Eoin Drea: Hogan affair displays Irish exceptionalism at its worst
Forced resignation was a destructive act against our economic interest
Former European commissioner for trade Phil Hogan: No country in Europe willingly gives up a trade commissioner. Photograph: Dara Mac Donaill
It’s difficult to explain the mindset of the vast majority of Irish people working in the Brussels EU bubble. But, no matter what their position – within the European institutions, think tanks or lobbyists – there is always an underlying feeling that deep down we are all trying to work in Ireland’s best interests.
It’s a feeling that even stretches beyond party political divides and complements the official work undertaken in the Permanent Representation of Ireland.
For we are a small country, practically minuscule in a huge European political landscape.
That’s why it’s so important to understand that the forced resignation of Phil Hogan – forced by Dublin, not Brussels – has significant long-term consequences for Ireland’s role in the European Union. And these consequences will be hugely negative.
Viewed from a European context, there is disbelief that Ireland would jettison its respected and successful trade commissioner. That is not to downplay his actions or minimise the impact of the pandemic on Ireland, but a simple reflection of how important Hogan was in the EU hierarchy.
In practical terms, he had just launched a review of EU trade policy which will play a large part in guiding Europe’s (and Ireland’s) economic fate for the next decade. He was an influential presence in the background of the ongoing Brexit talks and a totem pole for representing Irish interests in Brussels.
The response from non-Irish EU officials and lawmakers has been remarkably consistent (an unlikely occurrence in itself) in praising Hogan’s contribution to achievements as diverse as the EU-Japan trade deal and the soya beans deal brokered with the United States.
MEPs across all parties feel his punishment was a totally disproportionate response to his behaviour while in Ireland.
There are three further points which have gone totally unreported in Ireland but which need to be highlighted from a Brussels perspective.
The first is that Phil Hogan played a major role in the rehabilitation of Ireland’s reputation in Brussels following Dublin’s increasingly dismissive attitude towards the EU during the 2000s, including ignoring its cautions on our budget policy. This was the decade which culminated with our national bankruptcy and subsequent financial bailout in 2010.
Together with Enda Kenny, Hogan played a key role in re-establishing a constructive Irish relationship with Brussels. This was a relationship that badly needed mending following the unremarkable terms as commissioners served by Charlie McCreevy and Máire Geoghegan-Quinn. And this was rewarded in Brussels by portfolios of declining real importance and clout.
Second, and notwithstanding the pro-EU media hype surrounding the modern Fine Gael party, Ireland is increasingly seen as a problem child in Brussels. Although this is largely obscured by Ireland’s central role in the ongoing Brexit talks, Dublin’s inability to evolve a position beyond opposition to any further forms of digital/financial services taxation or corporate tax reform has forced Ireland on the outside of many important conversations.
Hogan was the only Irish policymaker who offered a clear antidote to this Irish parochialism. By clearly advocating a less protectionist view (against vested interests in many larger EU member states), he came to represent a more open vision for Europe’s place in the world, and for Ireland’s role in Europe.
The loss of this vision should not be underestimated. It will embolden more protectionist member states, such as France, to more actively pursue trade policies that will be detrimental to Ireland’s long-run economic sustainability. It will encourage other states, such as Italy and Germany, to more quickly pursue deeper monetary integration which will also challenge Ireland’s existing economic model.
No country in Europe willingly gives up a trade commissioner. From a Brussels perspective, Ireland has literally gone kamikaze on its own economic interests.
Third, Hogan’s resignation also serves to further illustrate the growing gap between Ireland and the rest of the EU, differences which are now also evident in policies to tackle coronavirus.
Viewed from afar, Ireland seems stuck behind a “Celtic curtain” obsessing about case numbers in Britain and the United States. Much of continental Europe has understood the trade-off between allowing society to function as close to normal as possible and an increased (but manageable) level of virus cases. Here in Flanders, my daughter returned to school in May, free testing for those who want it is available and international travel is restricted (but allowed) based on the latest virus data available.
In Ireland, the Government’s unease at a health system with very limited capacity has made Irish people afraid of travel, afraid of tourists, seemingly afraid of themselves. Instead of utilising best-practice examples from around Europe, Ireland has largely ignored EU guidelines for safely restarting international travel.
This is Irish exceptionalism of the worse kind. And by allowing the parochialism of Ireland’s domestic politics to dominate its engagement in European affairs, Dublin has blundered badly. It may take us a generation in Brussels to repair this damage.
Eoin Drea is a researcher at the Wilfried Martens Centre, the official think tank of the European People’s Party of which Fine Gael is a member