A chance to put our stamp on Europe

THE Irish EU presidency is a challenge and an opportunity for the country over the next six months and the fallout could last a long time after that.

It’s an opportunity to showcase the country to the 15,000 visitors who will come for EU meetings and for about 180 events and conferences.

It is also an opportunity to influence many of the issues important to the country and the EU and comes at a particularly pivotal time for both.

While the agenda is largely set, the power comes in resolving issues, drawing up agreements that will work and convincing others to adopt them during the average of 1,600 expert, committee and ministerial councils.

Regularly meeting the leaders and ministers from other countries the Government hopes will give them an opportunity to push the main item of interest to Ireland at the moment — getting rid of the banking debt.

While traditionally the presidency is expected to be an impartial chair and not take advantage of the role, the Taoiseach has said he will push at every opportunity for a deal.

The presidency is not what it used to be — the Taoiseach no longer represents all 27 at international meetings and events and does not chair the summits of EU leaders. This is done by the permanent president, currently Herman Van Rompuy.

Likewise the foreign ministers’ role has been demoted as they no longer map out the agendas for the summits. However, Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore may occasionally be asked to represent the external relations chief Cathy Ashton in the European Parliament.

Finance Minister Michael Noonan will chair only the ministers of the whole 27, rather than the eurozone.

The ministers have been building up to their responsibilities for months now, meeting journalists in Brussels to talk about the upcoming issues.

Most of the European Parliament’s work is done in committees and the session tomorrow until Wednesday will be a big one for Irish ministers and ministers for state as about 20 of them will present their priorities.

The Taoiseach’s most public moment was last Wednesday when he made a speech in the European Parliament in Strasbourg. He will be back in July to present the achievements of the presidency.

Ireland’s permanent representation office in Brussels has almost doubled in size to about 180 people for the duration and the cost of the presidency is put at around €60m — less than the €110m spent the last time Ireland held the presidency in 2004.

Some of the main areas that the Government will focus on are:

US-EU free trade area

Ireland plans to kick off the biggest of all free trade deals by getting all EU members to agree to start negotiations, possibly as early as April.

Trade between the EU and the US accounts for about half the world’s economic output and nearly one third of world trade. A deal could increase economic output by €122bn a year for the EU, on top of the €500bn trade in goods and services between the two blocs at the moment.

The easily recognisable problems would be food, for instance, with a ban on many genetically modified items in the EU that are freely available in the US alongside a tit-for-tat ban on beef and high tariffs for pork and the ban in the EU on hormones in meat, used in the US. Would the EU remove the ban, arrange for an opt-out or possibly leave it out altogether?

Talks will continue on the EU-Japan free trade deal expected to create 420,000 jobs.

Data protection regulation

There are a lot of negotiations involved in this and the battle field is littered with Davids and Goliaths.

Google and Facebook want a clear run and are in a near monopoly position at gathering information about their users and selling or using it to increase their advantage.

SMEs, on the other hand, say they need a look-in and want to ensure the rules do not make it impossible for the little guys to compete.

Somewhere in the background is the consumer looking for a modicum of control over what happens to their data and who uses it.

Ireland will find it difficult to be a detached referee in this with the big companies located here, but much of the future growth lies with SMEs.

Banking Union (IFSC)

The legislation to put the ECB in charge of supervising all eurozone banks is due to be ready within weeks but has to be chaperoned through the European Parliament.

Then the shape of the two other legs of banking union — a deposit guarantee scheme and a resolution scheme — for winding-up or rescuing troubled banks — has to be finalised.

Given that Germany no longer believes all this is necessary, progress could be slow but most of that will not happen under Ireland’s watch.

Digital agenda/digital single market

A huge dossier that will be a core issue at the June summit. Particularly of interest to the Irish presidency will be eSignatures to ensure cross-border transactions are trustworthy.

Data protection and copyright are also on the agenda and are messy because every country has its own laws. When you think of the amount of money that national music rights organisations collect, for instance, the sums are very big. Demolishing borders on rights management would help sell much more music across the EU, for example.

Cloud computing

The EU is trying to be ahead of the curve on this one and figure out how to ensure a comprehensive and safe system open to all.

European Research Area

Research funding is a major issue and the EU hopes to complete negotiations later this year.

Of particular interest to Ireland are the key enabling technologies (KETS) that include nanotechnology, photonics, and advanced manufacturing that offer opportunities for industry already in Ireland and to attract others.

One major issue to be dealt with will be a directive on using food products to create biofuels which many fear threatens food supplies in poor countries.

Shale gas is also an increasingly hot issue as it involves the big oil companies. Energy will be discussed by EU leaders at a special summit in May.

Blue Growth and the EU’s Atlantic strategy action plan are of particular interest to Ireland with NUI Galway very involved. A major push is under way to increase the economic value and employment from the sea and coast, including from tourism, aquaculture, wave and tidal technologies and marine mineral mining.

Small businesses

Increasing competitiveness and cutting regulation is always a key issue for business and especially small firms. Sometimes it simply means ignoring the consumer and they will be keeping a close eye on the recently published papers from the European Commission that include assessing the costs and benefits of legislation in advance. Ireland will be working to get as much done as possible during its watch.

