Ireland must fight myths about the EU in Britain
State must act against misinformation as part of a drive towards a stronger European focus
EU flags alongside Ireland’s flag in front of the Berlaymont building, Brussels. There is no reason why Ireland in time cannot open new markets in continental Europe, with relatively easy transport access to Belgium, France and Spain. Photograph: iStock/Getty
Ireland seems almost convulsed, perhaps understandably, by the political Brexit drama playing out in London. As Derek Scally rightly pointed out recently on these pages, it gets limited coverage in continental Europe. As he also noted, the “international” focus for a whole range of issues, political and social, for most Irish people is still on Britain.
There is, for example, huge coverage of English football in the Irish media with almost no coverage of the other four major European football leagues. Likewise with music, social events and the royal family. Geography, history and language have perhaps dictated this, but, as Scally correctly argues, now is the time for a strong continental European focus to emerge in Ireland.
Ireland’s future, economically and security-wise, is with continental Europe, preferably with the UK as part of this European “project”. I have not given up all hope on this yet. As the world faces increasing uncertainty and instability, only by acting together can Europe play any significant role on the world stage.
Yes, Britain is our closest neighbour and much trade is with it or goes through there. But the Continent is also very close. Think of the position of New Zealand, for example, thousands of kilometres from its nearest market, yet very successful economically. There is no reason why Ireland in time cannot open new markets in continental Europe, with relatively easy transport access to Belgium, France and Spain.
It is open access to the largest trading block in the world that drives after all Irish economic success through both trade and the attraction for foreign investment of this unrestricted access.
It is important in this drive towards a stronger European focus to try to dispel some myths about the EU that have long become “fact” in large parts of Britain, through a concerted campaign of misinformation by parts of the media and establishment there, not least the prime minister, Boris Johnson.
Myth number one is that most decisions in relation to the EU are taken by EU bureaucrats. This is total nonsense, as all decisions must be, and are, made jointly by the elected members of the 28 EU states and the directly-elected members of the European Parliament. Public servants in the EU administer the policies set through this democratic process, just as public servants in Britain and Ireland do.
Our politicians need to continue to stand firmly against such misinformed posturing
Okay, might be the retort, but the reality is that one or two big countries make the decisions: that’s myth number two. Decisions in the Council of Ministers require approval of 55 per cent of all member states and account for at least 65 per cent of the EU population. Both criteria must apply and in relation to the first, for example, tiny Malta carries the same weight as, say, France. Moreover, all countries no matter how small have veto power in key strategic areas of policy.
Lack of democracy
These criticisms about lack of democracy in the EU particularly jar when they come from a country with an unelected head of state and an unelected upper house of parliament, and where a political party can govern with little more than one-third of votes cast. And where the system of devolved government provides no such protections for smaller member states of its “union”, such as Scotland and Northern Ireland.
Myth number three: you can trade freely, take back “control” and not have to share decision-making, and respect internationally-agreed rules overseen and enforced through an independent quasijudicial mechanism. Whether Britain trades as part of the EU or under World Trade Organisation rules or through multiple trade agreements with other countries, there will have to be agreed rules of the “game”, with independent quasijudicial oversight, outside Britain’s “control” once the agreements are written into law.
Trade is like any game, such as football. For international football to take place there must be commonly-agreed rules and, once agreed, enforced by an international body, outside the control of any individual member country. Otherwise there can be no international football or trade in goods and services. Unless the country is big enough, as some were in the past, to impose the rules on others.
Myth number four. Huge amounts of money are “given” to the EU each year. The net contribution of most countries, including Britain, to the EU budget in fact rarely exceeds 0.1 per cent of GDP. The gain from this expenditure is increased trade and economic growth, this gain perhaps exceeding the “loss” by a factor of 10 to 15. This is why in fact most economic forecasters predict a major economic loss to Britain from Brexit.
As the pressure grows on Ireland over the coming months from some in Britain to be “reasonable”, it will be important to understand that their views on the EU have been and are shaped by wholly misleading myths about the EU perpetrated over decades. Our politicians need to continue to stand firmly against such misinformed posturing.
John O’Hagan is economics professor emeritus at Trinity College Dublin.