With all this talk of bailouts, bonds, and bankers it’s sometimes easy to forget what EU membership is all about and what it can offer a potential candidate. With Ireland rejoicing along with Denmark and perhaps some enlightened citizens of the UK on 40 years of membership and with Croatia joining us all this summer now is the perfect time to reflect on our national subscriptions to a very promising project.
Let us look at the case of Ireland a country that I know intimately and which could act as a beacon of hope and an example of progress to all current and potential members, impoverished in wealth but rich in spirit. How in 40 years did a backward backwater island on the furthermost western extremities of the European Continent, broken following a prolonged period of de-colonisation and melting down under neo-colonisation take its place amongst the nations of the Earth and become one of the world’s leading globalised economies offering its citizens a better quality of life through its openness to trade, movement of capital, exchange of technology, ideas and cultural integration? The answer mon ami is due in no small part to its relationship with the European Union as a full member. But where has it been and where is it going in this relationship? Is it time to call it a day? Or it is time to take the ultimate leap? I will attempt to answer these questions.
2.0 Where have they been together?
On the 1st of January 1973 Ireland became a fully fledged member of the then EEC, its then poorest and first developing member, suddenly Ireland a country frozen out of Europe in the Post World War Two Narrative became part of something big; in the words of a fellow Irishman W.B. Yeats “a terrible beauty is born” .
My Father the youngest of ten children grew up alone, his brothers and sisters were scattered to the four corners of the World in search of opportunity. The feeling at the time I am told was if you wanted to do anything with yourself in life then Ireland was not the place to do it in. Irelands long fought for Independence from the English crown was merely superficial the struggle for it made superfluous. Times are difficult now but opportunity to improve one’s self does exist. Membership has seen some 700,000 jobs added to the Irish economy, these jobs have come with better pay and conditions than ever before. Trade with Europe exploded thanks to unhindered access to the Single Market. Alongside traditional Irish exports (Kerrygold an Irish brand of butter last month became Germany’s number one best selling butter) we can now add high tech industrial products made by foreign and indigenous companies who use Ireland as a platform from which to sell their products into the European Marketplace competitively. Access to the single market has also given Irish people the opportunity to buy higher quality products at better prices. The Manufacturing, Financial Services and Services sectors have boomed on the back of membership. The spring 2008 Eurobarometer report found the Irish people to be the second most in favour of EU membership only second to the Dutch.
The traditional backbone of the Economy, Agriculture has been transformed in the length of the relationship with the EU; from a low-yielding almost subsistence level of production to a high-yielding high-tech industry fit for the 21st century. The Bute of every conversation in rural Ireland, the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) has ensured Irish Farmers and the Industry as a whole survive in a sustainable fashion, thanks to European leaders in this field (pardon the pun) like Ray McSharry. In the period 1973-2008 Ireland received some €44 Billion from CAP ensuring the viability of Ireland’s relatively large rural population. Irish quality products and subsequent exports are the physical manifestation and celebration of our EU membership.
Fisheries another industry synonymous amongst Irish people and EU membership is now unrecognisable, completely changed from a labour intensive cottage industry to industrial level production. The imposition of the Common Fisheries Policy has often been resented in Ireland but we must all accept that our seas are European seas and are over fished; therefore a European policy has to be put in place to make Fisheries a more sustainable industry for the future of Irish coastal communities
Far from the Fawlty Towers experience, Ireland offers a high quality value product to a continent of freely moving people, employing directly a not inconsiderable 177,935 people in 2010. Most of our visitors are Ireland’s European brothers and sisters; Great Britain with nearly 1,600,000 visitors, Germany providing 300,000, France accounted for a slightly lower number and nearly 190,000 Italians came. It is believed some five million fellow Europeans visited Ireland last year. These brave tourists are in no doubt spurred on by the Unions free movement of people, our common usage of the Euro and cheap flights offered indirectly by the European Open Skies Treaty and EU Competition Law.
My 85 year old Grandmother tells me that when she was young she and her siblings would swim in the river at the bottom of her garden then teeming with fish and other wildlife. By the 1960’s thanks to the rapid urbanisation of the neighbouring town and unregulated farming practises the River became a meandering muddy mess. Forward to now and the town has a new water supply and sewage treatment plant which was partly funded by the EU and local farming practises are regulated through CAP for the betterment of everyone, the River and my local biosphere are currently undergoing a renaissance of sorts, fresh water Otters long thought to be extinct in the area are making a return. Although a very minor example of European environmental policy it is nevertheless important to underline its far reaching affects from water pollution and air pollution to car emissions and waste disposal. I am firmly of the belief that we would not have been able to do it ourselves. Auction politics has always ensured the appeasement of everyone to the detriment of the environment. When infant salmon made their way up the River Poddle in Dublin last summer for the first time in 50 years they did it thanks to the people of Dusseldorf as much as they did it thanks to the people of Dublin. One thing is for certain we all share the one European Environment that knows no borders and therefore we need a European Strategy to protect it.
2.6 Quality of life
The quality of life for the average person in Ireland and what they can expect to get from it in our short time here has greatly increased. Their economic, educational and unlimited travel horizons stretch as far as the Ural Mountains. The EU has always held Ireland to a higher standard than we set for ourselves and that is the reason behind our rapid propulsion towards opportunity for all. The EU ensures that the air that I breathe is clean, the food that I eat is healthy, the cars that I drive are safe, and the education that I receive is up to European Standards. It gives me hope for the future.
