WHEN agreement on the EU’s seven year €960bn budget was signed off last Thursday, the last major act in Ireland’s six month presidency of the EU, the Taoiseach, the Tánaiste, the presidents of the commission and the parliament, the budget commissioner and the chief negotiator for the parliament gave a press briefing.
They thanked one another, and their staff. But standing out of sight, a few metres away from the six grey suits, was the one politician who saw the presidency through from start to finish — Lucinda Creighton.
It began over two years ago, the day after the Cabinet was appointed in Mar 2011, when she got a call from the Taoiseach saying he would like to appoint her minister of state for European affairs.
“I thought: fantastic. I was working in European affairs for 10 years through Oireachtas committees and the European People’s Party so I was familiar with it and I considered it to be really important.
“In concrete terms, Europe plays a major role in the lives of people — 90% of legislation now originates in the EU. It has an incredible influence on all our lives”.
She saw the role as bringing Europe a bit closer to people at home and engaging the Dáil more in European affairs, but also because Ireland’s reputation was in absolute tatters and she realised that building alliances was a core part of preparing for the presidency.
But she admits now she really had no idea of what the preparations would be really like. “It is hugely eye opening. Just the effort involved in pulling the elements together, every single part of government has a hugely important role, we have to be coherent, singing off the same hymn-sheet, you have to be prepared, have a clear agenda, build support for it, and that meant travelling to every member state from the beginning.”
Her first two trips were to Berlin and Paris, where she got a cold dose of real politics. French President Nicolas Sarkozy had just tried to push the Taoiseach to abandon the country’s corporation tax regime in what Mr Kenny later referred to as ‘a Gallic spat’.
“I was hit with that very aggressively when I went to Paris. I knew it was an issue but I was unprepared for just how aggressive the line of attack was. But we batted back, we were pretty robust.”
She faced the same attack from 15 of the top French media outlets that shared the same negativity towards Ireland as the French government.
“It was a real effort over two and a half hours, a very long breakfast, explaining why we have the rate, that it’s not bad for France, why it’s so important to us and that we don’t want to be dependent on EU states for survival.”
Fast forward to last Monday when she was in Paris again. “The attitude was entirely different, very positive about our presidency and what we have achieved, about Ireland on the road to recovery and exiting the bailout — the word ‘tax’ was never uttered”.
At home, the civil service had begun planning for the presidency with three officials, and this was increased with representatives from each department, known as the Inter-Departmental Committee for Presidency Planning.
She chaired its many meetings, the last of which was last Friday.
During the summer of 2011, she met individual senior ministers to discuss the issues. “In the beginning, they were looking at me like I had three heads — they all had more immediate matters to think about. But I have to give them total credit, they rose to the challenge”.
Every six weeks, the Taoiseach chaired a meeting with the key ministers to exchange reports.
At first, it was a matter of narrowing down the issues to come up with a presidency programme that furthered the joint aims of Ireland and of the EU and answered the prevailing challenges.
“I was sceptical, though, about what we could do. Could the presidency influence the agenda or does the whole thing trundle on without you? I had seen the 2004 Irish presidency, but from the outside.
“But now I know the presidency absolutely shapes the six months.”
The slogan was obvious — stability, jobs and growth — but the challenge was how to make this real. They took various directives and work on economic governance and the banks — CRD4, the two pack, where national governments agree to implement advice on a wide range of issues in their budget, were just two, and then the elements of banking union came along to augment the move.
She described the work on banking union as “phenomenal”, and there are few in Brussels that would disagree.
Finance Minister Michael Noonan is perhaps the best loved of the Irish ministers after his six months — calm, measured, always quietly optimistic he and his officials worked through the night, picking and unpicking possible solutions until they found a compromise that everyone could live with on how troubled banks could be wound up in future, without the taxpayer picking up the tab.
“We were expecting to be greeted by a pack of wolves from the stories we had heard from previous presidencies when we went to meet the parliament.
“They were pushing, they were formidable, especially the Econ committee chair Sharon Bowles. But we announced that banking union was a priority, and we pursued it relentlessly. Planning, preparation and execution, that is the key.”
But one of the biggest achievements for her is the agreement that allows the start of negotiations on a free trade area between the EU and the US.
“I’m certain if we had not prioritised this, it would not have happened. It happened because the presidency drove it, and we had to knock heads together and focus on it very hard.”
So what is the attitude of the rest of the EU towards Ireland now after its six months at the helm? “People are very diplomatic, the perception of Ireland is on a high when they are impressed by what you are doing — whatever stereotypes people have tend to fall aside.
“You can fall into the trap of personifying your stereotype or try to perform and the perception is that previous Irish presidencies were good — but this has been different.
“It has been done on half the resources and half the money, and they say that this is one of, if not the best, they have ever seen.”
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