World View: Where does EU end and local government start?

An intimate entanglement links domestic and international levels of authority

The overlap of European and local polls reminds us  we are governed at several different levels which are interlinked and entangled. Photograph: Fabrizio Bensch

The overlap of European and local polls reminds us we are governed at several different levels which are interlinked and entangled. Photograph: Fabrizio Bensch

 

Ireland currently tops Eurobarometer and other polls for commitment to the European Union and feelings of regret if it were to disappear. A popular sense of the security and solidarity extended to this country from Brussels during the Brexit crisis underlies that buoyancy.

It can be seen in the European Parliament election campaign which has attracted relatively high-profile candidates and is debating a mix of European, national and local issues. The overlap of European and local polls reminds us that we are governed at several different levels which are interlinked and entangled, reflecting multiple interdependencies. The Irish State is highly centralised yet in the name of subsidiarity resists further substantial transfers of sovereignty to the EU.

There is little sign of that European commitment weakening despite the growing prospect of a no-deal Brexit. While the negative impact of such an outcome on Ireland has been mapped in detail, it is more difficult to predict what direction popular feeling would take were it to happen and be prolonged. Impacts on the beef sector are being addressed by subsidies, for example, but would anger then target London, Brussels – or Dublin?

In the search for independent statehood from the British empire, Irish nationalists sought continental allies in Spain, France, Germany and smaller countries, and in the United States. As an anti-imperial nationalism, it has an internationalist and liberal aspect, which has resonated well with EU membership. Being part of a wider European politics together mitigated British bilateral power and encouraged a more equal relationship.

Problems and solidarities

Brexit endangers that equilibrium and reminds Irish voters of these long-standing problems and solidarities. This shows up in the recent enthusiasm for EU membership – notwithstanding more critical attitudes during the 2008-2012 financial crisis.

The buoyancy underlying these polling results is encouraged by a move towards a more event-based politics in the EU, responding to geopolitical shifts, including the financial crisis, Russia and the Ukraine, Syria and the refugees, Trump’s America-First policies, China’s rise and Brexit itself. The greater visibility of political leadership dealing with these risks and uncertainties at European level is underwritten by a sense we are more politically connected and mutually impacting, as seen in the populist theme running through the elections.

Irish nationalists sought continental allies in Spain, France, Germany and smaller countries, and in the United States

The political theorist Luuk van Middelaar’s illuminating book Alarums and Excursions, Improvising Politics on the European Stage guides readers through this transition from a technocratic politics of rules to a more dramatic politics of events, based on his time working for Herman van Rompuy as president of the European Council (see iiea.com).

The mix of local, regional, national and European layers of rule in the EU is described by political scientists as multilevel governance. There is now an intimate entanglement between the domestic and international levels of authority, they say. Governance deals with the organisation and co-ordination policymaking across jurisdictions and institutions, including private ones, as distinct from the more hierarchical patterns of state government.

Local democracy

On one estimate, 95,000 local and subnational regional authorities in the EU implement 70 per cent of its legislation. So local democracy matters in this mix. Ireland lacks such regional authorities compared to federal systems like Austria, Germany and Belgium or non-federal ones like France – but what would happen were a united Ireland to emerge from the Brexit crisis?

On one estimate, 95,000 local and subnational regional authorities in the EU implement 70 per cent of its legislation. So local democracy matters

As for the local level, UCC expert Aodh Quinlivan uses the dramatic contrast between Cork’s one representative per 6,800 citizens and the French equivalent of 1:120, Austria’s 1:210 and Germany’s 1:350 to argue that Irish local government is extremely weak, lacks constitutional protection and is dominated by middle-aged and elderly representatives who can afford the time and money to do the job. The decision to abolish town councils in 2014 reduced Irish local authorities from 114 to 31 compared to 600 when they were introduced 120 years ago. That perpetuates the peculiar mix of centralism, localism, clientelism and personalism that supposedly makes up Irish political culture.

We therefore radically lack the means to engage a better educated and involved citizenry in the kind of local government needed to make a just transition beyond climate breakdown, for example. The citizens’ assembly to be convened on local government in Dublin should address these issues.

Robert Menasse’s The Capital is the first novel based on the EU institutions in Brussels. Satirically and philosophically, he brings together these levels of politics and personality to weave a vivid picture of these greater European entanglements. But he asks what significance they have if we know nothing of them.

pegillespie@gmail.com

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