AT MIDNIGHT ON 1 January 2013, Ireland will assume the Presidency of the EU, taking a leading role in a Union of 27 Member States (soon to be 28 when Croatia joins in July 2013) and over 500 million people. The six-month Presidency will give Ireland the opportunity to act as an ‘honest broker’ in managing the challenging European agenda and to mobilise the EU on issues of particular national importance.
The 2013 EU Presidency will be the country’s seventh rotation into the top job since it joined the EEC in 1973. Despite Ireland’s limited size and resources, previous Irish Presidencies are remembered at home and across Europe as great successes, in particular the most recent Presidency in 2004 when Ireland welcomed ten new Member States to the Union.
This will be the first Irish Presidency since the entry into force of the Lisbon Treaty, which introduced some changes to the role of the Presidency and the functioning of the EU. The new environment will have to be navigated with care, for example establishing a working relationship with Herman Van Rompuy, the first ever permanent President of the European Council, and Catherine Ashton, the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, whose remits include responsibilities that formerly fell to the Presidency country.
However, the holder of the Presidency is the ‘first among equals’ vis-à-vis the other Member States. Ministers from the Presidency country chair most of the Ministerial Councils composed of their European counterparts and Irish representatives lead discussions in working groups at technical level. Trios of three successive Presidencies set the policy agenda for an eighteen-month cycle. In this case Ireland is working with Lithuania and Greece. The Presidency plays a key role in shaping compromises where disagreements between Member States arise. It also acts as the liaison between the Member States and the European Commission on one hand, and directly-elected MEPs on the other.
The timing of this Presidency poses a number of challenges but also creates substantial opportunities for Ireland. First to the challenges; the EU has been in crisis mode for the last two to three years, dominated by economic issues and doubts about the future of the Union. Ireland will be concerned to ensure that the Union emerges strongly from the crisis, but also that sufficient energy is generated to address other issues of vital importance, such as the Common Agricultural and Fisheries Policies, the completion of the digital single market and strengthening of data protection, free trade and development policy.
The opportunities, however, are equally apparent. The Presidency will give the Irish Government the opportunity to ensure that the key priorities of jobs and growth permeate the European agenda for the duration of the Presidency. The reform of the Common Agricultural Policy (which makes up more than one third of EU spending) is due to be finalised during the first half of 2013, and Ireland will chair both the technical and ministerial discussions during a crucial period of negotiations. Important negotiations on the seven-year EU budget will also continue during the Irish Presidency after no deal was reached at a dedicated summit in November.
Ireland will have a window to accelerate work on priority dossiers during the Presidency. Over twenty working group meetings have been scheduled on the issue of data protection – a sign of the Irish Presidency’s determination to achieve progress in this key area affecting citizens as well as the high-tech industry.
The EU Presidency is a huge undertaking but – if successful – has the potential to help enhance Ireland’s reputation amongst our EU partners and generate positive publicity across Europe and further afield. With over 180 meetings, conferences and events scheduled to take place in Ireland, the domestic economy can also expect a Presidency-related boost. A major Irish Aid conference on Feeding the World in 2050 will be held in Dublin in January and Ireland will also host a Digital Assembly in June 2013. The Irish Government has committed to keeping the cost of the Presidency to a minimum and the budget for the undertaking is smaller than for the last Presidency in 2004.
The agenda for the Presidency and the priorities of the Irish Government for the six-month term are taking shape, with intensive work ongoing in Dublin and Brussels. Last month, the Institute of International and European Affairs (IIEA), Ireland’s leading think tank on EU policies and politics, held a major conference in Dublin Castle, looking ahead to the Presidency and considering many of the issues which Ireland hopes to tackle next year. Keynote speeches from Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore TD, and Ministers Michael Noonan TD Pat Rabbitte TD and Ruairi Quinn TD highlighted Ireland’s Presidential priorities across a range of sectors. Panel discussions with expert academics and analysts from across Europe assessed the state of play that Ireland will inherit from the Cypriot Presidency on 1 January 2013 – and the outlook for the whole Irish Presidency.
Linda Barry is a researcher at The Institute of International and European Affairs. Further information about the conference and resources relating to the Irish Presidency can be found at www.iiea.com