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Ireland needs to step up its game in the new Europe

World View: Emmanuel Macron has dared Europeans to think big about the bloc’s future

French president Emmanuel Macron attends an EU summit in Tallinn, Estonia. Photograph: Ints Kalnins/Reuters

Big events, big speeches and big ideas herald a return of scale and ambition to European politics. The German election, Juncker’s, Macron’s and May’s pronouncements on the EU’s future and large changes in US and Chinese policies require more thoughtful European thinking about what lies ahead than wishing past approaches can be reproduced.

This is a challenge for Ireland and other smaller states, who must steer their way through shifting centres of power, geography and interests. Reactive and defensive responses on issues like low-tax regimes will be suboptimal or backfire when new coalitions are needed to protect this State from Brexit’s asymmetrical shocks.

We will need support from the large and small states who say they are unfairly disadvantaged by Ireland acting as a tax haven for huge multinational companies such as Google and Apple.

Solidarity here should and will be reciprocal. It cannot be automatically assumed when or if the Brexit negotiations play out into a second phase dealing with the UK’s future trade and political relations with the EU.

Macron dares Europeans to think big if they are to weather global geopolitical changes and maintain geoeconomic competitiveness with the US and China

Ireland must navigate through this period first with qualified majority voting and later through unanimity if the transition now sought by the British is to be agreed. At each stage, other interests needing reciprocity will shake out.

Muddling through will not work again in these new circumstances, even if there is a temptation not to meddle with existing EU policies which seem to have stabilised the euro or dealt with migration and terrorism.

The agenda set out for this week’s informal EU summit in Tallinn by Donald Tusk seeks a more ambitious redesign of policies and even of institutions to deal with these and future crises.

Intellectual initiative

The intellectual initiative was seized by Emmanuel Macron in his radical speech this week at the Sorbonne on the future of European integration. It built substantially on his previous ideas put forward in Berlin and on the French campaign trail.

Macron dares Europeans to think big if they are to weather global geopolitical changes and maintain geoeconomic competitiveness with the US and China.

This French attempt to reframe the EU’s debate could well succeed by putting many bold new ideas on the agenda.

It contains a welcome appeal for greater citizenship and democracy, as well as reaching out to Italians and other southern Europeans.

France needs such allies if it is to balance the new German political and economic landscape after the German federal election. The Franco-German relationship will certainly change after the UK’s departure from the bloc.

European awareness that the British are trying to use Ireland as a pawn in a wider war is a major positive factor 

Ireland is closer to German than French positions in this debate on current showing. It needs to explore common interests on the shape of a post-Brexit EU with smaller northern states like the Netherlands, Belgium, Denmark, Sweden and Finland who value similar liberal and open approaches to trade and free movement.

We also have an interest in securing the euro and in the success of a wider economic union capable of withstanding the shocks and providing the solidarity needed to get through the financial crisis from 2008-2010. That means we also need southern allies like Spain and Portugal.

Public optimism

The latest Eurobarometer 87 poll shows public opinion here in a relatively optimistic mood, with somewhat less than the EU average support for a common defence and security union (67 per cent against 75 per cent) and support for a common foreign policy in line with the EU average of 67 per cent.

Ireland will need German and French support on Brexit along with that from the European Commission and Council in Brussels. The success in getting this country’s concerns inserted as an issue along with EU citizens’ interests and the British divorce bill in the first stage of the Brexit talks means they are allies in securing a “unique” outcome for Northern Ireland and this State.

Ensuring “sufficient progress” is made by next month or December will be difficult indeed, given the UK’s desire to leave both the single market and the customs union. European awareness that the British are trying to use Ireland as a pawn in a wider war is a major positive factor here.

Post-election Germany favours a rules-based EU rather than a union transferring resources from state to state. But its surpluses unbalance the whole.

Macron seeks to change that, not by creating a federal superstate, but by a step change towards a more coherent and cohesive EU.

Ireland needs to up its game and ambition in this emerging debate.