News John Downing

Monday 24 October 2016

The Government's failure to prepare for this made jaws drop in Brussels

Published 02/09/2016 | 02:30

Former EU Commissioner Padraig Flynn Photo: Tom Burke
Former EU Commissioner Padraig Flynn Photo: Tom Burke

Even by the standards of impenetrable Eurospeak this one is pretty clear. Article 17(3) of the Treaty on European Union stipulates that the EU's policy-guiding Commission shall be independent and comprised of people known to be independent. "They shall neither seek nor take instructions from any Government or any other institution."

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The principle is reinforced by the individual Commissioners taking an oath of office at the EU Court of Justice before they formally take on the job.

In the earlier days of the EU, this one was publicly seen to run on rails, with Commissioners speaking of "the region I know best" when referring to their home State.

Realpolitik led to a relaxation of that convention. Commissioners and their advisory teams were recognised as a resource, a first port of call for their compatriots trying to broach the Brussels bureaucracy, and an information point for other EU civil servant colleagues trying to find out about political culture and administrative practices in another member state.

That practical and sensible practice saw Irish Commissioner Ray MacSharry, who served from 1989 until 1992, being a useful pathfinder for Ireland's very successful efforts to secure a big slice of social and regional fund grants. His successor, Pádraig Flynn, did the same in the mid-1990s and also helped point the way to the mitigation of a significant beef subsidy fine against Ireland in the wake of the notorious Beef Tribunal.

We are not allowed to know how much informal contact the current Irish Commissioner Phil Hogan had with his old boss, Enda Kenny, and former Cabinet colleagues on the vexed issue of the Apple finding that the Irish Government must claw back €13bn plus interest.

But Mr Hogan himself and all Brussels officials are insistent that when it comes to EU competition law, there is no room for political influence being brought to bear. It is lawyers and law books all the way from start to finish.

Everything that is said - and much that is not said - can be a factor in ensuing litigation before the EU Courts of Justice. With hundreds of millions at stake, and in this case of Apple and Ireland it is tens of billions, there can be no room for anything than the application of the EU law.

Finance Minister Michael Noonan was given a refresher course in this harsh reality when he met the EU Competition Commissioner, Margrethe Vestager in July. Mr Noonan deemed Ms Vestager "a friend" who he knew via the EU Council of Finance Ministers.

As a good Dane, she may well be well disposed to Ireland and have regard for her old Irish colleague at EU meetings.

But she is also the EU Competition Commissioner heading a very fraught and exacting process.

More generally in Brussels, there is a deal of surprise at the lack of preparedness in Dublin to deal with this jaw-dropping outcome. It was clear for a long time that Apple, and by extension Ireland, would come out the wrong end of things. The extent of the sums involved was the only real surprise.

Even allowing for summer holiday disarray, the Dublin Government gets no prizes for presentation and public relations.

There is an inevitable game of pass the parcel, involving the Finance Department and Government Buildings, which only risks making matters worse. It would be best to end it now.

Irish Independent

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