Looking at EU through more political lens


WORLD VIEW:A more Europeanised politics is struggling to emerge from the euro zone crisis, writes PAUL GILLESPIE

IRELAND IS more deeply entangled with its partners in the European Union as a result of the banking crisis and the measures taken by the new Government to resolve it. That is part of a more general process called Europeanisation by writers on the subject. It makes European issues part of domestic politics. Politicisation of the issues makes them contentious and contested within that space.

Both elements are now more fully incorporated in Ireland’s political culture. Political actors from other EU member states now participate more in Irish political debates. In recent weeks and months we have heard German, French, Finnish, Greek, Portuguese and Italian political and expert voices on the airwaves and in other media to an unprecedented extent. Increasingly they are recognised as legitimate participants in discussions about common European problems.

The obverse also applies. We understand better now that the Irish voice around the rest of the EU system diminished during the boom years, leaving us much weaker in dealing with fallout from its collapse. Ministerial participation in council meetings, informal networking and Irish employment in the institutions all decreased and badly need to be restored.

Since the flipside of making demands on the system is that there be adequate voice within it, this is a serious matter. Just as Europeanisation goes beyond political leaderships, so should participation in EU politics by interest groups, political parties, social movements and citizens.

It suits those leaderships to monopolise participation so far as they can, since this reinforces their gatekeeping role. Sitting governments are empowered by the system – and increasingly so by its growing inter-governmental character which diminishes the position of the commission in maintaining a balance between smaller and larger states. They try to monopolise access to media in other states for the same reasons.

But politicising the substance of EU policies among citizens makes such a monopoly more and more difficult to maintain. Especially so when the cost is as heavy as it is proving to be for citizens in Ireland, Greece, Portugal and Spain – and is perceived to be by citizens in Germany, Finland, Austria and France who believe they are being asked to bail out profligate leaders and electorates in southern “peripheral” states.

Thus a more Europeanised politics is struggling to emerge from the euro zone crisis, in Ireland and other EU member states.

It is still highly uneven and fragmented, weakly organised and remains dominated by existing public and private power holders. It is buffeted alike by right-wing Eurosceptics who say little can be achieved at transnational level and that national sovereignty needs reinforcing if populations are to be protected; and by left-wing critics who say the existing structures are legally loaded against those who want to change the political and economic system.

Undoubtedly it is skewed towards the relative winners of the existing system of integration – the richer and more mobile middle and upper middle classes who travel more, speak second languages, are members of transnational networks and generally turn these benefits to their own advantage.

The losers tend to be the poorest, least educated and oldest who have travelled less. In between is a vast population of people, the majority in fact, who see and experience many benefits from integration and also insist that the free education, low-cost healthcare and fixed pension benefits they enjoy at national level be maintained.

How this last group responds to the euro zone crisis and the solutions put forward to resolve it will probably determine the fate of the EU in the years to come. Their interests must be served by integration and they are likely to assert them more effectively, including at EU level.

Younger and more mobile than before they have much to lose if the system fails but now need to pay much more attention to how it deals with the social security and pensions issues put on its agenda by the latest crisis.

Looking at the EU through this more political lens should help Irish people understand better how the euro zone and banking crises can play out in coming years. Ireland’s misfortune is to have been a pioneering guinea pig of their intersection.

If, as many economists argue, the banking crisis is systemic throughout the euro zone, the latest decisions in Brussels and Dublin do not resolve but only postpone it. The issue will therefore be subject to further negotiations and shifts of ground.

The key issue is how to turn these collective facts to Ireland’s advantage. Current majorities against Ireland, for example on turning ECB liquidity funding into longer-term loans, will probably shift under such pressure.

The case for collectivising risk by a joint eurobond system building on the recently doubled EU bailout fund will grow. And contemplating a more politicised system it is as well to understand a remark made recently by Paul Nyrup Rasmussen, leader of the Party of European Socialists about the euro zone crisis:

“Don’t blame Europe, blame the conservative majority of Europe.”