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The Irish Presidency – Government Strategy in Light of Diverging Expectations

Submitted by on 19 Oct 2012 – 13:51

By Frank Häge, Lecturer in Politics, University of Limerick

Taking over the rotating Presidency of the Council of the EU on 1 January 2013, the Irish government will find itself in a rather unenviable situation. On the one hand, its European partners will expect nothing less than a professionally managed and impartially conducted term ‘at the helm’ of the Council. On the other hand, its elevated position in the EU’s decision-making centre will raise hopes amongst many ordinary Irish citizens that their government might be able to secure more favourable terms for its bailout deal with the Commission/ECB/IMF troika. These hopes will no doubt be spurred by domestic political opposition, which has long called for the government to take a more confrontational line in its dealings with Europe.

The current coalition government of Fine Gael and Labour came into power after a landslide election in 2011. The election was called after the premature departure of the Green Party, the junior partner in the then ruling coalition with Fianna Fáil. The break-up of this coalition was itself a direct result of Fianna Fáil ministers’ handling of the bailout agreement with the troika in November 2010. The former government parties were severely punished by voters for the economic and fiscal situation, with the Green Party losing all its seats, and Fianna Fáil being reduced to the third largest party in the Dáil after dominating the political landscape for years.

During the election campaign, calls for renegotiating at least parts of the bailout agreement were heard from some members of the future government. Most memorable amongst those calls was Labour leader (and now foreign affairs minister) Eamon Gilmore’s famous statement that voters would have the choice between “Frankfurt’s way, or Labour’s way”. However, once in government as a junior partner with Fine Gael, which never fundamentally questioned the parameters of the bailout deal, these ambitions were quickly dampened.

Rather than taking a more confrontational course with ‘Frankfurt’ or ‘Brussels’, the Irish government under Taoiseach Enda Kenny (Fine Gael) started a charm offensive to ‘rebuild Ireland’s international reputation’, which was supposedly damaged by the reckless behaviour and policies of the predecessor government. This co-operative strategy towards Europe includes simple measures, like Irish ministers actually showing up for Council meetings in Brussels to restore personal relationships with their counterparts from other countries and with representatives of the European institutions. Apparently, under the previous government, Irish ministers had stood out for their absence at Council meetings.

It also entails a clear commitment to fulfilling the provisions of the troika bailout as they exist, while at the same time carefully and unobtrusively reminding their partners in Europe that the debt burden accumulated as a result of rescuing the Irish financial system is not sustainable and that these provisions need to be changed. This ‘model pupil’ approach relies on the assumption that the goodwill shown by the Irish government will at some stage be reciprocated, and that Ireland will at least in the long run be rewarded for being the poster boy of the troika approach to solving the financial crisis.

Statements like that of Germany’s finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble, who recently suggested that more lenient terms for Ireland could undermine rather than increase the trust of financial markets in the Irish recovery, indicate that this strategy is risky and might not be successful in the end. Such statements also fuel domestic criticism of the government’s conciliatory approach.

The 2011 elections not only brought Fine Gael and the Labour Party into government, but also saw a rise in the popularity of Sinn Féin and various smaller left-wing groupings (i.e. the Socialist Party, the Workers and Unemployed Action Group, and People before Profit). Signalling a general dissatisfaction with the political system, the elections also brought a large and rather unpredictable group of independents into the Dáil.

The composition of this group ranges from the rural Kerry candidate, who basically inherited his seat from his father (together with his flat cap), to the property developer, best known for his pink shirts and aversion to wearing a tie in the Dáil, and the long-standing activist for the legalisation of cannabis, who recently turned his campaign attention to fighting the ban on turf cutting.

Although these groupings are very diverse, most of their members share a fundamental opposition to the bailout deal agreed with the EU and the IMF. While they have little influence in the Dáil, the eccentricity and ability to mobilize public opposition on specific issues, like resisting payment of the newly introduced household charge or the registration of septic tanks, helps some of their members to draw a disproportionate amount of domestic media attention.

Sinn Féin and its leader Gerry Adam also seem to favour the application of less co-operative negotiation tactics to dealings with the EU, tactics the party has successfully employed for years in Northern Ireland. Together with the vocal criticism of Sinn Féin, the influence of the smaller left-wing groups and independents on public opinion in the country should not be underestimated.

In short, the Irish government sees its Presidency term as yet another opportunity to prove that it is once again a good member of the club. The aim is to follow up on previous successful Irish Presidencies in terms of a solid management of the Council’s business, but with less pomp and unnecessary expense. In light of the heightened but unwarranted expectations it might raise amongst the public to receive better bailout terms for the country, likely to be fuelled by demands of opposition parties, independent members of the Dáil and newspaper columnists for a more forceful approach towards Europe, the Irish government seems to be content with using the Presidency primarily as an outward-looking tool to re-establish its reputation as a respectable and trustworthy partner in the EU.

The upcoming Presidency term has not entered public awareness or debate yet. But rather than stir publicity and proactively use the Presidency as a vehicle to improve the battered image of Europe amongst Irish citizens, the government seems to be quite content to keep it a low key event domestically.