Tomorrow, 1st January, Ireland will assume the presidency of the European Union for the seventh time. The six-month term also marks the 40th anniversary of this country's membership of what is today called the EU.
Our turn at the helm comes at the end of an enormously difficult year for the Union, one of the most turbulent in the history of post-war Europe. Indeed, the past few years have been tumultuous in terms of the economic difficulties the continent has faced, as well as the most economically troubling years in Ireland in decades when our relationship with Brussels has been stretched to breaking point at times.
The government intends to use the opportunity of the presidency to promote Ireland as an attractive destination for investment, business and tourism and as a platform to generate interest in Ireland and to promote cultural, trade and investment links with other countries. Holding the presidency is an important role at any time, but expectations this time around are even greater against the backdrop of the challenging circumstances facing both Ireland and Europe.
It goes without saying that much of the work over the next six months, led by the Irish government, will focus on the economic troubles of both this country and the eurozone as a whole. Making progress will be a tough task but there are a number of key goals that must be in the government's sights as efforts continue to stabilise the Union's debt-stricken countries and the euro currency itself.
Despite bullish talk of a recovery, growth is likely to be anaemic at best and unemployment will probably continue to rise across the continent. However, there has been an easing of the immediate crisis, which is welcome. While there may be fewer threats to the eurozone's existence than in the past year, fundamental flaws in the structure of the eurozone remain, and progress towards solving them will continue to be slow.
The eurozone's major solution to the banking and debt crisis, the banking union, will be at the forefront of discussions and disagreements in 2013 but Ireland must ensure it keeps the pressure on to achieve something concrete from the proposals on the table. This will be especially important for this country as the direct European Stability Mechanism (ESM) recapitalisation of our banks will be the major political prize on offer for both the government and Irish taxpayers.
This will take complex and delicate negotiations at the highest levels in Brussels. However, if a positive and well-managed presidency affords us the opportunity to gain further goodwill in Europe - and if this translates into a concrete deal on the Anglo Irish Bank promissory note or the ESM taking on some or all of the other Irish banks' debt - then it will represent a major success for Ireland. However, there is a long way to go before any of this is achieved, if at all.
Other crucial issues include measures needed to stimulate and grow the Irish economy and create more jobs, as well as measures to combat youth unemployment through up-skilling young people and training. There needs to be a focus, too, on new and emerging sectors of the European economy, removing trading barriers and exploiting opportunities in the science, technology and digital sectors.
Complex discussions around the EU budget for 2014-2020 also need to be a priority as securing a fair EU budget means securing funds that will go directly to Irish citizens, such as those in the farming community as negotiations continue to reshape the future of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).
Ireland's six-month presidency of the European Union represents the best opportunity since the onset of the financial crisis in 2008 to generate the kind of goodwill that can make things happen for this country so that our government's and citizens' aspirations can be translated into action. Dublin is taking over at a difficult time for Europe and the last 12 months, in particular, have seen great tumult and uncertainty.
Despite the difficulties, Ireland has still benefited immensely from EU membership, having received some €17 billion in structural and cohesion funds in the first three decades of membership.
Political failures like those we have seen in the US this week where polarised views on the way forward hampers vital decisions in the interests of the wider world - and which was evident in Europe at times in 2012 - cannot be allowed to stymie the progress that has been made in the past six months in preventing the break-up of the eurozone. Ireland has an opportunity to build on what has been achieved to date, and it is an opportunity this country's politicians must not waste.