EU Membership has been the making of Ireland…

New Year’s Day marked the 50th. Anniversary of Ireland’s accession to the EU (then EEC), the single most transformative event in our 100 years of independence. Indeed, our post-independence history could be neatly divided into two periods, pre- and post-EU, although many would trace the origins of Ireland as a modern advanced economy to the Lemass reforms associated with Dr TK Whitaker’s seminal 1958 study, “Economic Development.

There aren’t any soldiers marching or trumpets blaring to mark the event, but the Irish Times has been publishing a series of articles on EU related themes. One such article was written by Anthony Coughlan, my old Social Policy lecturer in Trinity College Dublin and leader of Irish Sovereignty Movement and National Platform. He opposed Ireland’s accession to the EU and just about every EU related Treaty since and pre-figured many of the arguments used by Brexiteers against membership.

His latest article, entitled Fifty years later, I still think EU membership was a mistake, is a good summary of his views and I have responded as follows with a letter published by the Irish Times as the lead letter in response:

A chara, – I was delighted to see that Anthony Coughlan, my old social policy lecturer and later professor in Trinity College, is still ploughing his old furrow of opposition to Ireland’s membership of the EU (“Fifty years later, I still think EU membership was a mistake”, Opinion & Analysis, December 31st).

He has been nothing if not consistent in his views for the past 50 years. He has also been consistently wrong.

Somehow it is still a surprise to him that the EU has evolved towards a supranational state despite the opening lines of the 1957 Founding Treaty of Rome establishing the European Economic Community stating that its purpose was “the foundation of an ever closer union of European peoples”. We knew what we were joining.

According to him, the initial rejection of the Nice Treaty in 2001 and the Lisbon Treaty in 2008 was legitimate and correct, while their later acceptance by much greater margins on much higher turnouts by the Irish electorate was illegitimate and incorrect.

According to him, our membership of the European Union has only brought us benefits like our membership of the British union prior to 1922. I don’t recall the last 50 years of EU membership replicating the centuries of repression, dispossession and famine under British rule.

Apparently, our membership of the euro zone forced our banks to engage in the reckless credit expansion which led to the 2009 financial crisis. There is no mention of the complete failure of our own regulator to police their actions. No one forced our banks to lend money to finance dubious investments.

Now apparently, we must consider “Irexit” to accommodate the “Britishness” of northern unionists, when a large majority in Northern Ireland voted against Brexit and most there see our continuing membership of the EU as one of the more attractive features of a possible united Ireland.

He emphasises that “we are now net contributors to, rather than beneficiaries from, the EU budget” when that is the consequence of our economic success due to our membership.

The UK is now discovering the hard way that the cost of leaving far exceeds the costs of membership.

Having said we are far closer to Boston than Berlin he nevertheless suggests we should not engage with the US in its “proxy war” against Russia in Ukraine. How does facilitating the brutal Russian invasion of Ukraine make us neutral?

I never doubted the sincerity of Prof Coughlan’s beliefs, and I am pleased to see he is still exercising his right to expound them. – Is mise, etc.

End Letter

There are a lot of other points in Professor Coughlan’s article I could have contested, but at 425 words, it is a long letter, and I was surprised the Irish Times even published what it did. The context for my remarks is as follows:

Ireland joined the EU following an 83% majority vote in a referendum in 1972 with a record turnout since the foundation of the State despite the opposition of then President, Eamon de Valera. Support for EU membership has steadily increased, especially since Brexit, peaking at 93% in 2019 at the height of the Brexit negotiations and stood at 88% in the most recent poll. Since the invasion of Ukraine, support for increased EU defence and security co-operation arrangements has also risen from 49 per cent in 2020, to 54 per cent in 2021 to 59 per cent in 2022.

Professor Coughlan belongs to a long tradition of Irish nationalism and republicanism which rejected all foreign entanglements and interpreted the Irish tradition of neutrality as a form of isolationism rather than Sinn Fein’s focus on using it to avoid incorporation into the UK sphere of influence. In later years Sinn Fein has pivoted from opposing Ireland’s membership of the EU and now describes itself as “critical, but supportive, of the EU”.

Whereas opposition to EU membership used to be primarily from left leaning groups like Sinn Fein and People before profit, it is becoming the domain of minor far right groups like the Irish Freedom Party led by former Farage acolyte and acting editor of The Irish Catholic, Hermann Kelly, who received less than 1% of the vote in the 2019 European election Dublin Constituency and leading anti vaxxer Professor Dolores Cahill who received less than 1.5 % of the vote in the Ireland south constituency.

However just because anti-EU sentiment is now almost confined to the lunatic fringes of Irish politics does not mean it will always be that way. There are many good reasons why current and future EU policies might be opposed without necessarily requiring Irexit, and the current refugee crisis could lead to increasing anti-EU sentiment even though the Ukraine isn’t in the EU yet.

I have yet to see a single policy decision taken by the UK government which could not have been taken as an EU member other than the conclusion of largely “copy and paste” and sometimes less advantageous trade deals with third countries based on EU trade deals. Even the much touted move back to the “iconic” British passport could have been done as an EU member – Croatian passports are also blue. The UK’s early lead in Covid vaccination may have been enabled by a lack of collaborative behaviour but was not illegal from an EU perspective. The EU has very limited competency in healthcare matters, and its attempts to coordinate PPE protective clothing and vaccine procurement were a first for the EU, initiated only after tardy approval by national governments.

