Ireland assumed for the seventh time the presidency of the European Union. While a much diminished role with the advent of a permanent president of the European Council, the role still plays a significant role in helping set overall direction in both regulatory affairs and economic matters at European level.
The presidency comes at a critical time in the economic affairs of the country and while holding the seat does not convey any particular advantage when it comes to negotiating on promissory notes or bank re-configuration, it does provide a platform which can be used to re-focus European perspectives on what a small country like Ireland can do within a large economic block. In doing so, it will do Ireland’s case no harm at all, if the political and administrative leaders of the State can demonstrate a renewed commitment to the objectives of a vibrant Europe, something arguably lost doing the worst excesses of the Celtic Tiger.
For that reason it comes as no surprise that the Government has committed itself to a very ambitious programme over the next six months. In a detailed programme the Country is committed to advancing European political and economic development across a very wide range of policies areas. In the mean-time it must also oversee the on-going IMF/ECB/EC programme in Ireland. So just what the Government will be doing is set out in its recently published Programme of the Irish Presidency of the Council of the European Union.
The Programme focuses on the critical need to underpin the on-going stabilisation of Europe’s economy whilst also seeking to shift attention across all European Governments towards addressing the severe social challenges resulting from the Global Financial Crisis. There is little point in bringing stability to an European Union if the evils of long term unemployment cannot be resolved.
Thus the Government on top of the on-going legislative and policy programme will be trying to bring new initiatives to tackle the high levels of unemployment across the Union, something that urgently requires resolution. Youth unemployment is a particular concern for all countries including those with relatively successful economies.
The Government is committed to working towards a policy equipping the Union for a single market of the future. It is seeking a new policy platform on which a digital single market can develop. In addition, it is seeking to close out negotiations on the Unions multi-annual budgets, taking the members to 2020 with a programme which will priorities the Union’s global role in research and development, advanced manufacturing and food production as well as more streamlined employment market conditions which will be underpinned by greater social cohesion.
In addition, the Government, working alongside the institutions of Europe, the Councils of Ministers, the Parliament and, critically a renewed Commission, is pushing for agreement on the 7th Environment Action Programme. Successive action programmes on the environment (which date back to Ireland’s entry into the then common market in 1973) have played the major role in shaping environmental regulation across Europe and have been central to the protection of Europe’s environment.
In supporting a sustainable Europe the Government has highlighted specific areas promoting greater sustainability including the development of a much needed integrated marine policy, development aid, energy taxation, Horizon 2020, Trans-European Networks and reforms in agriculture and fisheries. Each of these areas will impact directly on the citizens of Europe so it is no coincidence that also a key feature of the programme is the roll out of the European Year of the Citizen.
One of the critical deficits in the institutions has been the capacity to interact, notwithstanding a long-term political commitment to do so, with an increasingly sceptical citizenry. No wonder that there are on-going pressures in some countries to re-configure their relationship with the Union, something that will not suit an Irish long-term renewal of both social and economic conditions.
The recent awarding of the Nobel Prize for Peace to the Union surprised many commentators, particularly in light of the on-going economic difficulties in the Unions economic affairs. Nonetheless, the leading role which both the Union and its members play across the globe is central to creating the conditions necessary to eliminate extreme poverty, social instability and abuse of so many communities across the international arena.
Ireland has, notwithstanding its small size, led the international community in developing anti-famine and hunger policies which, given its military neutrality, has positioned it as a “go between” in international affairs. This role will be important as negotiations continue under Irish leadership with a renewed American leadership and a more vocal India, China and Brazil, South Africa and Russia.
Trade Agreements, so central to world economic stabilization will need to be closed out with all the major players globally. Such agreements will be important to a country which is more open to international trade than most but critically these will have the potential of lifting many millions out of poverty and will open up the possibility of more sustainable development across the globe, long a priority of the European Union.
The Presidency will challenge the Irish Government and central civil service to bring over the line some truly controversial decisions which will impact on all the Member States as well as the wider Globe. No wonder then that the Taoiseach and others have been the target of so many international institutions, world leaders and others seeking to influence decisions which will long live after the last of the Dublin Castle meetings.
This may well be the last time that Ireland will play such a pivotal role on decisions which will impact people from across the globe. Hopefully it will be remembered as a time when Ireland regained the high regard that was so wasted during the era of the Celtic Tiger.