Irish in Europe on the EU: ‘I take it for granted’
Irish people living in other EU countries on its future, and their place in it
Ciara McGovern, Brussels: ‘People were genuinely gutted that Britain would want to vote to leave a project we all felt so invested in, both personally and professionally.’
This week, The Irish Times is running a series investigating the future of Europe. As Brexit talks are due to begin and the EU is assailed by threats on various fronts, Irish Times writers examine the union’s prospects at a critical point. Has the populist wave been halted? Is the EU facing a crisis of legitimacy? What can it do to reassert itself?
Irish Times Abroad invited readers living in other European countries to share their views on the future of the EU, and their place in it as an Irish person. Below is a selection of the responses we received.
Tom Moylan, Brussels
The benefits of the EU are obvious. Freedom to move and work, negotiating trade deals as 500 million instead of 5 million and ensuring consumer safety across the continent.
There are practical things in our lives too – Erasmus sponsors students across Europe, roam has finally burned and we can visit any EU embassy and be confident we'll get help. We can also thank it for backing up human rights and rule of law, allowing scientists to share research and keeping countries' intertwined enough that we have stopped killing each other.
Indeed, we aren't magically a "post-conflict" continent. We aren't especially civilized and enlightenment wasn't suddenly embedded in our DNA after the horrors of the second World War. We remember the wars and we remember why they happened, but often we forget why they haven't happened since. We built institutions to keep it this way - people have been carefully, imperfectly and intensely working to these ends for the past 60 years.
But it’s the idea that I care about, the idea that we should be facing down problems constructively and working together, instead of whimpering and trying to hide from them behind borders and misguided nationalist notions. It's the optimism of an incredibly unlikely project – and don't for one second take it for granted the EU exists. The fact that it hasn't fallen apart is insane.
An organisation of countries that have been murdering each other for centuries coming together to pool resources, sovereignty and ideas? There has never been anything like it in the history of man before. It exists at a critical moment too, when we have to tackle problems that can only be dealt with internationally – climate change, fair taxation, decentralised international terrorism.
It is easier to divide people than to bring them together. It is easier to tear things down than it is to build them. It is easier to whimper and panic in the face of a challenge than to face it. But that is not what the European Union is about. The EU brings together instead of dividing. The EU builds things when others would tear them down. And more than anything else, the EU faces its challenges with the ambition and determination that the European people deserve.
I believe in the EU so deeply that I decided to move to Brussels in 2014 to contribute to it, where I now work as EU Affairs Communications Consultant. I encourage other Irish people to give it a try too. The feeling of being part of something greater at a critical point in history is palpable. We need more Irish people to make our voice heard in the EU institutions, to shape the future of Europe.
Ciara McGovern, Brussels
I left Ireland almost two years ago for the heart of Europe in Brussels, and a job in the European Parliament. Coming from both a business and a political background, it was really a dream to be offered a role in the EU as an adviser to an Irish MEP.
I’m probably biased when it comes to the EU but for me the institutions have helped shape Ireland into the country it is today, and it’s no coincidence that Europe has seen peace since the advent of the European project since the second World War. In fact, this peace aspect was one which I was unhappy to see such little discussion around throughout the Brexit campaign.
Living on the continent has been an eye-opener. On a high speed train you can be in Paris in just over an hour from Brussels, so as a base to explore, its perfect. It’s hard though not to notice the migration on a large scale. In a small city, Brussels has an entire African district, and the influx of refugees is noticeable. The ghetto-ising of certain districts has also left a gap between the locals and new arrivals. I hope Ireland can learn from this and integrate our new immigrants better.
The day after the British referendum in parliament was one of mourning. People were genuinely gutted that Britain would want to vote to leave a project we all felt so invested in, both personally and professionally; none more so than the British staff themselves, some of whom were wondering if they’d have to pack their bags straight away. Things have settled since, and I like to think we’re likely to see a soft Brexit with cooperation between us in the future.
Populist movements threaten Europe but so too does complacency. Europe can be its own worst enemy in terms of getting its message out. My job every day involves making sure that people at home know that Europe is working on the things that matter for them.
Long term, I see Ireland as my home. But I’ll take very fond memories of Brussels and great European friendships (although unfortunately not that elusive second language) back with me.
Sorcha Edwards, Brussels
Having lived, studied and worked in Belgium since 1999, I do take the EU for granted. I never consider whether or not I belong here, or how lucky I am to have a passport which gives me free reign across practically the whole continent, or closer to home, access to my local doctors and dentists – it’s simply the way things are. I take it for granted much like I take our own government for granted. In all its imperfection, it is simply a natural way to work between countries in close geographic proximity.
Brexit made us sit up and realise that the EU is not necessarily here to stay, and that we will have to work to keep it. I have never felt passionate about the EU and I think many do take advantage of the extra layers of politicians and bureaucrats to push business interest while government representatives use the secrecy of council meetings to allow measures they then go on to deny at home. This is however simply a matter that we Europeans need to constantly check, much the same as we need to do at local and national level. There are issues like trade, environment regulation, climate change and movement of people that need for practical reasons to be managed at a pan-European level. It’s up to us to make sure that the EU does only what is useful, and that citizens’ interests don’t take a back seat to business interests.
