As the Irish media wallowed in yet more shenanigans in Westminster in the second week of January, a major event in the EU was almost totally overlooked. The death of David Sassoli, the much-admired Italian p resident of the European Parliament, barely got a mention. We have no members of the UK parliament. We do have 13 members of the European Parliament.
The state funeral of Sassoli, attended by several heads of state and European leaders, in Rome was not covered at all by RTÉ news. The ‘circus’ in Westminster got headlines.
If it were not for watching Euronews (many of whose reporters are Irish) that night or reading Politico I would probably not have known about this. Or indeed about many other European issues of relevance to Ireland over the years.
On Euronews that night, the escalating tensions on the Ukrainian border was the lead story, with no reference to this on RTÉ. Just because Ireland is not a member of Nato does not mean we should not be concerned. A war over Ukraine would cause very serious damage to the European economy and could lead to migration across Europe on a scale not seen since World War II. There is no way that Ireland could avoid the consequences of this.
The list goes on. There is very limited coverage of EU affairs in the Irish media even though we are at the heart of the EU. For example, how much do we read about the French presidential elections this spring, the outcome of which will have major implications for the future of the EU? The UK local elections in May get more coverage.
The Irish media coverage of the EU mainly relates to issues associated with Brexit, a topic well down the “inbox” of European states at this stage.
At a cultural and sporting level, this “story” is repeated. For example, on RTÉ and in The Irish Times, coverage of football is dominated by the English Premier League with almost no mention of the other major European leagues. The British royals get huge coverage in Irish media outlets, with most Irish people not even knowing that there are royal families in several other European countries.
Is Ireland then in fact still psychologically part of the UK? There may be good reasons for this such as extensive family ties going back through our shared (albeit very fraught) history, a common language, and close geographic proximity to a much more densely populated island. And, of course, part of the island of Ireland is in the UK. There may then be nothing wrong with this, once it is recognised that we, while belonging politically to the EU, are in many respects culturally and socially tied to the UK.
Or is it laziness? We have covered UK affairs for over a century, so why change? Few media people speak anything other than English.
Many also may not see the relevance in the longer term to what happens in continental Europe, especially in the EU. One plus from the Covid pandemic is that it has shown that nations only by acting together rather than alone have any influence and power over their destinies. This also applies to climate change, migration, people trafficking, smuggling, crime, security and so on.
On the economic front, the most consequential decision perhaps ever taken by an Irish government was to join the eurozone, without the UK. This shifted monetary policy in relation to interest rates, exchange rates and inflation from London to Frankfurt. But, with one major difference. When determined in London, there was no Irish say whatsoever.
In Frankfurt, not only has Ireland a member on the governing council of the ECB, but today the chief economist at the ECB is an Irish person, as is the president of the Euro Group of Finance Ministers.
In many other areas of economic policy, only by acting together can the EU confront the power of multinational companies, unfair competition, the environment, energy security, and other areas of keen interest to Ireland. Policy making in Ireland is increasingly exercised, of necessity, through voluntary pooled decision-making at an EU level. That is where our destiny lies.
Yes, Ireland is very close geographically and culturally to Britain and what happens there will always be of interest — and rightly so. But Ireland is also very close geographically to Europe. And increasingly so as people holiday and travel there, as thousands of students go on Erasmus exchanges and as Irish business post-Brexit reorients towards there. The switch to direct cargo ferries to continental Europe is a striking indicator of the dramatic changes that can take place.
The UK is as close to the continent as Ireland is to Britain. The consequences of being at the ‘doorstep’ of a much larger neighbour, post-Brexit, are now becoming more obvious there by the day. Let Ireland set an example in engaging constructively with our closest and largest neighbour, but also our other close neighbours, especially those with whom we share a common destiny in the EU.
John O’Hagan is Professor of Economics Emeritus, TCD, and lectures on ‘The Political Economy of the EU’