The Inner Sanctum

21st October, 2013

As I write this, I am on my way back from Luxembourg after representing Ireland at the meetings of Union Finance Ministers.

You will note that I said ‘meetings’.

This is because two separate gatherings occured. The first was the so-called ‘Eurogroup’, which is a meeting of all Finance Ministers within the Eurozone. The second meeting, ‘Ecofin’ (which stands for the Economic and Financial Affairs Council), is attended by all members of the Union. As such, Ireland attends both.

Other attendees include the European Commission (in this case, Commissioner Barnier and Commissioner Rehn), the European Central Bank and also the European Investment Bank.

Why was I there? Essentially, this was because Minister Noonan and Minister Hayes were very busy with Budget 2014! These, like all meetings of the Council of Ministers, are where political decisions are tak
en and this is why it is important that a Government Minister is always present to represent our interests.

There was a lot of focus on Ireland as we plan our exit from the bailout programme on 15th December this year. In the Eurogroup, I was required to give a presentation on how things stand at present and to respond to questions from the other participants. I also participated in a large number of discussions on our economic plans for the future.

My interventions were strenuous in putting the case forward for Ireland, emphasising that the significant progress which we have made is due to the huge sacrifice of our people. This point did not go unrecognised by those around the table.

Observations from the sessions include:

– If there was ever a physical example of a political response to economic globalisation it is these meetings – where countries, big and small, recognise their interdependence and try to make this a strength in the face of huge forces.

– That this interdependence stretches across the Atlantic. Many Ministers had just returned from the annual meeting of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) participated in some of the Eurogroup discussions (this was done in a striking manner through a high power speaker phone. The memory of a voice from a distant ceiling provoked all sorts of analogies in my mind…).

– That every politician is grappling with the same things we are – jobs, standard of living and the consequences of a recession. This was emphasised by the fact that many Ministers were about to announce their national budgets this week.

– That different countries obviously see the causes of the crisis and the responses differently. This is not a complaint. We cannot acknowledge the strength of the diversity in Europe and then give out about how this generates a diversity of views.

I have entitled this blog-post ‘The Inner Sanctum’. This is because these meetings were the arena within which many of the deepest and darkest moments of the economic crisis were grappled with. While relative calm now prevails no-one is blind to the challenges that could face us.

During my visit I also met the Minister for Foreign Affairs for Luxembourg (Jean Asselborn). We had an excellent meeting in which we discussed our views on the crisis, the political prospects for Europe and identified areas in which Ireland and Luxembourg could develop further closer relations.

After this meeting, I addressed a lunch for members of the Irish community in Luxembourg which was hosted by our Ambassador and IDA Ireland. As the recent Global Irish Economic Forum demonstrated, the Irish community abroad is an invaluable asset to us and, when I can, I always try to meet our Diaspora.

Since my election to the Seanad in 2007, I have always attended the Dáil for budget day. So this is the first budget I have ‘missed’. At the end of our meetings, I tried to stream it but as the internet connection failed us (looking forward to a Connected Continent soon!), I read the budget speeches instead. Whilst I could not be in the Dáil personally, I am aware that all of the work that I was involved in today will play an important role in allowing us to frame future budgets and look forward to better days ahead.

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