Enlargement

Croatia joins on Jul 1 — a day after Ireland’s presidency ends.

Macedonia: Talks are to get under way, now that an end may be in sight to the row with Greece over its name.

Iceland: A big hurdle is the row over mackerel, otherwise it is a shoe-in, unless they once again vote to stay out, but that won’t be for at least another year;

Serbia: Has been accepted as a candidate.

Kosovo: This is a big deal as while it has been accepted as a candidate three EU countries still don’t recognise it as a separate country.

Turkey: Has been out in the cold, especially with Cyprus blocking it because of the Turkish occupation of half of the island. But Ireland, like Britain, appears to have few fears and is happy to resurrect the talks.

Tax

There are a number of tax issues on the table and most countries are just as paranoid as Ireland about it.

The number one of these for Ireland is the common consolidated corporate tax base. The European Commission plans to launch its plans mid-March that would see cross-border companies being able to opt to fill out one kind of tax form for all its EU branches with the same kind of items permitted to be offset against tax, and the tax going to a country based on the amount of the goods sold there, where the goods were manufactured, where the company was headquartered.

Ireland believes this is just the backdoor to imposing the same corporate tax rate throughout the EU.

The other hot issue is the financial transaction tax. Despite desperately needing the money, the Government has decided not to impose this extra tax on the financial industry, but at least nine countries like the idea and are moving ahead — with Ireland in the chair when it is being discussed.

Agriculture

The European Parliament is to vote on reformeing CAP, and Ireland is involved in the negotiations.

Agriculture is the only policy that is completely decided and funded centrally at EU level. But the winds of changing are a blowing — or are they? The horse-trading has been going on for months with the commission proposing changes that would address issues like ensuring the British queen or golf clubs or multinationals did not scoop up all the loot, and that smaller farmers got something while the environment and consumers also benefit. too.

It has now been torn apart but over the coming months Ireland will be stuck in the middle with Simon Coveney as they desperately try to find a way between the French wanting no change, and Britain wanting to scrap the whole idea.

Fish

Simon Coveney, as marine minister, will be in the chair for this one also as the final shape of the new EU fisheries policy takes shape.

The parliament has very definite ideas, going further than the commission on this and leaning towards looking after the fish for future generations. It got a major boost in the just-concluded negotiations on fish quotas.

Professional qualifications

We may finally see countries recognising each others’ qualifications by issuing a virtual professional card.

Countries such as Italy have an amazing number of jails erected around a plethora of professions ensuring nobody outside their system could as much as open a coffee shop without having the requisite certificate.

Now the plan is to equate qualifications and give virtual professional cards to those with the qualifications including doctors, nurses, architects etc. All anybody will need then is the language to work in any other EU country.

Public procurement

Government purchasing accounts for 19% of GDP and the plan is to open this up so any EU state can tender for goods/work from governments in other EU states.

This is not an easy one either as it means dismantling barriers placed there to stop this kind of thing. The trade unions and some countries are also emphasising the need for things like the pay of the workers involved to be taken into account, fearing as they do a rush to the bottom. And the countries that have been doing this, Denmark, Sweden, .... are proof that ensuring your workers are paid fairly makes good economic sense too,

Posted workers

Currently there are 1m posted workers in the EU (ie, people working for a limited time in a member state that is not their own) but minimum standards are often ignored, so this will more clearly define who is a posted worker, the obligations, etc.

The last time this came up it prompted the French to reject the EU constitution over fears of Polish plumbers swamping the market.

The concessions made to get the legislation through, plus how it has worked in practice, has prompted the commission to have another go and try to improve it by clarifying the rules.

Youth Employment Guarantee

Within weeks of being on the job trail, everyone will be offered a job, training, or apprenticeship. This is close to the Irish heart, and to the rest of the EU politicians desperately looking for a way to show they are not just all about austerity.

In private they admit if it can be done, it will take years. The Germans like the idea and point to their apprenticeships — but the truth is that they subsidise their industry.

Austria also likes the idea but they have not had a crisis and their unemployment is low anyhow.

Worth a try, all agree. But expect more talk than action.

CAB for Europe

Ireland is to push for an EU-wide criminal assets system modelled on the CAB. It’s at first reading stage in the parliament. This is Justice Minister Alan Shatter’s baby and being a lawyer he is listened to at the justice ministers’ meetings.

EU Budget

The EU has a seven-year €1tn budget. It’s a tricky one because for the first time the parliament is not just involved, but needs a qualified majority to pass any budget the member states agree to. That would mean getting almost every MEP in the three biggest political groups — left, right, and centre — to vote for the deal.

Ireland is manning the crossroads for this, and if it manages to get it through, the country’s debt should be forgiven.

Tobacco

This directive has already claimed scalps with the resignation of the former health commissioner John Dalli.

It’s not a major step towards banning tobacco or ensuring the companies pay the cost of the deaths and ill health their product is responsible for.

It just could see a push towards the US idea of having a scale of badness with nicotine products. Ireland, as the only country to guarantee the cigarette companies a minimum profit, won’t interfere too much.

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