There is nothing in all of European politics that says to a politician “You have made it” more than the walk down the red carpet at the beginning of a European Union summit. The perambulation sweeps a broad arc through the vast, light-filled atrium of the Europa building, flanked by the flags of all the member states of the EU, turning gradually all the while leftward (read into that what you will), past the wall – perhaps some 30m long – of snapping cameras and outstretched microphones.
The leaders of Europe’s sovereign governments, accompanied maybe by a flunkey or two, en route to the conference room upstairs to make decisions about the future of the continent and its people, never look anything other than pretty happy with themselves.
Most stop for a few words with journalists from their national media, often to be seen frantically waving (yes, I have been that soldier) to gain their attention. The styles vary. French president Emmanuel Macron rarely tarries for long; big things to do. The jolly Luxembourger Xavier Bettel jabbers on, frequently entertaining. Sanna Marin, the obliging young Finn, answers all questions at length.
At last week’s summit, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar was on the sort of form that keeps travelling journalists happy. “It wouldn’t be fair for me to kind of half-announce a proposal that he’s developing at the moment, so I’ll leave it to the Tánaiste and Minister for Defence to do that in his own time,” he said, kind of half-announcing a proposal that Micheál Martin is developing.
Before adding: “He has developed proposals as to how we could consult stakeholders and the public in a meaningful way on how our defence and security policy should evolve.”
You can imagine how thrilled the Tánaiste’s people were with this early half-announcement of their plans.
Subsequent inquiries revealed that the plans include a series of “public discussions” on neutrality, defence and security policy. These public forums will likely take place at several locations around the country, and could be up and running as early as the summer. Participants are expected to include academics, military figures and experts in international and EU security, from Ireland and abroad.
The context of the questions to Varadkar in Brussels were comments he had made at the summit the previous day, when he compared Russia’s war on Ukraine to Nazi aggression in the 1930s, condemned “appeasement” of Vladimir Putin and said: “People often ask the question: ‘Where will Putin stop?’” Varadkar answered the question: “Putin will stop where we stop him,” he declared.
Fightin’ words, for sure. But what’s the “we” business? When EU leaders approved the proposal to send a million rounds of artillery to Ukraine, the agreed conclusions noted that all this was “without prejudice to the specific character of the security and defence policy of certain member states”. Guess who.
Irish officials insisted that the decision did not affect Ireland’s traditional policy of military neutrality. Instead, Ireland is sending “non-lethal aid” – to a country fighting for its life, against which rather a lot of very lethal force is being directed by Russia.
One of the reasons the EU works is that countries understand each other’s quirks and foibles; insofar as it is possible, these are worked around in the achievement of common positions. But the understanding of Ireland’s EU partners about its policy of neutrality is wearing thin. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has changed the way the EU thinks about security and defence. Meanwhile, in Washington, many US politicians attending various St Patrick’s Day events all seemed to think Ireland was a member of Nato.
Neutrality has basically meant whatever the government of the day wants it to mean: so we are part of the Nato-aligned Partnership for Peace; we take part in EU battle groups; we are cautiously treading towards increased EU defence co-operation
But the Irish public’s attachment to neutrality is clearly and consistently confirmed by opinion polls. When Ipsos asked people their views last year for The Irish Times, two-thirds said they wanted Ireland’s traditional policy of military neutrality to continue.
Of course, people can change their minds. The Irish people changed their minds about abortion and same-sex marriage, following wide-ranging and – mostly – civilised national debates about these issues, of which citizens’ assemblies were an important part.
Conversation about neutrality
Perhaps that is the hope in Government. Certainly, Micheál Martin was very keen on having a “conversation” about neutrality in the wake of the Russian invasion, which is what people say when they want to change things. But I find it very hard to see a dramatic public change on neutrality; attachment to it is deep-rooted and enduring.
In fact, neutrality has basically meant whatever the government of the day wants it to mean: so we are part of the Nato-aligned Partnership for Peace; we take part in EU battle groups; we are cautiously treading towards increased EU defence co-operation. Of course this drives pro-neutrality campaigners nuts. But I’ve lost count of the number of times they have declared Ireland’s neutrality to be over, finis, kaput. It seems capable of being destroyed over and over again.
Speaking in the Dáil this week, Varadkar rubbished suggestions that Ireland should be a promoter of “de-escalation” in the war; how exactly, he asked, should Ukraine de-escalate? By not defending its cities? He has a point.
He went on to repeat the line about Ireland not being politically neutral, but militarily neutral. If that means anything, I think it means that on the basis that Putin will be stopped by military force, by tanks and howitzers and rockets and warplanes, it’s up to someone else to stop him.
Ireland talks up its support for Ukraine and for the defence of western values, a favourite theme of Varadkar’s. Our actual policy, though, is someone else can do the defending, while we remain in a sort of permanent hold-my-beer posture.
Maybe we should say what we really mean; and do what we say. It would at least have the virtue of honesty, something our current policy lacks.