IRELAND TODAY begins a six-month term as President of the Council of the European Union.
But – what does all of that mean? What’s required of Ireland in its duties – and what impact can it have?
In the post-Lisbon Treaty era, the Presidency is a slightly different beast to the last time Ireland held it in 2004, when we helped to oversee the entry of 10 new member states.
Most practically, the Presidency will see Irish ministers taking the chair whenever the EU’s various ministers are holding their monthly meetings.
The Council of the European Union actually meets every couple of days – but in many different ‘configurations’, with each configuration meeting an average of once per month.
These include the Justice and Home Affairs Council, which consists of the justice and policing ministers of each of the 27 member states, the Economic and Monetary Affairs Council which comprises of finance and budgeting ministers, and the Competitiveness Council which includes trade ministers.
10 configurations, of which Ireland runs 9
There are 10 different configurations of the Council, and for the next six months Irish ministers will be chairing most of their meetings.
So, for example, Simon Coveney will be chairing the meetings of the Agriculture and Fisheries Council – a key role during the forthcoming talks on renegotiating the Common Agricultural Policy – while Leo Varadkar and Pat Rabbitte will take command of the Transport, Telecommunications and Energy Council.
Holding the chair does not mean that the ‘president’ country can yield a greater influence over the Council’s affairs: when chairing, the theory is that the minister does not represent their home country, but is an impartial head to oversee the Council’s work.
Simon Coveney therefore won’t officially be representing Ireland when he takes command of the agriculture meetings. That job is taken up by someone else acting on Ireland’s behalf – either a junior minister or a senior Irish diplomat or civil servant.
However, chairing the Council does get to influence its general plan of action: the chair is responsible for compiling the agenda for each meeting and making sure that each point is followed up, so ministers can still ensure their own preferential projects are taken up.
This is why Ireland still hopes to be able to concentrate on the themes of youth unemployment, economic stability, the development of the digital economy and the pursuit of new trade agreements.
The Lisbon Treaty and the changes since 2004
Again, there are a few ways in which this has changed since Ireland’s last presidency: since the Lisbon Treaty, which made significant changes to the Council’s powers and role, very few meetings are actually hosted in the Presidency country.
Pre-Lisbon, the President country would have hosted the majority of Council meetings on its own soil, but the Council now has its own dedicated headquarters, secretariat and resources in Brussels, so it makes more sense to use those facilities and host meetings in a dedicated venue.
(Most configurations of the Council will still meet at least once in Dublin, though – for example, the Justice and Home Affairs Council is meeting in Ireland on January 17 and 18. The point is that Ireland will host only one monthly meeting of each configuration, instead of six.)
This is particularly important in the modern era because of the geographical spread of countries within the EU: with ministers from 27 countries, it’s much easier to travel to a central city like Brussels than to a relatively distant one like Dublin, Athens or Nicosia.
Another change in Lisbon was the separation of the Council of the European Union from the European Council, which is legally a separate institution altogether (although the two share a headquarters, the Justus Lipsius Building in Brussels).
The European Council is the name given to meetings of the heads of each government – the high-powered summits every few months where Enda Kenny meets the likes of David Cameron, Angela Merkel, Francois Hollande and Mariano Rajoy.
Because this is now a separate institution, the Presidency does not affect it – in fact, since Lisbon kicked in in 2009, the European Council has its own full-time president in Herman van Rompuy, and holds every meeting in Brussels instead of in a second capital city.
There’s a similar effect for the Foreign Affairs council: instead of Eamon Gilmore getting the chance to chair meetings, the role falls to Catherine Ashton, the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, who for all intents and purposes acts as a single Foreign Minister for the entire EU.
This is the largest aspect of each presidency, though there are some other responsibilities too. The President country is responsible for making sure that Council decisions are followed through at the appropriate levels.
In Ireland’s case, this means taking responsibility for the ‘Multi-Annual Financial Framework’ – the official name for the EU’s seven-year Budget, from 2014 to 2020, which needs to be finalised in the coming six months.
It’s up to the European Council (consisting of the 27 heads of government) to agree the bare bones of the deal, but the President country has to work with MEPs to agree the more detailed budgets for individual EU bodies like the Court of Auditors, the Commission, and trade bodies.
With seven years of funding to assign, and major divisions between EU countries about whether spending should be increased or cut, this will be a key part of Ireland’s challenge.