Ireland & Europe; Political leaders need to start thinking outside the box

As we are all consumed with the Adams/Cahill story, it is hard for some other pieces of news to gain traction. One big story that was missed in the media was the revelation that due to the revision in how the European Union calculates the contributions of member states to the coffers of the Union that Ireland will now be required to pay an additional €157 million.

Before you start coming at me with a “but Ireland, got huge amounts of money,” let me just stop you right there. What I want to take issue with is one, the premise of the argument that Ireland should pay more and two, the incredibly weak/silent response of the Irish political parties on this issue.

Let’s begin with some facts, why is Ireland being asked to pay more? Largely it is due to the increase in Irish economic growth which has steadily improved over the last year. The European Commission regularly changes its calculations and this time it has come against Ireland, Britain and Cyprus, who will have to pay more into the EU budget.

While the Irish economy is back in growth and is performing well, it is far from out of the woods and the recent failure of Permanent TSB to pass an EU banking stress test illustrates that the financial services sector is not in great shape and the domestic economy is still flat lining. As the country recovers from the economic crisis, it seems to have gone un-noticed in Brussels that Ireland responded to some of the harshest budget cuts and fallsiving standards without complaint (look at  low rates of industrial action and civil unrest for example). In addition to this, the fact that some of this was imposed from a European level, equally is now lost on the Commission.

Nope, those people in Brussels now want more money, despite the sacrifice and effort that the Irish people have made to keep what is essentially a political project (i.e the Euro) on the road. I accept that it has not been a one way street and Ireland does yield benefits from its membership of the European Union, hence why I stress that I am not coming at this from a UKIP perspective, far from it.

But, after all this sacrifice and all this hardship, you would imagine one of the figures in the Commission might think “should we not give these guys a bit of a break?” Obviously not, Brian Lenihan standing at what he called “the gates of hell” in 2010 as he flew off to Brussels to negotiate the EU/IMF bailout and the hardship that came with it was patently not enough.

What Ireland needs now, is a bit of breathing space to get its house in order. Things are trending in the right direction, but now is quite frankly an absurd time to pile more costs onto a country that is attempting to deal with a debt crisis.

This leads me onto my second point and that is the response of the Irish government. As I read through Enda Kenny’s response to the proposal for more money I could not get Tony Blair’s famous “weak, weak, weak’ repose to John Major out of my head. Kenny argued that;

We have always abided by the rules

This “good European” approach is all fine, but wasn’t that the argument use to pass the second Lisbon referendum? Where exactly did that get Ireland the following year? Would it be too much to ask the Taoiseach to stand up at the meeting and say the following;

Ireland is a committed member of the European Union. We have over the past number of years demonstrated through our actions and words how much we are willing to sacrifice as a nation to remain a part of this organisation. However, at a time when our economy is fragile and confidence is low, I cannot accept that my country is burdened with higher costs as a time of harsh austerity for the people of Ireland.

Apparently this is not able to happen on our side of the Irish Sea, as the protesting is left to the British government. Euro-fanatics in Ireland have become like Euro-sceptics in Britain, loyal to their cause without any critical thinking about the basic premise of why they hold these core beliefs.

Sometimes the European Union does not always act in the interest of Ireland and it’s ok to say so. The wider political system needs to develop a more realistic and critical attitude towards our relationship with this institution. Simply accepting without any comment, every direction and policy from Brussels is a ludicrous proposition and one that has gone on far too long.

The European elections proved that there is a considerable section of the Irish people who are willing to back parties that take a much harder look at how Europe operates and functions. They should take heed and drop the tin ear approach that they seem to have adopted over the last number of years.


David McCann holds a PhD in North-South relations from University of Ulster. You can follow him on twitter @dmcbfs