Golfgate a symptom of Ireland’s much bigger problems in Europe

Image of this State as a serious player in Brussels is being eroded

A remarkable aspect of the dismissal of the Golfgate court proceedings has been the attempts at retrospective justification by many Irish commentators. From being akin to participating in the crucifixion (which is how it was portrayed in those mania driven days of late August 2020) it has now been remade as an ill-conceived, but ultimately legal jolly in the west.

This in turn has forced many in Ireland to change tack regarding Phil Hogan’s forced resignation as EU commissioner for trade. The discomfort in Ireland with the sympathetic conclusions of Hogan’s recent Libération newspaper interview in France highlights the disconnect between Ireland’s festering indignation and the incredulity still expressed across the rest of the EU. It has also forced the domestic Irish debate to pivot away from the non-existent legal basis underpinning the campaign for his removal.

Now the domestic narrative is all about “honourable public service”, prevarications and “changing stories”. It’s the classic Irish fairy tale of holding the moral high ground whatever the cost.

But what is even more incredible is that the Irish response to the recent Golfgate decision has – just like in 2020 – taken no account of the broader Brussels context. It fails to even acknowledge how Ireland’s actions in effectively demanding Hogan’s resignation have self-torpedoed Ireland’s position in Brussels.


It's Dublin's influence in Brussels which is continuing to pay the price

This shows that Ireland has learned nothing from Golfgate.

And it’s Dublin’s influence in Brussels which is continuing to pay the price.

Sadly for Ireland, Hogan isn’t even the real story of Golfgate anymore. Instead, this whole saga has brutally exposed how detached the State has become from the realities it faces as a small, peripheral EU member state. A State that can no longer hide behind Britain’s coattails.

The image of the Irish Government seeming to be openly seeking the dismissal of its own European commissioner will live long in the memory of Brussels policymakers. It dents Ireland’s credibility – not just because Hogan held one of the most powerful commission portfolios – but because Dublin’s demands were based on no criminal or corrupt actions.

It was a panicked Covid response mixed with the stench of settling old political scores. A response that allowed domestic politics to ride roughshod over Ireland’s relationships with the EU itself.

Alas, Golfgate has also provided the legacy which will keep on eroding the image of Ireland as a serious player in Brussels. It only took a week for Fine Gael’s notions of European self-importance to be deflated publicly. The trade portfolio was lost and Ireland was confined to the mid-ranking hinterland of a dozen small member states.

And even that had a political cost. Mairead McGuinness’s deserved elevation to commissioner cost her a likely election as President of the European Parliament in 2022.

Viewed within a wider context, Golfgate set the tone for an Irish response to the pandemic which repeatedly sacrificed Ireland’s interests in the EU for the sake of domestic politics. The imposition of mandatory hotel quarantine on several EU member states in April 2021 – without publishing the scientific basis for doing so – angered our European neighbours and strengthened the image of Ireland as bumbling away from Brussels.

Golfgate is really just a symptom of Ireland’s much bigger problems in Europe. The relegation of Brexit as a critical subject for the EU (despite its iniquitousness in Ireland) and Ireland’s foot dragging on fully implementing EU laws on everything from data to environment protection has changed how the State is perceived in Brussels.

The reality is that the failing lights of Brexit have stripped Ireland of it's central role in Brussels debates

So while the Irish Government is shamelessly selling the narrative of Ireland as having “unwavering support for the EU”, fellow member states are more concerned about when Ireland will properly police EU data protection laws, or equip itself adequately to patrol Europe’s western sea borders.

The reality is that the failing lights of Brexit have stripped Ireland of it’s central role in Brussels debates. There is no more talk in Schuman area cafes of Ireland’s diplomatic successes or nimble economics.

Rather, Golfgate has come to symbolise a Dublin approach which views Europe as a very useful tool in protecting its narrow domestic interests – like protecting the open Border with Northern Ireland – rather than as a constructive and honest player in shaping the future of the European Union.

Membership of the EU was never supposed to be a free ride. Neither was it designed to be the place where domestic politics is allowed to compromise painstakingly developed relationships and spheres of influence.

Unfortunately, in viewing Hogan’s resignation through the lazy prism of the out of touch, entitled Eurocrat, Ireland is only serving to emphasise its increasing isolation in Europe. Asserting the moral superiority of the Irish response drowns out the harder question of how Ireland – a fully paid up member of the Anglo-American model – is going to survive in a centralising Franco-German economic bloc.

This is the real cost of Golfgate and is far bigger than Phil Hogan.

Eoin Drea is a senior researcher at the Wilfried Martens Centre, the official think tank of the European People’s Party of which Fine Gael is a member