Future of EU: Debate ignites in Ireland

Is the European Union a threat to national identity? Is Brussels a threat to national economic and social welfare? These questions have been raised in various ways in all member countries. Suddenly the debate in Ireland has caught fire and the current exchange of opinions is touching on all aspects of the future of the EU. The rest of Europe should find this debate interesting, although it hasn’t been widely reported elsewhere.

Commenting on the debate, ex-Taoiseach and ex-Minister for Foreign Affairs, Garret FitzGerald, wrote that "this is not a good time for Irish ministers, however frustrated by past or current decisions of their party on EU legislation, to appear to launch a phoney war against the European Commission, and it the guardian of our rights and those of all small member-states".

The debate started when the Minister for Arts and Heritage, Síle de Valera, claimed in a speech in Boston that “directives and regulations agreed in Brussels often seriously impinge on our identity, culture and traditions”. She was also concerned that EU enlargement will shift the emphasis towards the East.

The Taoiseach Bertie Ahern strongly supported de Valera's speech. Mr Ahern said that Ms de Valera's views "were a welcome contribution to the ongoing debate" which was taking place throughout the EU.

Some of the reactions to de Valera’s remarks were fierce. Alan Dukes, a Fine Gael TD and member of the National Council of the European Movement, thought that de Valera’s comments were “ill-informed”. Dukes posed many questions to the Minister, among them this: “Does she believe that it would be harmful to our identity, culture and traditions to include a charter of fundamental rights in the EU Treaty, which many of us already involved in the debate now advocate?”

Labour leader Ruairi Quinn accused de Valera of “little Ireland paranoia”. Quinn also claimed that de Valera had been encouraged to make her comments by the Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern.

Proinsias De Rossa, an MEP and president of the Labour Party, was alarmed by de Valera’s comments. De Rossa wrote that “there is a need for closer integration on equality, solidarity, social policy, the environment, consumer protection, and peace and security among others.

Journalist Sam Smyth, on the other hand, thought de Valera’s speech was “a breath of fresh air in a debate that has been more ignored than stifled”. Smyth was worried about a development which would lead to a situation where “our most basic human rights will be adjudicated in Luxembourg rather than the Four Courts”. He listed Finland, Sweden, Denmark and the UK as countries which “are wary of handing over their hardwon freedom to a court based in the heart of Europe”.

The debate gained another dimension when writers commented on Mary Harney's earlier remarks in which the leader of the Progressive Democrats had suggested that Ireland was spiritually closer to Boston than Berlin. Harney also said that while “the major economies in continental Europe remained wedded to an outmoded philosophy of high taxation and heavy regulation which condemns millions of their people to unemployment we in Ireland in recent years have pursued an altogether different course”.

In the same newspaper, columnist Dick Walsh reacted by saying that “there’s a price to pay for corporation and income tax rates that are among the lowest in the EU; for income tax cuts that favour the better off. And the price is paid by the old, the poor, and the sick…” Walsh added that spending on public services in Ireland is close to the lowest in the EU.

Many writers in the letters pages joined in. Brendan Ryan wrote that “Sweden, Austria, Finland, Norway, Denmark and the Netherlands all have significantly and sensibly higher tax regimes than us. They also have a vastly better healthcare, housing, social security, education and infrasturcture than we do. In most of them, indigenous industry (Nokia, Ericsson, Statoil) is in far better shape than our own.”

Heinrich Hall, a German living in Ireland, admitted that the cultural identity of the Republic has changed rapidly. “However, it has not turned at all European, not even superficially. Instead, Ireland is turning Anglo-American…” Hall added: “A multinational, multicultural and multilingual EU might be a better place in which to safeguard Irish identities…”

A variation to this theme came from Seamus Ratigan who wrote that “the main threat to cultural diversity and local economic development is not coming from Brussels but from the multi-national corporations engaged in destructive ‘globalisation’ and despoiling of the planet’s resources at an accelerating rate”.

N.A. Neligan rejected the notion “that we are spiritually closer to Boston than Berlin”. Neligan said that “the European social model is far superior to the backward policies on offer in the United States”.

As the debate raged on, Ireland’s European Commissioner, David Byrne, raised the possibility of a constitution for Europe as the European Union increases is size. Byrne warned that without major reform, as the number of member-states doubles in the years ahead, enlargement would “drown our capacity and capability to manage integration in any credible way”.

Commenting on Byrne’s remarks, Gene McKenna wrote that Byrne “obviously feels that not only does Ireland have a continuing role in the conducting of EU business but must maintain its place in the vanguard with a special contribution as an island state on the periphery”.

In an editorial on Byrne’s remarks, Irish Independent praised his rebuke of de Valera. Byrne was quoted as saying that what was needed  was “a democratically accountable way of handling globalisation, a new kind of global governance”. The paper had this to say: “The facts of alienation and separation of the people from their governors, especially from what is seen as a remote Brussels bureaucracy, are undeniable.”

In another editorial, Irish Independent opposed the idea that the smaller countries should lose their automatic right to a seat on the Commission. “This is oppressive and unfair, and must be opposed, the paper said.

Some letter writers welcomed the debate. Pat Kelly described de Valera’s contribution as “an oasis of challenging political thought and leadership in a desert of subservience on the subject of Europe and Ireland”. He continued: “To date, genuine questioning of specific EU policies has been shouted down by the pro-EU faction and drowned in shrill anti-EU rhetoric by the anti-EU faction. The rest of us have now found a middle-of-the-road voice.”

See also:

Ireland & neutrality

21 June 2000

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