Two weeks ago Ireland saw the launch of the ‘Irexit: Freedom to Prosper’ party, UKIP clone in all but name. While a courtesy glance at their Twitter feed will reveals a nativism typical of most Eurosceptic parties, they also throw their own twist on top of it, namely highlighting that Ireland is now for the first time a net contributor to the EU budget. They further attack the militarisation of the EU over the last year and the questionable overreach of certain institution within the EU. They are in effect following the well worn Eurosceptic playbook seen in so many other European countries.
Fortunately (or unfortunately depending on one’s perspective) the party has already tainted itself by its founders and the groups it has highlighted on social media. Party founder Hermann Kelly is the director of communications for the European Freedom and Direct Democracy group in the European Parliament, a group made up of UKIP, the right wing Italian Five Star Movement and other right wing nationalist parties. Furthermore there social media accounts have already lent support to controversial groups such as Alternative for Deutschland in Germany and Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party. Both groups are noted for their anti-migrant nationalist views and occasionally outright racist views. Orbán’s government in Hungary recently found itself being condemned by the EU for their recent actions against civil society as well, joining Poland in Article seven proceedings.
The combination of the groups who the party lends it support to, and the fact that Ireland remains one of the most Europhilic countries in the EU means that this party will most likely be confined to the fringe of Irish politics. However, even if they only remain a vocal minority, the questions they ask about our future relationship with the EU could prove surprisingly valid.
Ireland is for the first time a net contributor to the EU, and talk is increasing around the idea of tax harmonisation, something that the Irish Government has highlighted as a risk to our economy due to our reliance of foreign direct investment (FDI). Furthermore the EU is increasingly seeking the development of a joint defence policy, something that could threaten the façade of Irish neutrality. Finally the question of Brexit and the effect that could have on the future direction of the EU means that we should at the very least be considering all options going forward.
Thus far there is no major political party that outright stands against the EU, and many of the policies set or implemented by the EU are in effect waved through without much thought or coverage. While few of these policies to date have been contrary to Irish interests, the danger exists in that we continue to go along with a Union that is changing before our eyes. The simple fact is that the Irish political class are in essence asleep at the wheel when it comes to the EU. The response is a far-right group sitting in the extreme position of wishing to leave the EU, and no moderate or mainstream party willing to even discuss the matter of EU reform seriously. The only options being presented to the Irish electorate are more of the same of burning down all the existing structures.
The questions we should be asking ourselves revolve around our changing place in the world. Ireland is a major tech-hub acting as a gateway between Europe and the USA for technology and data. This situation is benefited to varying degrees by our position in the single market (including regulatory harmonisation). The Irish Government also claims that this position is based on our corporate tax rate which the EU wishes to harmonise as well. Finally it is supported by our education system, which at third-level is supported by research grants and exchange programs run by the EU.
Ireland has also for years benefited from the receipt of grants from the EU for infrastructure development, to support our farmers, and as part of the Peace Process in the North. However, now in part due to our growing economy, and the departure of Britain from the EU, Ireland will be contributing more money to the EU than we receive back in grants for the first time. This was always on the horizon for us, and was always an understood part of our responsibilities as a member of this club. However it does mean that we at the very least need to factor into our discussions around budget time.
Finally the EU is increasingly seeking to develop a common defence policy, something that would fly in the face of our so called neutrality. While Ireland has thus far sought to distance itself from such ventures, the fact remains that the world is changing quickly, and we may not be able to keep at that distance forever. This topic got a spurt of life last year when PESCO was pushed through the Dáil, but that quickly subsided over the Christmas break.
The simple fact is that Ireland can no longer simply go along with the European project without seriously considering what it wants out of it. The project we joined in 1972 is radically different from the one we find ourselves in today, as is the world we inhabit. The EU has undoubtedly provided numerous benefits to Ireland, but it would be foolish to not point out the glaring flaws in the project; the lack of democratic power, the overbearing power of the EBC and the fact that ordinary citizens of the EU feel too distant from the decision making process.
As Ireland enters a new phase in its relationship in the EU, we should not leave the discussion on the future of our membership up to the those whose only solution is to destroy the project. It is the responsibility of the media, of politicians and of the people of Ireland to seriously consider how the EU can be improved to benefit us more. We should be asking has this integration project gone too far, or not far enough? Is the Euro something we should consider abandoning, or should we turn over more power to the Eurozone to ensure its stability.
The EU cannot continue to exist in its current form, it is destined to change. The only question is whether or not we play a role is shaping its future, or continue to sit on the side lines.
By Aaron Bowman – CoEditor