Ireland and the EU: recasting the European project

Brian Cowen reopens discussion on how Ireland was treated after economic crash

Former taoiseach Brian Cowen strongly criticised the EU for its behaviour towards Ireland during the financial crisis. Photograph: Alan Betson

Former taoiseach Brian Cowen strongly criticised the EU for its behaviour towards Ireland during the financial crisis. Photograph: Alan Betson

 

Former taoiseach Brian Cowen has reopened discussion on the way Ireland was treated within the European Union after the economic crash and, by extension, on the need for a more flexible approach if citizens of the union are to feel part of a socially inclusive multi-national project. Brexit negotiations, leading to a reconfiguration of EU institutions and existing power relationships, offer an opportunity to engage in a robust assessment of past failings.

Following two devastating wars, the driving force behind an embryonic EU was a political determination to create structures that would encourage cooperation rather than confrontation between member states. It has been a political triumph. But as populations age and memories fade, that appeal has diminished. A new and more socially inclusive vision is required if young people, who are experiencing high levels of unemployment, are to be successfully engaged.

Cowen complained his government had been “forced” to implement inappropriate decisions within the framework of an inappropriate currency system. There had been, he said, a lack of solidarity with Ireland, Spain, Portugal and other countries that were in difficulty. Quoting the late John O’Donoghue – that modern politics appeared devoid of vision and had become synonymous with economics – he spoke of a need for political imagination and emotional intelligence in recasting the European project.

The initial European alarm over Brexit and the Donald Trump has waned. But the public disillusionment that caused those shocks, arising from perceptions of economic inequality and powerlessness, remains. The banking crash caused the European Commission to be eclipsed as Germany and France took charge of the economic agenda and a one-size-fits-all austerity programme emerged as the new orthodoxy. Deviation was not allowed. This led to a suggestion that “a bomb would go off in Dublin” if bondholders were burned. Economic convergence is an important EU objective and it should be moved to the top the reform agenda. That will require recognition of the centrifugal benefits central European economies enjoy, compared to those on the periphery, and provide financial mechanisms to balance inherent limitations. Existing structural funding programmes, while beneficial, will not set the imagination alight.

The challenges facing Ireland because of Brexit are extremely complex and will require a recasting of trading relationships on this island and with Britain. That demands persistent diplomatic efforts in Europe and political imagination in presenting Ireland and its problems as a special case. Significant progress has already been made. But past disappointments urge caution. Small countries tend to lose out if the national interests of big beasts are threatened.

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