An island, entire of itself, or a piece of the continent, a part of the main?

Wed, Jan 2, 2013, 00:00

PUBLIC MOOD:Attitudes have soured towards the EU, but what if the UK jumps ship?

Ireland takes over the six- month rotating presidency of the EU at a time when Irish support for the union has never been weaker.

Just 36 per cent of Irish people hold a positive attitude towards the EU, a sharp drop in public support from the height of the Celtic Tiger when it surpassed 70 per cent. The drop comes at a critical time, as a deeper union is being forged in Brussels on the back of the euro zone crisis and the UK reconsiders its future within the EU.

“Membership of the euro is not everything it was claimed it would be,” says Patricia McKenna, former MEP and longtime critic of the EU. “People realise they were sold a dream that has never materialised.”

Many believe the fall-off in support is inextricably linked to the economy. UCD politics professor Ben Tonra says people feel let down by the EU in the economic crisis. “There is also a feeling that they are kicking us while we are down.”

He says lack of movement at EU level on a deal for Ireland’s banking debt despite the other partner in the troika, the IMF, supporting such a deal, has made people question their faith in the European project.

McKenna says the view of the EU and how it delivers democracy has taken a battering. Many decisions affecting us are not taken by people the electorate voted for. “People can criticise Enda Kenny and Eamon Gilmore but often those making the decisions are not the people we elected,” she says.

Ireland has been hampered by a lack of debate on the EU, with critics being placed in the same category as British eurosceptics or French nationalists.

“The only ones that get highlighted are the likes of UKIP, the little Englanders and the French far right such as Jean Marie Le Pen,” she says. “People are afraid in Ireland to come out and criticise, for fear we’ll get isolated.”

Game changer

But Ireland’s relationship with the EU was always going to change when the country prospered. The days of receiving billions of euro in structural funds were always going to run out, exposing what the EU really meant for Ireland.

Ireland’s own commitment to the European project must also be questioned. Dublin has consistently chosen to stay out of certain projects at the core of the EU – such as the Schengen open border system – and has refused to adopt laws in areas such as cross-border inheritance and EU transaction tax.

In other ways, however, Irish governments have shown a commitment rarely shown by other members. Irish commissioners and MEPs tend to have a lot of political and professional experience, while some states show their disdain for the project by sending people with little aptitude for the job.

Irish ministers have the fifth-best attendance record at EU meetings, showing a good engagement with Brussels.

Future changes will also affect attitudes to the EU. Proposals for a banking and fiscal union will erode Irish sovereignty further.

The other big factor is whether the UK will leave the EU. “We will never see ourselves as European the way the Dutch, the Germans or the French do,” says Tonra. “We need to ask ourselves: do we want to be an offshore British island or an offshore European island.”