Gavan Reilly's Portfolio writings, ramblings, mumblings

A ballot box of red tape

Important as the appointment of the EU’s first full-time President might be, Gavan Reilly believes picking a new Commissioner will be a more pressing concern

Making any appointment is never easy. Every candidate for any position has their own merits and choosing any single person from a cackle of appointees-to-be, whether for a high-flying executive position or – sadly all too frequently these days – for the most expendable of McJobs, is a difficult thing to do.

Transplant this difficulty onto that most complex and intricate hotbed of bureaucracy, the European Union. One can’t begin to imagine how difficult it must be to navigate a political appointment through the thickest of red tape, accommodating the unique needs and whims of more than two dozen political cultures.

Such is the task now facing the EU as it seeks to appoint its first full-time President of the European Council, a de facto foreign minister in the form of the High Representative on Foreign Policy, and a European Commission that, thanks to Ireland’s somewhat misplaced stubbornness, will have nine more members than was first intended.

While Europe at large will busy itself with the more prominent full-time roles, Ireland’s own politically peculiar setup will likely make the nomination of an Irish Commissioner so difficult that Ireland are likely to exert little or any influence in the appointments of the more prominent jobs.

Ireland, unlike any of its fellow member states (with the enormous exception of the UK, where David should already have the curtains measured) is quite literally teetering between governments at the moment. That Fianna Fáil have clung onto power throughout the publication of the NAMA legislation, the second Lisbon referendum and the long-overdue renegotiation of the Programme for Government is a remarkable feat in itself, but with the worst budget in memory on the horizon and a by-election over the following hill – it can only be a matter of time before Micheál Martin finds himself acclimatising to Enda Kenny’s old stomping ground to the Ceann Comhairle’s immediate right.

So what of Ireland’s international appointees then, and what of Ireland’s European Commissioner? First things first, the notion of “Ireland’s European Commissioner” is one that needs discussion.

Pat_CoxWhile it’s true that each member of the Commission takes an oath of neutrality upon taking office, no Commissioner will ever be totally unbiased in their approach; aside from being most intimately familiar with the native political habitat they cut their teeth in, a Commissioner cannot help but consider the needs of their own land when push comes to shove.

Consider the Minister in an Irish cabinet – there mightn’t be a Department of Meath, but Navan would be much less likely to see its rail corridor introduced if Noel Dempsey wasn’t the Minister for Transport. Neither can one expect a Commissioner to turn a blind eye when presented with the chance to benefit the constituents they likely once served, and who set their political careers in motion.

So, with a change of Government a mere formality and with the nomination of a Commissioner a chance to ensure a vested – though veiled – interest at the top table, it becomes incumbent upon the Taoiseach to choose a unifying figure commanding respect across the floor of Leinster House. Such characters are few and far between, and so the difficult appointment procedure begins for Brian Cowen and company. Pat Cox? Máire Geoghegan-Quinn? Perhaps even John Bruton?

Let’s start with the latter. John Bruton has an impeccable record; as Taoiseach he undoubtedly contributed to the birth of the Celtic Tiger, and Bruton commands great respect and admiration from European ambassadors to Washington and American statesmen alike. One could indeed argue that his outward lack of vigour and dynamism is perhaps exactly what a workplace as glacial as the European Union demands. However, after two fraught referenda where Ireland once again asserted her right to a Commissioner, a candidate who took no active part in campaigning for Lisbon and who has been out of his nation’s public eye for five years is unlikely to capture Irish imaginations. In declaring his hand for the Council Presidency so early, Bruton will fall between two stools – and all of this comes before having to win over the Fianna Fáil party he so despised while in opposition.

As for Máire Geoghegan-Quinn, an impressive minister who once looked likely to be Ireland’s first female Taoiseach, it is difficult to see how a two-time member of the EU Court of Auditors – a job so dull it makes even John Bruton seem animated – might stir any major enthusiasm across the Oireachtas. Geoghegan-Quinn has spent fifteen years out of cabinet; one would think her time has passed.

Pat Cox, however, presents a strong proposition. Not only was Cox still President of the European Parliament in 2004 when ten of the eastern states joined the Union, making him a familiar face across the continent, but his role in confidently and expertly dismissing anti-Lisbon conspiracy theory in the past months was vital in ensuring the treaty’s safe passage at the ballot box.

Garnish with Cox’s corporate experience on the Board of Directors of too many companies to name, and the only obstacle would be Fine Gael’s support – unlikely to prove problematic given Cox’s role in the referendum campaign.

If only making the real decision were so easy. Unsurprisingly given Ireland’s penchant for bickering and Europe’s knack for slowing things down, the smart money will be on a decision being drawn out a little longer, even if only as a pre-budgetary diversion.