Stephen Collins: Macron victory shows the value of embracing EU

Government must be open about the complications of membership as Brexit talks unfold

Emmanuel Macron promises to unite a torn France and to renew the ties between Europe and its citizens in his first speech since elected president. Video: Reuters

 

The Government’s decision to commit unambiguously to the side of the EU27 ahead of the Brexit negotiations will inevitably involve difficult decisions in the years ahead about the full implications of our commitment to Brussels.

The Irish public needs to be kept fully informed at every stage as the position evolves so that the strongly pro-Europe majority is not distracted by the loud anti-EU voices who have been emboldened by the UK decision to leave.

For more than 40 years, Irish governments have been content to take all the benefits the European Union has to offer while remaining semi-detached from some of the big concerns that confront the rest of the bloc.

EU security and defence is just one issue on which Irish politicians have run a mile from for fear of having to confront redefining what neutrality means in the modern world.

The positive side to the Brexit vote is that it appears to have served as a wake-up call for citizens across the EU

When the State first applied to join the then EEC in the 1960s, then taoiseach Seán Lemass remarked that if Europe was worth joining it was worth defending.

By the time we actually joined, the issue was pushed to one side for fear of stoking up domestic political opposition to the accession process. Since then, almost everybody has hidden behind the empty formula of military neutrality.

The timidity of the political class in explaining the consequences of EU decision making to the Irish electorate has meant that, in the referendums on various EU treaties, all sorts of spurious arguments were treated seriously by voters.

Irrelevant issues such as abortion and blatant lies such as the suggestion that young Irish people were going to face immediate conscription into a European army had a huge impact because the basic facts at issue were never properly explained until too late in the day.

This goes some way to explaining the paradox that the Irish electorate voted to reject the Nice treaty and the Lisbon treaty while simultaneously remaining more supportive of the EU than our peers in most other member states as measured by Eurobarometer polls.

One of the reasons for the lack of an informed debate on the treaties was the reluctance of government politicians and their official advisors to explain the nature and implications of the decisions being taken at EU level.

Three-stage ruse

One senior civil servant used to say that in the run up to crucial EU decisions detailed discussion was avoided by a three-stage ruse worthy of Yes Minister.

First it was always too early to have a full discussion on the issue in question, then when things had moved along it was too sensitive for public debate and finally it was deemed to be too late as the decision had been made.

Another reason for public misunderstanding of EU issues is that Irish politicians, like their counterparts in other member states, regularly indulge in Brussels-bashing when it suits their domestic political needs while claiming credit for most of the benefits that were only made possible by membership.

The positive side to the vote by the people of the UK to leave the bloc is that it appears to have served as a wake-up call not just for other governments but for citizens across the EU.

What was so striking about the victory of Emmanuel Macron in the French presidential election was that he campaigned unapologetically as an enthusiast for the EU. His supporters waved the blue EU flag during the campaign and at his victory rally the EU anthem, Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, greeted his entrance.

Speaking at a Europe Day ceremony in Dublin on Tuesday, Ireland’s EU commissioner Phil Hogan called on people to be more assertive for Europe.

He pointed out that new and positive things were happening in several European countries with citizens taking to the streets or the internet, or both, in an attempt to counter the swelling Eurosceptic, anti-immigrant, anti-globalisation messages of populists and nationalists.

“In recent months, right-wing populists have failed to win three prominent European elections in a row: in Austria; in the Netherlands; and finally, in the French presidential election when a pro-European centrist, Emmanuel Macron, beat Marine Le Pen, ” Hogan said.

Political courage

Hopefully these events will give mainstream politicians the courage to speak out loudly on behalf of the majority of Irish people who strongly support EU membership and believe in accepting the responsibilities that go with the rights of membership.

The Government and people will have to confront a number of challenges about what it means to be part of the EU

A RedC poll commissioned by the Irish European Movement, which was published this week, contained some very interesting findings.

A whopping 88 per cent of people agreed that Ireland should remain a part of the EU despite the departure of the UK.

Support runs at 99 per cent among full-time students and 90 per cent among young and middle-aged people aged 18-44 years.

Even more interestingly, 57 per cent supported increased EU defence and security co-operation, even though the case for it has hardly been made.

There is no doubt that the departure of the UK will remove a powerful ally for Ireland on a range of important issues and that will force the Government and people to confront a number of challenges about what it means to be part of the EU.

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