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EU's imminent season of showdowns will have big impact on Ireland

Europe Letter: This political term in EU will consider issues with profound implications

Europe is set for a season of showdowns over profound issues that will shape the future of the union and Ireland within it.

This year’s post-summer rush back to classrooms and offices – the annual rentrée – was exceptionally intense as people resumed in-person working patterns, policy briefs and unfinished business that had been curtailed by the pandemic. And the first days of the new political season were dominated by questions of power.

The European Commission jacked up pressure on Poland over its challenges to the concept of the supremacy of EU law over national law. Fundamental to the coherence of the single market as it ensures consistency across the continent, this premise has never sat well with some. Warsaw's mounting defiance has raised questions about what tools the EU has as a final recourse to impose on it: the commission has asked the European Court of Justice to set daily fines.

Events in Afghanistan and European inability to evacuate citizens without the help of a stand-offish United States cast doubt over the EU's abilities to defend its interests in an era many suspect will be shaped by hard power.


This spurred questioning of whether the requirement for unanimous support by member state governments can be a weakness that constrains the EU’s ability to act, as crucial areas lack consensus. It also underlined the limitations of the European Commission in its ambition to be more “geopolitical”.

In the European Parliament, jostling immediately began over whether the centre right or centre left political group will hold the presidency for the coming years, and, therefore, have a commanding role at a time when MEPs will forge crucial legislation on tech regulation and how the EU will meet its climate targets.


The parliament has limited power to initiate change in the EU, and loses out in policymaking to the dominant role of member state governments. But its might rests in its immense legislative activity, which shapes the concrete expression of EU policy into laws, in which the tweak of a word or a sentence can have implications for millions.

Around the continent, including in Ireland, debates are being cultivated by the Conference on the Future of Europe project, which aims to draw citizens into a reassessment of what the bloc should be. The scope of this initiative to cause change has been deliberately limited by member state governments that do not want it to produce unwelcome demands for re-discussion of EU treaties, which would be fraught. But it is championed by MEPs, who view it as at least a gesture towards a more direct engagement of citizens – in lieu of more power for themselves.

Ireland will be asked to reckon with the contested meaning of neutrality and how to treat issues such as cyberdefence

The reforms that this system will chew over in the coming months have weighty implications for Ireland. Two major tech overhauls – the Digital Service Act and Digital Markets Act – will set rules for online content and seek to constrain monopolies in the digital space.

Coinciding with international talks over how to tax digital services and a minimum multinational rate, these laws have vast implications for Ireland's tech sector and GDP. It's no secret that the ambitious French president Emmanuel Macron would love to crown his time at the helm of the rotating EU presidency next year with a declaration that he had tamed the tech giants.

‘Strategic compass’

A new “strategic compass” – a proposed roadmap for European security and defence capabilities – is due in November. Ireland and other neutral countries have opt-outs on defence. But we will be asked to reckon with the contested meaning of neutrality – which takes different forms in different countries in different eras – and how to treat issues of pressing strategic importance to the island, such as cyberdefence.

Finally, the pandemic and the massive state spending and expansionary monetary policy that it triggered have challenged conservative economic beliefs that once passed for common sense in the EU. Laws that oblige member states to hold annual deficits below 3 per cent and public debt below 60 per cent of GDP are coming under sustained attack from southern states that believe their economies have been smothered by such limits.

On fiscal policy, climate, defence and many other issues the debate has started. But conclusions will wait until we know which parties will be in coalition in Germany after the September 26th election. Whether it's a centre-left or centre-right chancellor who thrashes out these questions with their 26 counterparts in the European Council is crucial – and perhaps even more so, whether it's a Green coalition partner they will have to keep content.