1 January 2013 will be the first day of Ireland’s six-month Presidency of the Council of the EU, marking our seventh stint in the Council ‘driving seat’ since joining the Union 40 years ago. Considering the current national and EU contexts, it is perhaps unsurprising that stability, jobs and growth have been prioritised as focus areas. Environmental concerns, however, appear to linger low on the list of concerns.
Outlining the policy priorities at the launch of the presidency in December, the Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore T.D spoke of “people-centred recovery, designed to last” through stabilising Europe’s banking system (Banking Union) and through improved economic co-ordination. The Irish presidency will also place a spotlight on youth unemployment, which is at levels of over 25% in 13 EU Member States.
The rather ambitious aim of the presidency, which rotates between EU member states every six months, is to act as a ‘recovery country driving recovery in Europe’. It will allow Ireland to direct much of the policy focus of the Union for the first half of next year within an 18-month joint ‘trio’ programme with the subsequent presidencies of Lithuania and Greece. Although the Irish presidency has recognised that the challenges we face “cannot be addressed effectively in the long term without a continuing emphasis on green growth and resource efficiency”, presidency plans might suggest that the Irish are talking the talk but failing to walk the walk.
In a letter to Irish Taoiseach Enda Kenny in December, the Green 10, a collection of 10 European environmental NGOs, criticised the Irish for adopting a popular theme but failing to develop tangible solutions, stating “Jobs and growth are nothing new: they have been a recurring theme since the EU Lisbon Strategy (in 2000). The Irish Presidency needs to innovate by providing a more focused impetus for this theme to be meaningful in the present context of economic recovery.”
It advises that true ‘greening’of the economy means building more sustainable employment across the entire economy: in manufacturing, financial services, retail and public services, as well as in those areas traditionally associated with ‘green jobs’, and urges Ireland to refine the current statements regarding the high level themes that define the Irish Presidency, stating “A lack of clear focus will effectively make the ‘jobs and growth’ theme vacuous, and Ireland will miss the opportunity to provide leadership in this crucial period.”
Greenpeace meanwhile has expressed concern that unless emphasis is placed on ways to pursue lasting economic benefits and sustainable employment from economic systems, EU countries would once again subsidise old polluting technologies. As Greenpeace adviser for the Irish presidency Dónall Geoghegan recently noted, “The Irish presidency needs to focus on things that work and benefit everyone, not just the banks: paying less for fuel, saving energy and creating jobs with better insulation, and cutting food and resource waste.”
Aoife O’Grady is an Irish, Brussels-based journalist focusing on environmental issues.