EU presidency an unnecessary distraction from national problems

EXCUSE my pre-Christmas cynicism but I’m dreading the Irish presidency of the EU before it even starts on Jan 1 for a six-month period.

This week brought an unwelcome preview of the type of guff, bluster and nonsense that our politicians are going to inflict on us for the first six months of next year.

At a cost to us of €60m that we can ill-afford our already over-stretched government will waste more time trying to impress foreign politicians and bureaucrats while believing that the public here will somehow be impressed by those efforts and that, somehow, such activity will confer great benefit to Ireland.

Both Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore were at it this week with guff about “stability, jobs and growth” being the key themes of Ireland’s EU presidency, with Kenny saying that a “people-centred union” is central to “what we have to do here”. “Getting the European economy back on track” would be a central theme of Ireland’s presidency, Gilmore told a Brussels press conference. This would be done by “improving the EU’s global competitiveness, promoting economic growth and creating jobs”, he said. The presidency would be “one of realism but also of optimism. For us the glass is half-full and not half-empty”.

Minister of State for European Affairs Lucinda Creighton added that Ireland’s would be a “no-nonsense presidency”. “We intend our presidency to be about substance rather than about show or pomp,” she said. She also claimed that Ireland would bring its “national resolve for recovery to bear on Europe’s recovery agenda”.

Huh? It’s all nonsense, empty posturing by politicians who should say nothing rather than this nonsense. It would be funny if it wasn’t so pathetic.

Are we supposed to believe that the people who can’t manage Ireland will manage Europe for the next six months? That the European Commission, European Central Bank and 26 other European governments want us to provide leadership to them?

Fortunately, the Government is not expected to do much more than spout pious nonsense for consumption by the gullible (which, unfortunately, consists of many of our journalists who get excited by this type of thing). Our ministers will host a few meetings (11 in all of ministers), our conference venues will be used for these and other events (about 180 in all) and the numbers of extra visitors to the country will probably get claimed as added numbers for “The Gathering”. But being president is no longer as big a deal as it used to be.

The reality is this is not a good time for Kenny and our Government to be taking on the task of being EU president.

I don’t buy any of these usual lines about the supposed positives for Ireland in holding the presidency: the opportunity it offers the country to influence change; the honour it is to lead the union; and, of course, how it confirms our position “at the heart of Europe”.

The presidency confers no special privileges, but it is very time-consuming and distracting from real domestic issues. A number of ministers will relish the chance to look important as they host their VIP guests, but many voters will object to what they will see as kowtowing to our economic masters. The sight of Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, being swept through the streets with a cavalcade of security on her way to Farmleigh and Dublin Castle, will be hard for many to stomach.

It will cost us serious money too. It’s reckoned that about €24m will be spent on catering, accommodation, transport, interpretation and venue costs. Another €20m will be spent on extra staff for Government departments. Refurbishing Dublin Castle, where most meetings will take place, providing extra office space for Ireland’s embassy to the EU, and designing an accreditation system for the 15,000 delegates who are expected to be visit, will add another €12m or so to the bill. What is described as a “cultural programme” of 300 events has been planned by the Arts Council at a cost of about €3m. Another €10m or so will be spent on scarves and neck-ties for the VIP guests.

The only bit of good news is that this waste is going to be about €50m less than the amount spent in 2004. Let’s be selfish about this. Hosting the various EU meetings will not just get in the way of vital

national issues — such as steering through long-overdue legislation for limited abortion — but may hurt our ability to argue with the EU about our unsustainable debt. Holders of the presidency are supposed to be even-handed in how they approach issues, but how can that be when we are already engaged in a campaign to show that we deserve special treatment on our bank debts? How can we remain detached if there is no agreement on the Anglo Irish promissory notes before the end-of-March deadline for the next €3.1bn payment?

Kenny gave an interview to the Financial Times this week (and again we in the Irish media have noted how much freer with his time he is with the international press than with us, the people who supply information to the voters in Ireland) in which he made claims upon which he should be rated come next July. He said he would continue to press for a deal on Irish bank debt during the EU presidency, making the highly pertinent claim that the previous government was bounced into protecting the private banks against failure and was left unfairly to pick up all the costs for that.

MAYBE being EU president will put us in better stead for getting some sort of deal. But being the good boys of Europe has done nothing for us over the last few years. We meet our troika targets and get patted on the heads, but Greece misses them all and is rewarded with improvements on its deal.

In the meantime Kenny will be expected to become acquainted with, and have some sort of say in, a whole host of issues that should terrify him.

The European economy is slowing fast and the euro crisis is nowhere near finished. The EU leaders have to agree a budget for 2014 to 2020. There is also the ongoing danger to the EU’s cohesion posed by the UK and its deepening antipathy towards Brussels. The Brits could even leave the EU, if not in the six months, which would be disastrous for us; Kenny will have to show at least some diplomatic skills in the coming months if even just to keep Britain and Germany/France from each other’s throats.

Now seriously, how well equipped do you think Kenny and Gilmore are for dealing with those issues over the next few months? Kenny has picked up a few trinkets in recent months, a cover of the European edition of Time magazine, and some European of the Year award from some German publication being regarded by some within Government as cause for some kind of celebration. He seems to be liked because he does what he is told. He’ll follow whatever orders are given by the powers in Europe to its temporary president.

So the best thing to do over the next six months would be to ignore whatever guff you hear about how great it is for Ireland to be EU president. It is of value and interest to just a small European obsessed elite. The rest of us will get on with living in the real world.

* The Last Word with Matt Cooper is broadcast on 100-102 Today FM, Monday to Friday, 4.30pm to 7pm.

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