3.0 Where are we going?
Believe me I feel no schadenfreude in the condition the European Project finds itself in today but as Guy Verhofstadt so simply put it “The problem is not Europe in this crisis, the problem is that there is not enough Europe – that is the real problem of the crisis today”. If the economic and political crisis has thought us Europeans anything it is that the solutions to our problems will be found together and not apart. Therefore the future of Irish membership which has rarely ever been in doubt will be based on an ever closer relationship with the EU. According to the latest Eurobarometer report support for EU/IMF intervention is 55% in Ireland compared to an average of 38% across the EU Member States. “The results show that the Irish public is willing to pursue a multilateral rather than a unilateral approach to the issues in the current crisis,” said Professor Richard Sinnott, one of the authors of the report.
3.1 Banking Union
I will leave it for some other poor contributor of OneEurope to rake over the hot coals of the Irish and European Banking Systems suffice to say it is wholly inadequate and antiquated for service in the Single Market. A unified European banking system so large that no one bank would be able to destroy it is necessary to break the septic link between our sovereigns and the Banks. We need solid architecture in the form of a pan-European supervisory mechanism to ensure that a crisis of this magnitude never happens again. Thankfully the Monetary Union still enjoys a good deal of support at around 80%; it remains much higher than the EU average of 58%. Since its introduction support has grown from about 60 to 80 %, tailing off slightly in the Eurobarometer report. .
3.2 Fiscal Union
This step of further integration is what the French call logique or what an Anglophone might call common sense. The Economic Crisis has shown us the limits of the Monetary Union. The markets demand on average 5% interest to lend to Eurozone members in order for us to be able to finance our own vital national public services, they demand too much of the Members most in need of investment like Ireland and nothing at all from strong sovereigns like Germany. Solidarity is the answer! We must start to issue Eurobonds allowing the country’s most in need of investment to be able to finance it at an affordable rate. A proper fiscal union, financed by a European tax system separate to that of the Member States and directed by a European finance minister; will lend real impetus for growth in Europe and act as a signal to the markets that the EU is here to stay. Such a tool would be used for the financing of European wide infrastructure too dear for us to build separately.
A finance ministry as mentioned above could oversee the financing of the long debated trans-European energy grid based on green technology and renewable energy, acting almost as a stimulus plan, the new grid would help us divert any potentially disastrous “oil shock” in the future and could wean us off our growing dependency on imported fossil fuels, rising as much as 50 % in coal alone on an annualised base in some EU countries . Ireland offering itself as one of Europe’s windiest Member States has a huge resource to offer Europe in the form of its wind energy generating capacity and in return create sustainable quality employment.
3.4 Political Union
The knocks on effects of a directly elected European Executive in the form of a president or prime minister are too advantageous for Ireland and all of Europe to ignore, as mentioned in a previous OneEurope article by the same author. Now more than ever is the time to finally tackle the rudderless politics, unaccountable officials, leaderless institutions and democratic deficit that has plagued the Union and empowered its Irish adversaries from the beginning. The Union now is so much more than a manifestation of Franco-German reconciliation; it is high time the direction and ownership of the Union be given to the people, all of the people. Assuming that we have not left it too late to democratise the Union and grab the attention of the understandably disinterested European citizen. The creation of such an institution would help foster and incubate a more natural European identity and sense of ownership amongst Irish people that feels artificial, distant and hard to articulate in the present.
The US and even Japan (a sovereign far more indebted than us) pay a fraction of what we do to borrow money from the Financial Markets, why? The markets do not doubt the ability of these countries to come together, formulate strategies, resolve their issues and pay their debts. Behind the loans they have there are strong political unions willing to pay them.
3.5 Military Union
The European Defence Agency has been in existence for some time now, though without full integration of policy and military resources; Denmark is not even a member! , in 2010 Member States’ defence expenditure represented 1.6% % of GDP and 3.2% of overall government expenditure. The Member States combined military forces in 2009 totalled some 1,668,537 active personnel. Only 67,767 of these personnel are in deployment (4% of the total military personnel) this is compared to the United States’ figure of 14%. Our collective armies are simply surplus to requirement, ineffective and uncoordinated. Think of the massive savings through economies of scale that could be achieved by the setting up of an EU army and how more effective it could be in the protection of our Europe and its neighbourhood. Irelands fiercely protected neutrality; a value held dear by its citizens could remain intact if Irish forces are used as they have been by the UN for the last 50 years as a peacekeeping post-conflict stabilisation force.
Ode to joy, what parent in Ireland or anywhere in Europe does not hold their child’s hand and not wish that they grow up to be better off than they; for their children to live on a peaceful and prosperous continent where European values of democracy, education and social justice are respected. You see we all essentially want the same things for our children and ourselves, from this realisation Irish people can derive their European identity and solidarity with their European Brothers and Sisters. Like the reasoning behind any good relationship in life, Ireland’s relationship with Europe through its membership of the EU is based on the simple fact that life between them is better shared. σας ευχαριστώ Ευρώπη.