Open discussion of EU matters is vital for confronting Euroscepticism

The Irish public’s support for the EU should not be taken for granted, but reinforced

Taoiseach Micheál Martin arrives at the EU Social Summit in Porto, Portugal on May 7th. Photograph: Jose Coelho/Pool/EPA

Taoiseach Micheál Martin arrives at the EU Social Summit in Porto, Portugal on May 7th. Photograph: Jose Coelho/Pool/EPA

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Ireland is facing important decisions about how to engage positively with the process of reshaping the European Union, which is about to begin in the guise of the Conference on the Future of Europe. An informed public debate about how this country wants the EU to evolve to meet the challenges of the coming decades is essential if we are to avoid stumbling into another referendum disaster, as happened twice before.

One of the big mistakes in the past is that Irish governments were inclined to play it cautiously when it came to voicing an opinion in public about how the EU should develop, and were happy to go along with the consensus that ultimately emerged when the big powers had made their positions clear.

The lack of ownership of the Nice and Lisbon treaties was one of the reasons why the Irish electorate voted them down on the basis of spurious fears promoted by a range of anti-EU campaigners. The country then had to suffer the indignity of voting again on the same treaties to which protocols for Irish slow learners had been added.

Given the crucial role the EU played in rescuing the Irish economy from disaster during the financial crisis and the solidarity the other member states and the European Commission displayed right through the Brexit process, the time has come to play an active role in the next phase of the union’s development.

It was encouraging this week that Taoiseach Micheál Martin struck a decidedly positive line about Ireland’s commitment to deepening the union and giving it new competences. Delivering the Brendan Halligan memorial lecture at the Institute for International and European Affairs, he was insistent that the process of renewing and reforming the union needed an urgency and ambition which Ireland must help to shape.

Expanding role

He was clear that expanding the role of the EU was vital.

“This is why last year, with the support of the Government, I put forward a position at the European Council which was strongly in favour of expanding the EU’s budget as well as creating a special Covid recovery fund. This was in spite of the fact that Ireland is now a net contributor to the union.”

Expanding the EU budget will require the allocation of more resources from the member states, but that will enable it to develop critical new competences in areas such as public health and climate change to ensure that it continues to develop as a strong and dynamic community of nations which is the envy of the entire globe.

The Taoiseach made no bones about the fact that Ireland was open to the idea of treaty change – even if that requires a referendum. He has spoken to the leaders of the other Coalition parties, and all three leaders are open to potential treaty change even though that will present a huge political challenge.

An important issue that Martin addressed was the fact that EU issues have not been treated with the urgency they deserve in national politics, given how important a successful and dynamic the EU is to continued prosperity and progress in this country. As a result the public often has little understanding of what goes on at EU level while appreciating that its overall impact has been overwhelmingly beneficial.

Another downside of the lack of proper discussion of EU matters is that the level of Euroscepticism that continues to prevail in Irish politics and particularly among our MEPs generally passes under the radar.

“A significant proportion of our representation in the European Parliament constantly attacks the union as an elite conspiracy against the people. Parties who opposed Irish membership of the union, who fought against every treaty change and blame the union for everything, have an agenda which is shared with anti-EU parties throughout Europe,” said Martin.

Left group

He was obviously referring to the four Irish MEPs from Sinn Féin, Independents 4 Change and Luke “Ming” Flanagan who are members of the Left group in the parliament. This group is mainly composed of communists and former communists who are opposed to the current structures of the EU and would like to see it dismantled and replaced with an alternative socialist model.

Very few voters share this worldview, as evidenced by a succession of polls which show the Irish to be among the most enthusiastic supporters of the EU as it has developed. Nonetheless, Euroscepticism is a very real part of Irish politics but is too rarely confronted by mainstream politicians who are then astonished when it manifests itself in referendum results.

Events in the UK have demonstrated what can happen when anti-EU sentiment is allowed to go unchallenged. The assumption that the positive benefits of the EU would outweigh old-fashioned nationalist rhetoric was rudely exposed by the decision of the British people to vote to leave when it was obviously not in their self-interest to do so.

The fact that the Irish public not only overwhelmingly supports the EU but is willing to see a deepening of the relationship should not be a cause for complacency among its supporters. The best way of confronting those who engage in populist attacks in the union is to have a full and open debate about where the Irish people want to see it going in the years ahead.

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