Stepping out of the EU, as the UK is set to do, just does not make sense. Even if the whole thing fell apart we would find afterwards, probably after considerable hardship, that we or our grandchildren would need to start re-building it out of necessity eventually. Why waste the energy? Let’s make the most of what we have now.
Ian Mac Eochagáin, Finland
I have lived in Finland for six years and became a Finnish citizen last year. I left Ireland for Russia in 2009, wanting to practise the Russian I’d learnt at Trinity. For me, the EU is of utmost importance, not only because it links my two citizenships, but because it guarantees the place of my second homeland in the western world.
Finland only became an EU member in 1995, having, with Sweden and Austria, been part of a neutral buffer zone between Russia and Nato. Since independence in 1917, Finland has never been able to be absolutely certain that its statehood would remain intact, and there has at times been uncertainty about whether it is truly western and European. Thus, EU membership is for many a deeply cultural identity marker, guaranteeing the country’s place among the European nations. The contrast with Ireland is interesting.
The threats that I see to Europe are cultural and economic. Culturally, Europe needs to stand up for its values of freedom, equality and the rule of law. We have to be serious when member states endanger press freedom, and avoid a repeat of our dreadful response to the refugee crisis. Economically, Europe needs to become more economically cohesive and equal. Whole generations and regions across Europe feel left behind and the EU needs to give them hope.
I don’t think the EU is facing a crisis of legitimacy in Finland, where support for the Union is high. That said, one of the current government coalition partners is a populist party, Blue Reform, although it’s more Eurosceptic wing recently ended up outside government after the election of a man who wants to take Finland out of the EU - an MEP, incidentally. The populists’ appeal has been limited by their poor performance as a coalition partner, but that does not mean Euroscepticism has no constituency. Many perceive the EU as an elite set of institutions with a federalist bent, while at the same time they value the unquestionably European and western identity which membership grants. In this corner of the northeast, dependent on trade with other member states, the EU has work to do in rewarding the faith its citizens give it with signs that it is working for its citizens and their values.
Kilian McDonagh, Berlin
I left Ireland after graduating university in 2012 for London and then Berlin, where I live with my Romanian partner, and am studying a Masters in European Studies at the Freie Universität Berlin. I work as an Irish language teacher at the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
In Ireland the EU is discussed mainly in economic terms: how much does the Irish economy benefit from EU membership? What effect will Brexit have on the economic prosperity of the EU? In Germany - my home of four years - the EU much more vital than that. It is not some nebulous “other” over in Brussels, whose encroachments on our sovereignty must be tolerated in order to benefit from a common market in which to peddle our goods and services. To Germany, the EU is an extension of its very self.
There could be no modern Germany without the EU. The EU is where the country has looked to overcome the horrors of its past. It is the forum of cooperation which gives the German economic behemoth legitimacy in its dealings with its neighbouring states, many of whom it invaded and committed atrocities against within living memory. In a vast number of areas, Germany cannot act unilaterally at the expense of its neighbours.
Germany has, willingly I might add, decided to share its sovereignty permanently and unconditionally in certain areas with its neighbours. It openly recognises this and it is constantly pushing to be allowed to share more. The recent push for enhanced EU cooperation in defence is a partly German-led effort. The EU has become a necessary component of German identity.
Back in Ireland when I discuss the EU in these terms, in terms of permanently and unconditionally sharing sovereignty, of responsibility for our neighbours, and of identity, I often receive a quizzical response: but what about the economy? Yes the EU is an economic project, but it is first and foremost a political one, at least for my German neighbours.
Nora Lawton, Brussels
Originally from West Cork, I arrived in Brussels almost four years ago. When I’m not working (I lead the consumer and brand PR practice for Weber Shandwick Brussels), I can be found hanging with my extended Brussels family that hail from all corners: the Maheries in Kerry, Lucan, Carlow, Northern Ireland, London, Gdansk, Bolivia, France, the Netherlands, Germany, Portugal, Spain, Romania… It’s a diverse bunch.
I studied history and politics in UL. I choose the PR path rather than studying political communications in DCU. I am very interested in politics and have a vested interest in what’s happening around me in Brussels, yet, I don’t work in the “Brussels bubble”.
Paris. Brussels. Nice. Istanbul. Manchester. Orlando. Munich. Berlin. London. Syria. These are the names of wonderful, dynamic, multicultural destinations; places full of smart people, energy and possibility, but were marred by fear and pain as a result of successive terrorist attacks over the past 18 months. 2016 tested the world, especially Europe. The Brussels attacks. Brexit. The US elections. But the last few months have given me hope. The Dutch elections. The election of Macron in France. Leo Varadkar’s appointment as Taoiseach. The manner in which Europe is re-asserting itself.
I am passionate about Europe. Right now we are at the crossroads of change. But let’s not bow to change coupled with fear. I am reminded of a quote that touched me last year following the brutal murder of Jo Cox. “We are far more united and have far more in common than that which divides us.”