The New Administration
It is a telling story that the EU presidency of Cyprus is about be over with millions of Europeans unaware that it had ever started. Similarly, Ireland’s period in office, which is to follow Cyprus in January, promises to be covered by a similar veil of disinterest. Unlike its predecessor, however, Ireland comes into the presidency with an extensive agenda and goals for the next six months, as well as fresh energy to get things done as soon as possible. Tús maith, leath na hoibre was the Irish proverb that the Irish Deputy Prime Minister Eamon Gilmore used to describe Ireland’s immediate plans for the presidency, meaning: “a good start is half the work”. Europe (and the world) would do well to pay attention to what the small island nation is about introduce into the Union.
Unsurprisingly, Ireland has announced that their main priority will be getting the European economy back on track. What is slightly more surprising –and potentially worrying– is the ways in which Ireland has chosen to contribute towards this grand project. One of their main policies is opening talks with the US concerning an EU-US trade deal which would eliminate tariffs and other barriers to free trade between the two parties. Such an agreement would be beneficial to the governments of both sides, given the financial difficulty they find themselves in. The US Chamber of Commerce has stated that an estimated 130 billion euros would be injected into both economies within five years of the signing of such an agreement. Tempting as the numbers might be, the EU should be mindful not to be allowed to be pushed too far due to economic necessity and greed. One of the major influences from US corporations is related to the EU’s data protection rules. Those rules are set to be in grave danger during Ireland’s presidency, as it will be one of the main parts of European legislation which will require tweaking if an EU-US trading agreement is to be reached. Irish officials have suggested that a move to overhaul the date protection regulations would “make life easier for online companies” and would stimulate growth, but that is far from being the whole story. Any civil freedoms given away on a European level could lead to the undermining of civil liberties on a national level, a possibility which the EU has vowed to prevent.
Ireland is also determined to push forward and build on the progress made towards the EU banking union. Irish officials said they would make sure to carry through the implementation of the Single Supervisory Mechanism for the eurozone’s 6,000 banks, agreed on by finance ministers on 13 December. Gilmore has appeared to be a great supporter of this policy which he deems “vital to the stability of the EU”. He also promotes a pan-European recognition of professional skills aimed at helping job seekers move as freely through Europe as they would in their home nation, an enhancement and adjustment to the European single market, ensuring that no EU citizen is treated unfairly in the European job market.
Apart from overlooking the talks concerning the banking union, Ireland would be responsible for getting the 2014-2020 EU budget through the European Parliament, if EU leaders agree on it within the first months of 2013. Similarly, Europe’s long overdue digital agenda is due for discussion, and Ireland has offered to promote the topic. Europe’s digital agenda aims at providing European citizens with fast internet in low prices within five years.
On the subject of EU enlargement, Ireland is due to oversee the accession talks with Macedonia (FYROM) and Serbia, as well as the signing of a pre-accession pact with Kosovo, all talks which are part of a long-term EU project of Balkan inclusion. Turkey does not appear to be a priority at the moment, a fact that might not be surprising given the country’s recent tendency to turn Eastwards and Southwards in its foreign policy. Furthermore, the ratification process of Croatia’s membership are due, and Ireland might have to take a leadership role in ensuring that the differences between Croatia and Slovenia are resolved, paving the way for the former’s full EU membership.
Although Ireland has suggested an expansion of EU humanitarian aid, no mention has been made of Syria or the Arab-Israeli conflict, both issues looming large over the contemporary political scene and located just beyond Europe’s borders. President Barroso, in his acceptance speech of the Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of the EU, referred to the conflict in Syria as an ethical failure of global proportions, and the recent announcement by Israel to build another 1500 homes in east Jerusalem has triggered numerous criticisms from countries around Europe. Both of these issues should be addressed on some level by Ireland, even though matters of EU foreign policy are the responsibility of Catherine Ashton and the Union for Foreign Policy. Ireland did make a vague suggestion, however, that it might support an EU boycott against products from the Israeli settlements, but such a move could potentially be detrimental to the Palestinians in the East Bank who export their products by labelling them as Israeli in order to avoid anti-Palestinian tariffs.
An Éire Feeling
Ireland’s EU economic stance is remarkably British-esque, with the country seeking a closer tie with the US economy; it would be surprising if Britain did not fully endorse it. The UK has already made significant moves towards appeasing its American partners, with UK online privacy and surveillance laws being one of the less liberal in the EU. With Ireland seeking to expand this condition to the rest of the Union, this would be a wise time to contemplate the true significance and consequence of these policies. Ireland is desperate to re-brand itself as the first nation to emerge from the EU/IMF bailout and will therefore attempt to make its time in office memorable. The rest of Europe should watch warily.