Ireland badly needs fresh thinking on its place in Europe

Conference highlights need to address wider issues obscured by preoccupation with Brexit

A gadfly is a term for a person who annoys or criticises others in order to provoke them into action. Such people are needed. Especially when public policy is consensual, criticism is limited and alternative views become taboo.

Ireland's European policies after Brexit badly need more detailed examination and debate than they get during the current necessary preoccupation with Brexit. That crisis is accompanied by very high approval ratings in polls of Irish EU membership, stimulated by solidarity over the Northern Ireland Border. It draws on the older nationalist impulse to diminish dependence on Britain by linking up with Europe.

All the more reason to welcome gadfly comments which open up neglected issues about Irish EU policies at yesterday’s conference of the Irish Association for Contemporary European Studies. Entitled “After Brexit, what next?” it raised them within an engaged perspective on EU membership, yet open to policy criticism.

Our monoglot practice and failure to develop multilingualism at primary and secondary levels is bound to affect future EU participation, according to Joachim Fischer from the University of Limerick

Eoin Drea from the centre right Wilfried Martens think tank in Brussels lamented the failure to articulate a vision of Irish policy reflecting his own priorities. Ireland is seen as an exemplar of an Anglo-American socio-economic model in Brussels; but it is caught between the neoliberal northern European Hanseatic model and the deeper fiscal one of southern states led by France – which does it prefer?


Likewise, he outlined the benefits his child receives from public social care services where he lives in Belgium; but he got nowhere when he tried to insert a publicly funded social care system in a Fine Gael policy group. There is little political or media awareness or debate here about how much of an outlier Ireland is on social care in Europe, where most such services are provided at local level from local taxation. Our weak local government powers combine with privatised US-style welfare and health arrangements to make the issue invisible. This is despite evidence from polling and the recent Citizens’ Assembly on equality that most citizens would prefer publicly provided care.

Drea’s comments were taken up by Seán Healy of Social Justice Ireland who pointed out how low the overall tax take is here compared with other EU states. He criticised media for their reactive and limiting coverage of the corporate tax issue – there were very few voices reflecting demands for a higher rate than 15 per cent to fund international public goods, but rather a deference to US corporations.

Drea saw similar questions at play on data protection and regulation, where Ireland’s is seen as an Atlanticist outlier. A possible future bridge-building role with the US demands greater input to EU policymaking. Likewise with languages, where our monoglot practice and failure to develop multilingualism at primary and secondary levels is bound to affect future EU participation by elites and citizens alike, according to Joachim Fischer from the University of Limerick.

If we want to engage with Europe we need to respond positively there, including through their languages, and not glibly elide that into “global” initiatives: Germany is not the same as Singapore in this respect.

Viviane Gravey of Queen’s University Belfast said Ireland is currently being sued by the European Commission on 13 climate policy issues, raising questions about how public rhetoric relates to the actual implementation of EU policy. Ireland is at the high end of world carbon emitters because of our relentless consumerism, relative wealth and agricultural practices. The incompatibility of indefinite capitalist growth and climate survival is rarely posed.

In the field of Irish military and defence policy Ben Tonra of UCD is a long-standing gadfly on Irish neutrality. It is amoral, often immoral and hypocritical, he said, and Nato membership is quite compatible with Irish values and interests. Responding, Charlie Flanagan, former minister and now chair of the Oireachtas committee on foreign affairs, said there is no public support for joining Nato, though he thinks the subject needs much more engaged debate.

Flanagan had in mind, perhaps, another stream of sovereigntist gadflies who showed in Ireland’s previous EU referendums how effective they can be in puncturing complacent policy certainties. If Brexit takes a nasty turn on the single market and the Irish Border they can find a fresh voice and appeal, inspired by British Euroscepticism.

In her keynote speech to the conference, Irish Times Europe correspondent Naomi O’Leary strongly emphasised how influential British framing of EU issues is here, seen as an Irish journalist in Brussels.

She is rightly worried that future EU policy shocks will find Irish policymakers ill-prepared for public surprise and dissent.