The Irish Presidency comes to a close this weekend, after an action-packed and highly successful six months. The headlines have been grabbed by agreements reached on things such as Agriculture and Fisheries reform, caps on bankers’ bonuses and new rules on tobacco. But what has been going on behind the scenes? Much of the action has played out in Brussels where almost 2,000 Presidency meetings have been chaired by Irish officials. These civil servants are stationed in the Irish Permanent Representation to the EU.
Since January 1st Irish officials have been leading negotiations between EU Member States, representing the Council in brokering deals and liaising with the other institutions. It has involved careful planning, long hours, commitment and skill.
“A Unique Experience”
For many, one of the most interesting and challenging aspects of the Presidency was chairing trilogues – the negotiating meetings held between the Irish Presidency, the European Parliament and the European Commission aimed at forging agreement on EU laws. In the course of its stewardship, the Irish Presidency has led an impressive 349 of these talks leading to agreements on many significant files – only in the last week for example reaching agreements on the EU’s long-term budget for the next seven years, CAP reform, the EU’s long-term budget for research and innovation (Horizon 2020,) Erasmus+, and the Connecting Europe Facility.
“It is fascinating to see how EU legislation is made and it’s an opportunity you only really get as Council Presidency” says Meabh Ní Driscoil who has been working on negotiations to bring about a massive new fund dedicated to EU research and innovation projects for the next seven years (Horizon 2020).
Ger Moore, Chief of the Justice and Home Affairs section at the Perm Rep, also enjoyed trilogue negotiations: “you can never be 100% guaranteed that you will reach an agreement when you step inside the trilogue meeting” she said. For Ger, getting a deal on an EU rules concerning Access to a Lawyer across the line was a particular highpoint.
Ger Moore - “you can never be 100% guaranteed that you will reach an agreement when you step inside the trilogue meeting”
Ireland has chaired 54 full Ministerial Councils since January and for Transport Team member Lydia Rooney, her top moment came in early June at the meeting of EU Transport Ministers. “It was very satisfying to see the culmination of all our work and Ministers signing off on legislation we have spent so much time progressing over the past few months”.
However it has not been all work and no play in Brussels. Niamh O’Donnellan cites her fondest memory as running the Brussels 20K race in May as part of the Irish Presidency team: “It is probably the closest I will get to running for Ireland in the Olympics!”, she said. The team, made up of officials from the Perm Rep, Irish people living and working in Brussels, and other people from the EU institutions, ran in aid of the Irish Hospice Foundation and raised well over €12,000 in sponsorship.
Indeed the entire Presidency has been a massive team effort. Many in the Rep referred to this positive working environment and many put it down to the leadership in the Mission. Ireland’s Permanent Representative of Ireland to the EU Ambassador Rory Montgomery, who has chaired the meetings of EU Ambassadors during the Presidency term, said: “I am happy to be able to say that a large part of the great successes that the Irish Presidency has achieved over the past six months is down to the excellent colleagues that we have at the Perm Rep, and the fantastic team work ethic that we have had throughout the Presidency. As well as the officials that were based in Brussels already, bringing with them their knowledge and experience of the institutions, the new faces that arrived in September gave a drive and an energy that invigorated the Rep for the whole Presidency.
Sarah Holden - “bring a sleeping bag to work!”
Words of Advice
The Perm Rep staff can now consider themselves Presidency veterans, so what advice would they give future Presidencies? Ambassador Hanney counselled those set to follow in his footsteps: “Be prepared. Much of the success of the Presidency is based on solid preparation in the months before you take over in the Coreper chair. Also, given the intensity of the workload during the Presidency, it is important to give yourself some time to relax.”
Sarah Holden, part of the section responsible for coordinating work in areas such as Fisheries, Transport and the Environment, recommends being prepared to take sleep whenever you can get it: “bring a sleeping bag to work!” is her nugget of advice.
For many, the end of the Presidency means moving on to new challenges and opportunities. Some will return to their departments in Dublin and others will leave to new diplomatic postings, but for many the end of the Presidency will be a chance to take a well-earned holiday following six intensive months work. According to Breda O’Brien, who has also been heavily involved in the Horizon2020 negotiations “the end of the Presidency will give me a chance to finally get to know Brussels properly, only 11 months after first moving here!” “I love Brussels and the Presidency experience has been great so I’ll be very sad to leave” said Lydia Rooney whose next move will be to London.