Thursday 24 January 2019

Barry Andrews: 'Five ways we can mitigate UK's departure and make sure our voice is heard in the EU'

Growing concern: Irish voters and political parties need to take seriously the European Parliament elections next May. Photo: Bloomberg
Growing concern: Irish voters and political parties need to take seriously the European Parliament elections next May. Photo: Bloomberg

Barry Andrews

Amid the constant reminders that we are edging ever closer towards a catastrophic Brexit in March, it is important to recall how important the Anglo-Irish relationship has been to Ireland in the EU. The work to replace the UK-shaped hole in our address book has been ongoing. Ever since David Cameron announced the in-out referendum in 2013, much consideration has been given to what would happen if the UK left.

Alliance building is but one component of the overall picture of Irish influence in the EU. We have diplomatic representation in every European member-state capital and the Government intends to increase the number of diplomats.

That is a necessary first step. Yet alliance building matters for a number of reasons. Since the big-bang enlargement of the EU in 2004, coalitions have been relied on to ensure that like-minded states can work together to advance their interests ahead of, and within, council meetings.

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The coalitions that are well known are the Nordic-Baltics (known as NB6), the Visegrad Four, Benelux and of course the Franco-German alliance. These alignments are often based on regional proximity rather than thematic considerations. That presents a difficulty for Ireland which is left without a natural geographic hinterland post-Brexit.

The Irish response so far has been to concentrate on an alliance of eight countries forged in the Netherlands with Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte that includes the Nordic and Baltic states. This is sometimes referred to as the New Hanseatic League after a trading formation from the 14th century.

Its members share geographic proximity, being largely from 'Northern Europe' and, on the policy side, a commitment to openness and free trade. It has recently been expanded to include the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

In March 2018 a letter was issued from the finance ministers of the eight which was taken as a rebuke to French President Emmanuel Macron's ambitious agenda for reform of the Economic and Monetary Union.

An Tánaiste Simon Coveney, speaking in the Netherlands in April, said that the Hanseatic League would be heard with increased frequency and effect.

Detractors argue that the league is too diffuse on the policy side. Some members are in the eurozone, some in Nato and some are net contributors to the EU budget and some net recipients. Also, it is more an initiative of finance ministers than foreign ministers, which creates tensions within member states.

For Ireland, over-playing the Hanseatic League risks alienating important partners, in particular France.

Moving beyond seeking out alliances there are five ways in which we can mitigate the UK departure and ensure a high level of Irish influence in the EU27.

First, we need to remember that the most important coalition is the coalition of 27. This has been demonstrated to great effect in the way in which the EU in Article 50 formation has stood foursquare behind Ireland in the negotiations over the last two years.

This will continue to be the most effective coalition in the face of external issues like trade wars, climate change and migration.

Secondly, Irish voters and political parties need to take the European Parliament elections next May very seriously.

The two extra seats generated by Brexit will help but we need to avoid protest or single-issue candidates and send the strongest possible representation to the parliament. A study by VoteWatch Europe in 2017 ranked Ireland's MEPs as among the least influential in the parliament.

A third related point is the low level of scrutiny of EU legislation in the Oireachtas. Out of 455 EU proposals 'considered' by the Oireachtas in 2017, just seven reports were produced. The UK's interpretation of the implications of EU legislation for a common law jurisdiction will come to an end and the Oireachtas will have to raise its game here.

Fourthly, we need to address the chronic lack of Irish representation in the EU institutions. Less than 10pc of Irish people working in the commission are under 40.

In effect, we are ageing out and that will mean a dramatic loss of influence. Now is the time to promote working in the European institutions among our graduates and civil servants.

Finally, we need to continue to form alliances on thematic issues and be flexible enough to adapt to issues as they emerge.

You often hear diplomats quoting Henry Temple that there are no such things as permanent alliances, just permanent interests.

The recent submission by the Government on digital tax with Finland, the Czech Republic and Sweden accords with this approach.

The near success of the campaign to host the European Banking Authority suggests Ireland can still pack a punch but important choices made now will have an impact on the influence we enjoy in the future.

  • Barry Andrews is the Director General of the Institute of International and European Affairs

Irish Independent

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