In general, EU member states have pursued their national interests zealously and guarded their national prerogatives jealously within the legal framework of the Treaties agreed by member states. Poland, and now Hungary have skirted infringing those treaties but have generally been pulled back into line. Brexiteer criticisms of “EU Bureaucracy” have generally been in ignorance of just how limited the scope of that bureaucracy actually is, engaged only in policy areas such as agriculture and trade negotiations which have been explicitly derogated to the EU by member states as part of the Treaties.

In fact, the EU is little more than a series of treaties which set out the areas of policy integration and rules of engagement for resolving disputes between member states. This is why the EU is often criticised for being slow and taking a legalistic approach to problem solving. Without a framework of binding law, any decision would be open to challenge by any member state. This is why the protocol will never be scrapped as demanded by the DUP. It was negotiated after several years of hard bargaining between the UK and EU and ratified by 28 governments and 29 parliaments. Nobody is going to want to unwind that agreement when any one member state could block its replacement.

What has been remarkable to me is not that there have been disagreements in Council, Commission and Parliament, but that it has always been possible to arrive at some kind of compromise agreement, even on major issues requiring unanimity among the 27 member states now represented in Council. When you see the difficulty the UK government had in even agreeing a negotiating “ask” among themselves, the achievement of Barnier et al in securing unanimous agreement between 27 member states – often against divide and conquer tactics by the UK – is put into perspective.

So, I make no apologies for expressing my admiration for the EU in principle, even when I have extreme doubts about some of its decisions and lack of decisions in many areas, in practice. For me it is the greatest peace process in history, putting an end to many centuries of inter-national rivalries and wars, culminating in two world wars. During the last 50 years it has enabled countries like Ireland to rise from extreme poverty, dependency on the UK, and underdevelopment; countries like Spain Portugal and Greece to rise from fascist dictatorships; and countries in the former Soviet block to assert their independence.

In years to come, I would like to see a lot more coordination of EU policies in areas like health care, pharmaceutical and med tech procurement, social welfare, regional development, security, cybercrime, education, energy, environmental protection and transport infrastructure. I don’t see any of this as infringing on Irish sovereignty, and indeed see it as having the potential to improve Irish governmental competency in those areas. Many of the problems facing us are global or continental in scope and can only be addressed on a wide cooperative basis.

Another change I would like to see is a move from unanimity in all major decision making to allowing more of a variable speed geometry within the Union. There is no reason why decision making should always be limited by the slowest or least enthusiastic member state. To some extent this has already happened with some members states in the Eurozone, and others not. Some in the Schengen passport free zone and others not.

So why should those member states who want to coordinate their efforts to develop (say) an intercontinental electricity super-grid linking solar farms in the Sahara and wind farms in the Arctic to an ultra-high voltage transmission network providing sustainable and renewable energy to all not go ahead and do so? The capital costs are huge and could only be covered on a collaborative basis. But the only way of seriously mitigating the intermittent nature of wind and solar energy is to have a grid wide enough to ensure the wind is always blowing in some part of the grid – which requires a spread wider than your average anti-cyclone.

Equally I would like to see language teaching improved by introducing a European wide scheme whereby trainee teachers in (say) France would spend a year or two teaching French in Ireland while perfecting their English at the same time – and vice versa for Irish teachers teaching English in France. A European wide health database, whereby a hospital in Spain could have (with your permission) access to your health history in Ireland when treating you for some emergency could also be beneficial for all citizens – the possibilities are endless. All they require is goodwill, a cooperative spirit, an investment in data standards and technology, and a framework of laws and standards to prevent abuse.

Whether we like it or not, the world is increasingly dominated by major economic blocs in the USA, China, India, Japan and the far East, and if Europe wants to compete it has to improve its collaboration, productivity, and technical competencies. It also often requires huge capital investments and economies of scale. The EU gives Ireland the opportunity to compete in this space, and while our economy is currently dominated by US multinationals, Irish companies and people are increasingly developing the capabilities to develop our own.

It is widely under-appreciated that while foreign direct investment in Ireland has been huge, it is increasingly matched by Irish investment abroad. Ireland is now one of the most globalised economies in the world, and while that brings dangers, it also brings enormous opportunities, and these opportunities are only available to us as part of a bigger union which respects us as an equal member state with our own decision making capacities rather than as an adjunct or colony.

So, the key political question of the day as we enter 2023 is not really about a United Ireland or not. That is a decision which can be made by other people in their own time. The key question is whether we can continue to forge ahead as a relatively independent polity and economy within a larger union against the headwinds of pandemics, wars, recessions, climate crises and international instability and conflict. I feel very optimistic that we can, provided we can keep our eye on the ball and not worry or be distracted too much about little local conflicts which are primarily about the past and not the future.

Anthony Coughlan always seemed to me to be harkening back to a traditional Ireland reminiscent of De Valera’s comely maidens dancing at the crossroads. By large majorities, the Irish people have decided to move on and embrace their opportunities in Europe and beyond leaving behind old conflicts based on religion, tribal affiliation, class, defensive definitions of national identity or gender. The vast majority of our people are now attaining third level qualifications which enable them to work in high skills, high productivity occupations in many parts of the world or in Ireland as they choose. Please forgive us if this comes across as disinterest in the problems of the old world. We have a new world to build.

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