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Europe bets on Ireland

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In the European Parliament, Bertie Ahern showed clearly that the Irish Presidency aims at gathering everyone. An ambitious project, but can the Irish Prime Minister achieve it?

With the toll of crises in Europe rising faster than the rate of the euro, will the Irish presidency of the EU be able to resolve them all? Or will it be a case of ‘damage limitation’ until the presidential baton passes to the Dutch in July? The ambitious agenda set out by the Irish clearly shows their determination to make their mark during this presidency. Too unrealistic? Perhaps.

A day after Bertie Ahern, the Taoiseach (Prime Minister) spoke to the European Parliament, the task seems as insurmountable as ever. Imagine, in less than six months, Ahern wants to make headway with the ‘Lisbon Agenda’, set out in 2000 but which has been by and large a non-starter. Ahern has also placed a priority on relaunching the talks on the constitutional treaty that failed under the Italian presidency. Not a simple task, given that they ended on such bitter and entrenched terms between France/Germany and Poland/Spain. Throw in Ireland’s own refusal to budge on the tax veto and any agreement within six months would be miraculous. Well, it is the land of saints and scholars...!

And as if that was not enough, Ireland wants to initiate a wide-ranging agenda in the justice and home affairs area in a bid to ensure greater security and safety for the people of the EU plus improve EU relations with the international community. Last but not least, two other key events are taking place during Ireland’s stewardship: the official accession of the ten states in line to become fully-fledged members of the EU in May of this year, and the launching of the process to determine the EU’s next seven-year budget plan.

Behind-the-scenes methods of diplomacy

With all this in the pipeline, how effective can Bertie Ahern be in the presidential role ? Elected leader of Fianna Fáil, Ireland’s centre-right political party, in November 1994, and Taoiseach since 1997, 52-year old Ahern has promoted his image as a ‘man of the people’, a down-to-earth type who still enjoys a pint in his local pub – indeed he even brought a serving President of the United States there for one! His popularity was at its height at the end of his first 5 year term in office, where he successfully campaigned for re-election, the first time an outgoing government had succeeded in doing this since 1969. Since then, political scandals combined with a dramatic slow-down in the growth of the Irish economy have seen his ratings plummet. By performing well in his EU role, Bertie Ahern could regain credibility in Ireland and enhance his status in Europe. Quite an incentive to go as far as possible.

Ahern is seen as a skilled negotiatior who enjoys good relations with other EU leaders. His behind-the-scenes methods of diplomacy will suit the present situation of EU affairs, while his apparent absence of need for the limelight is unusual when you look at his peers. Ireland’s good record from previous presidencies, along with a reputation for “pragmatism, consensus-building, problem-solving and focused conduct of foreign affairs” should enable progress to be made on many fronts. Whether this includes getting France, Germany, Poland and Spain to agree, however, is anyone’s guess. Bets are being taken now...