On Jan. 1, Ireland takes over the European Union’s most-important office for six months. But unlike its Italian predecessor, Dublin is steering clear of great expectations.
For six months, Dublin will become the political center of Europe.
Rue Archimede is a side street located near the Council of Ministers in Brussels. There are a number of Irish pubs here. At the James Joyce, barkeeper Pat says he thinks Europe’s problems can be solved more easily over a bitter dark beer.
Bertie Ahern (photo), the emerald island’s prime minister, takes a less casual view. He’s just inherited the job of playing the middle man and chief negotiator in the recently collapsed
talks over an EU constitution. The European summit broke down in December over disputes on how votes should be weighed and now Ahern has to try to pick up the scraps.
The debate pitted Germany and France against Poland and Spain, who rejected the constitution’s call for double-majority voting, which would have required a majority of member states to approve important decisions and for those votes to represent a majority of the EU population. The system would have created an advantage for larger member states like Germany. Ireland sees itself as the mediator in the dispute because Ahern has said he could live with the voting system -- either as seen in the current constitutional draft or the complicated deal reached in Nice or any other sensible compromise that can be reached.
Drawn out battle expected
But most observers in Brussels say that the negotiations will likely continue through the end of 2004. For his part, Ahern is pleading for other member states to preserve the parts of the draft constitution where they have found unity. But other countries have said everything should be open to negotiation. Ireland has also rejected a proposal by Germany and France to create a two-tier system that would allow any countries who are serious about deeper European integration to do so at an accelerated pace.
The Irish presidency also faces what is likely to turn into a major allocations battle in the EU. During the first part of the year, the European Commission will be presenting its spending plan for 2007 and beyond. Six of the EU’s so-called net payers, the countries that pay more money into the EU’s coffers than they get back, including Germany, have said they want to freeze current expenditures.
Expansion and beyond
Lithuania's President Rolandas Paksas speaks during a formal sitting of the plenary session of the European Parliament in Brussels, Wednesday Nov. 5, 2003. The European Parliament on Wednesday will discuss a report on the ten countries set to join the EU next spring. Lithuania is among the ten joining members. (AP Photo/Virginia Mayo)
In spring, important decisions also need to be made about EU personnel. Romano Prodi’s term as European Commission president ends in Nov. 2004 and a replacement must be found soon. During the same period, 10 new members will also be joining the EU from eastern and southeastern Europe and Cyprus. But that’s a development Irish Foreign Minister Brian Cowen observes positively.
"We want to make sure that the remaining problems are taken care of so that (EU) expansion can be executed seamlessly," Cowen said.
In terms of policy, Ireland says it wants to promote economic programs in order to fulfill the EU’s ambitious goal of becoming the most-innovative region in the world. Compared to the United States, Europe has a great social system, Ireland’s Ahern says, but when it comes to research and development and education, Europe falls behind it.
But Foreign Minister Cowen believes the real measuring stick for the presidency will be "progress." He believes "competitive ability, growth and jobs are, correctly, the questions against which our citizens will judge the success of the European project."
‘It’s the economy, stupid!’
Ireland itself has profited considerably since it joined the EU in 1973. With the aid of subsidies from Brussels, the country was able to regenerate its economy, reduce unemployment and attract foreign investors. Some even started to call it the "Celtic Tiger." Meanwhile, the EU has also benefited from Ireland's membership. The country has gone from being among the poorest in the EU to become a prosperous land that is an EU net payer. As a strictly neutral country, Ireland is not a member of the NATO military alliance does not count among the group of European countries calling for a common defense policy.
Perhaps wisely considering the political strife that marred the Italian presidency, Ireland is taking a modest approach to its term at the EU’s helm. Cowen has sought to avoid developing major expectations for what Ireland’s presidency can deliver. But he is certain about one thing: What ever Ireland does do, "it will do so with a smile."