Ireland must nurture its EU membership way beyond Brexit
We must not let Irish interests in Europe slip down the national political agenda
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar: over the years in the EU, we have generally been content to excel at the great Irish sport of “punching above our weight”. But we could have set the bar higher. Photograph: Geoffroy van der Hasselt
Despite the understandable political and media focus, Brexit is not Ireland’s biggest European challenge. The greatest and most enduring challenge facing our country is how, after the UK’s departure, we can best protect and promote Irish interests in an evolving European Union.
The recent nominations to the most senior EU jobs have, from two points of view, turned out reasonably well for Ireland. From the European perspective, we can welcome the overall balance of the package, even if the necessary accommodation of the concerns of all member states makes the process less straightforward than a private sector recruitment process. In particular, it is good that, for the first time, women have been nominated to the two most senior EU jobs. We can also be satisfied that the package was agreed much earlier than on the last occasion five years ago, not that media coverage would give that impression.
From the specifically Irish point of view, we can welcome the appointment of the prime minister of a small member state, Charles Michel of Belgium, to president of the European Council thus increasing the likelihood of equal consideration being given to all, although Donald Tusk demonstrated that this is not necessarily a factor of size. The appointment of Christine Lagarde to the European Central Bank should allow for significant policy continuity in an institution of immense importance to Ireland. Strong EU commitment to its own underlying principles in the Brexit negotiations, as well as support for Ireland, are set to be maintained under the new European leadership team.
Populism and insularity
These new five-year appointments are a reminder that we should look at the EU, not just with the immediate Brexit issue in view, but from a longer-term perspective. With Uncle Sam and John Bull increasingly embracing populism and insularity, the EU faces growing responsibilities both within and beyond its borders. The challenges and opportunities for Ireland are on a similar scale.
The new EU appointees will be very influential. But we should avoid any mindset suggesting Ireland will somehow be the passive recipient of their political largesse, that we will be glad to receive any crumbs of goodwill that fall from the EU’s negotiating process. Ireland is an actor in the European play, not a member of the audience. It is of existential importance that we deliver our lines to maximum impact.
The new EU appointees will be very influential. But we should avoid any mindset suggesting Ireland will somehow be the passive recipient of their political largesse
The most important thing for Ireland now is not the fact of who will be taking over the senior EU jobs but rather how we as a country will interact with them and the institutions over which they will preside.
Ireland has exercised significant influence over nearly half a century of EU membership. But the exercise of influence in the EU is a constant process, not a fact of life. It involves hard work, intelligence, judgment, alliance building and, of course, sensitivity to the common interest and to the interests of others. It is a challenge which will become all the greater for us after Brexit. We have always cultivated close alliances across the union. We are one of the few member states to have an embassy in every other member state. We have recently strengthened our presence in key European capitals. But on several vital issues on which we worked closely with our British friends we will have to step up our game and deploy our limited negotiating ammunition to even greater effect.
There is no doubt that the Government is handling Brexit well in difficult circumstances and that our opposition parties have demonstrated a commendable willingness to put national interest ahead of party politics.
As a nation, we have prioritised Brexit because we had no choice. When challenged to do so in the past, we also threw our energy into managing the aftermath of the EU financial crisis and running seven successful EU presidencies. But over the years in the EU, we have generally been content to excel at the great Irish sport of “punching above our weight”. Yes we have done well; but we could have set the bar higher. We could have done better, at both political and official level, in terms of prioritisation, co-ordination and networking.
As a nation, we have prioritised Brexit because we had no choice
It may well be that governments of whatever complexion will adequately resource and prioritise EU policy into the future. However, having spent more than three decades working on EU policy, I would not necessarily bet on it. It will certainly not happen automatically or without significant political leadership. There is a serious risk that Irish interests in the EU, camouflaged as they are by the unavoidable centrality of Brexit, will in due course fall down the Irish political agenda to where they have traditionally languished, comfortably below the daily political radar until the next crisis comes along. It would be the gravest of mistakes.
Bobby McDonagh is a former Irish ambassador to the EU, Britain and Italy