Saturday 20 January 2018

What the EU does for us - and what we do for it

We can't afford to ignore the workings of an institution to which we give millions of euro, writes Philip Ryan

This time, the Taoiseach should go to the table in the knowledge that the public expect more from an institution our closest neighbours have branded a failure through a democratic vote. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir
This time, the Taoiseach should go to the table in the knowledge that the public expect more from an institution our closest neighbours have branded a failure through a democratic vote. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir
Philip Ryan

Philip Ryan

We don't usually have to pay much attention to the European Union and for the most part we are better for it.

In Ireland, the majority of us are happy to allow the grey-suited bureaucrats in Brussels run the Union without too much interference from us lowly citizens of Europe. It's only when there is an economic crisis of some description that our ears perk up and we all become experts on the markets and bond yields.

Or if we are forced to vote on EU Treaty referendums - the terms of which are spun beyond recognition by opposing factions before we cast our votes. Otherwise, we put our infallible trust in the politicians we have sent over to Europe to look after our interests. This includes everyone's favourite Irish Water architect, EU Agriculture Commissioner Phil Hogan, and pot-smoking penalty-point dodger Luke 'Ming' Flanagan.

We are also told Taoiseach Enda Kenny is very popular over there and the likes of German Chancellor Angela Merkel are proud to kiss and embrace him when he jets over to summits.

Then there's the EU money, loads of it, billions of euro and we can do what we want with it.

On the downside, there are EU laws and rules, loads of them, and we can't do anything about them. But generally, the workings of the 'European Project' revolve around us, much like traffic on the Schuman Roundabout in the heart of Brussels.

Last week, Brexit focused our minds once again. Just as the arrival of the Troika did. Just as the threat of Greece leaving the EU (or Grexit) did.

The ripple effects of Britain leaving the EU came crashing across the Irish Sea almost as soon as the final ballot was counted. And we are warned the waves of economic turmoil are likely to keep coming.

The British vote, as Irish Independent columnist John Downing rightly pointed out last week, should focus our minds on what the EU does for us and what we do for it.

So let's have a look.

Since Ireland joined what was then called the European Economic Community (EEC) in 1973, we have received more than €72bn in funding from Brussels.

There's been money for everyone - farmers, small business owners, scientists and most importantly for politicians to spend on infrastructure. The cash has been used to turn boreens into three-lane motorways which now bypass once-thriving rural communities. It also helped to build schools and hospitals - and still does. Farmers have benefited the most, taking some €54bn from the EU's Common Agricultural Policy.

Fishermen, on the other hand, got a raw deal and most of Ireland's prime fishing ground is open to trawlers from all member states. Ex-Provos have also cashed in - there's hundreds of millions of euro available to former republican prisoners to set up community groups through 'Peace Funds'.

Research has benefited from EU funding and most Irish universities have a laboratory filled with goggle- wearing boffins seeking the next scientific breakthrough.

EU websites claim "an estimated 700,000 jobs have been created in Ireland during the years of membership and trade has increased 90-fold", but they would.

The money we get is cheap but it doesn't come for free. When we first joined we were a struggling island nation. Through customs and Vat payments, along with contributions based on a percentage of each member state's gross national income, we paid small sums compared with what we received. This has changed in recent years and we are now what they call a 'net contributor', meaning we give more than we take.

The Department of Finance will tell you this is great news. It shows our economy is thriving - and sure haven't we been creaming it off Brussels for years, they say. In fairness, we have.

Ireland is in the black to the tune of €42bn, when you take into consideration the amount we have put in compared with what we have taken out since the 1970s.

In 2014, the most recent figures available from the Department of Finance, we gave €260m more than we got. This is due in part to the addition of poorer member states during the mid-noughties, and our growing economy.

However, the austerity budgets that followed those years are still fresh in our minds, as are the billions of euro of bank debt foisted on the taxpayer to save face in front of international bondholders.

The UK has been a net contributor to the EU budget since it joined the union and much of the public disquiet in the run-up to the Brexit referendum focused on whether Britain was getting its fair share of the spoils from Brussels.

The arrival of hundreds of thousands of migrants from the new member states was also an issue.

It was especially acute for those who believe many of these people are coming to the UK to avail of social welfare entitlements rather than work. This has led to disturbing levels of bigotry in in the wake of the vote.

This country, mostly due to our own history of emigration, has never been faced with a national debate on migration of any substance and hopefully it stays that way.

However, if, as the Government suspects, British-based migrants begin to arrive in Ireland on the back of Brexit and we remain a net contributor, things could change.

Apart from the extreme left most Irish political parties look favourably on the EU. Even Sinn Fein, which has a long history of opposing EU treaties, decided in recent times Brussels is a force of good, albeit in need of reform. However, politicians with their backs to the wall need scapegoats and what better to blame than an organisation based in another country run by faceless bureaucrats.

In Britain, they love to point their fingers at the Eurocrats who stuff their pockets with hard-working taxpayers' money only to force nonsensical rules and regulations on the Continent's citizens.

In many ways, this is why UK prime minister David Cameron should not be surprised at the outcome of the referendum which he campaigned against.

You can't spend decades telling people an organisation is the cause of all their woes and expect them to vote to keep it.

One obsession of English newspapers is the pay and perks of the EU's civil servants. When they are not scaring the public with headlines about 'swarms of migrants' arriving on British shores, the right-leaning press attack the Brussels 'gravy train' enjoyed by around 42,500 permanent employees.

According to the EU Commission, the annual staff budget for the entire Union is €7.1bn.

It's not easy to get on the gravy train. There is an arduous application process, which through aptitude tests and interviews ensures that those who land jobs are of a high standard.

Once your feet are under the desk, the terms and conditions aren't bad. A new recruit can earn around €2,300 a month but a top official earns more than €16,000 a month. They also pay special EU taxes which are lower than what is paid in most member states. There is a repatriation allowance worth 16pc of salary and depending on the circumstance there are separate allowances available to permanent employees for household costs, dependent children, education and pre-school fees.

But does any of this bother us and if it doesn't, should it? The answer is yes.

And now, as we send Kenny once more unto the breach of EU negotiations, we must ensure it is not another begging bowl mission.

This time, the Taoiseach should go to the table in the knowledge that the public expect more from an institution our closest neighbours have branded a failure through a democratic vote.

Sunday Independent

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