As Ireland prepares for its seventh presidency, perceptions in other European capitals will obviously be influenced by the outcome of the 31 May referendum.
‘Towards a Better Europe’ is the official title of the Cypriot Presidency of the Council of the European Union, running from July to December. Holding the presidency, its first since joining the EU in May 2004, is considered a great honour by Cypriot ministers and officials, who are keen to change its image (of a conflict zone) in political circles. UN talks will continue but will be on the backburner this year as the Cypriot Government wants to focus on the presidency.
In Europe, Cyprus wants to see the Multi-annual Financial Framework (effectively the EU budget for 2014-2020) concluded by December, with a stronger focus on social policy e.g. youth employment, active ageing, children’s well-being and a common asylum policy. It contends that focusing on mere financial policy has made the union ineffective in the current crisis. The Government also wants to achieve a consensus on revising the EU 2020 strategy for economic growth.
Building bridges with Europe’s Arab neighbours along the Mediterranean coast is another major priority. Cyprus wants Europe to help those countries become more democratic and accountable, and is also seeking help to tackle illegal immigration.
Traditional hostility to Turkey remains. The Cypriot Government says that it will accept Turkish membership, provided that it fully implements all its conditions, including a fair solution to the Cyprus dispute. The Turkish Cypriots resent the Greeks’ unilateral entry to the EU and want an end to EU sanctions.
Minister for European Affairs Lucinda Creighton set out the Government’s initial priorities in a keynote speech on 18 April, to the European Movement in Dublin. Live economic issues would include: the Commission’s annual growth survey (due in late 2012); strengthening the single market (following new legislation also later this year); progress on digital single market legislation; and finalising funding regulations for the Horizon 2020 R&D programme. A “very heavy” financial regulation agenda is also expected.
CAP reform will dominate in agriculture, but the Government wants to broaden the debate, to consider how agriculture can link into Europe 2020 (the growth strategy) and Horizon 2020.
Poverty reduction targets for the Europe 2020 strategy will be a major social policy theme, alongside continuing talks on skills, unemployment and pensions. Health negotiations will focus on the Clinical Trials Directive and Medical Devices Directive, the latter being especially important to the Irish economy.
Energy ministers will be discussing new technologies for energy efficiency, sustainability and distribution, and how to share out €50 billion for transport, energy and telecoms infrastructure (the Connecting Europe programme). The Fourth Railway Package and the Aviation Package will also attract close scrutiny.
The Seventh Environment Programme will also be brought forward and post-Durban discussions will continue on climate change. Tackling organised crime, including criminal asset recovery, will be a high priority for justice ministers.
“We have often thought only of Europe in terms of what resources we can get from it,” she told the Dáil on 9 May. “However, we have responsibilities as members of the union and it is not good enough for us to sit back and wait for others to decide on future positions, the future policy agenda and the future shape of the union.”
The opposition was sceptical about the Government’s prospects, with Micheál Martin claiming that the Government was too focused on the domestic media and should start pursuing stronger diplomatic links with other member states.
Sinn Féin TD Michael Corleavy has called for as much progress as possible on CAP reform but warned that the EU is increasingly becoming a “less democratic, more centralised and autocratic union of states.”
The June 2014 European Parliament elections add extra pressure on the 2013 presidencies (Ireland and Lithuania) to make progress and the Minister wants Ireland’s presidency to be seen as “fair, honest and workmanlike with a focus on results.”