the 27 agriculture ministers meet again next week.
5. Reaching agreement on a financial transaction tax (and still keeping out of it)
The ‘Ecofin’ council of finance ministers is probably the best-known Council configuration – but irrespective of its profile, Michael Noonan’s chairmanship would always come at an important time.
In his first meeting in January, Noonan oversaw an agreement to allow 11 EU member states implement a Financial Transaction Tax under the EU’s provisions for ‘enhanced co-operation’ – but managed to do so without having to sign Ireland into it too.
Noonan has opposed the tax for Ireland on the basis that a tax applying in the IFSC, but not in the City of London, could drive financial jobs over to Britain.
6. Helping to tackle youth unemployment
The economic downturn across Europe has been felt by most, but younger generations – who typically have higher unemployment than older generations, and often feel ignored by politicians.
In the last year or so calls have grown for a ‘Youth Guarantee’, hoping to ensure that any young person who is neither working nor studying can be offered further education, an apprenticeship or a traineeship.
A deal on this is expected when the continent’s Social Affairs ministers meet again in two weeks time – mostly as a result of groundwork laid by ministers when they were convened by Joan Burton earlier this month.
At that same meeting, ministers agreed on a €6 billion fund for a Youth Employment Initiative which targets the regions most affected by youth employment and funds schemes to get them back to work. This forms part of the ‘MFF’ budget process mentioned above.
7. Sending development aid to Mali
A meeting of European aid ministers chaired by the junior foreign minister Joe Costello saw agreement on a European humanitarian and aid package for Mali, parts of which were recently occupied by fundamentalist Islamic militias.
Europe will send up to €250 million to Mali this year not only as part of humanitarian efforts, ensuring the stability of the food supply, but also to help maintain the rule of democracy.