Sunday 18 August 2019

Paul Moran: 'We believe our voice counts in EU but Ireland could still be thrown under bus'

A survey into how citizens feel about the EU puts Ireland near the top of the satisfaction league, writes Paul Moran

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Paul Moran

The European elections last May threw up some absorbing outcomes domestically, across the water and across the Continent. Now that the dust has settled, it is timely to evaluate how we feel about the EU, and our relationship with it. More intriguingly, we have the opportunity to compare how the Irish population views the EU compared to the other nations in the EU28, including the UK.

Kantar was commissioned by the European Parliament to track sentiment both in the run-up to the May vote, but also in the aftermath of the actual vote.

Over 27,000 interviews were conducted across the Continent over the month of June. First off, on balance do Europeans feel they have benefited from their membership? A sizeable majority believe they have; nearly seven in 10 (68pc) think membership has been a good thing, versus less than one in four viewing their relationship through a negative lens. Ireland is the second most positive overall - 89pc of us feel the EU has been a good thing for us, only marginally behind Lithuania.

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It is interesting to note that Eastern European/Baltic states rank highly on this measure, with Estonia and Poland featuring well.

At the other end of the spectrum, Italians are by far the most disgruntled - 42pc of its population view the EU positively - no doubt a function of its somewhat dysfunctional economy and political system.

Unsurprisingly, the UK is within the bottom three, with only 59pc believing they have benefited. It is nonetheless, a healthy majority. Fascinatingly, this represents a five-percentage point increase since the springtime. Food for thought.

With the Tory leadership race to be settled next week, it would suggest that Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt are ignoring the wishes of a hugely significant proportion of the UK population (reflecting many polling trends across the water).

This also was reflected in the recent EU results - the Lib Dems received a massive pro-Remain bump, increasing its vote from nearly 7pc to 20pc, with the Greens (12pc) also featuring strongly. Of course, reflecting the maladjusted nature of British politics, the Brexit Party hoovered up 31pc of the vote.

It seems that the flux within British politics will continue unabated. Ireland, by comparison, is a relative oasis of tranquillity in terms of cohesiveness on the issue, and generally the political parties on this side of the water have displayed a consistent pragmatism and maturity.

When asked whether people believe if their country's voice counts within the EU, more than half (56pc) believe that it does, compared to 39pc feeling the opposite; representing a 17-point gap, and a 10-year high. On the face of it, this would debunk the myth of the EU being a soulless bureaucratic entity. However, this should not be taken for granted. The longer-term trend generally points to European citizens being somewhat disenfranchised from Brussels.

Ireland again features well within positive territory - 69pc of us feel that our voice counts in Europe, with the Nordic countries of Sweden and Denmark leading the way (86pc and 81pc respectively). Our 69pc represents an increase of 10 points since the spring.

Of course, it could be argued these are atypical times for our small nation, with the issue of the Border and backstop being certainly front and centre. For now, the EU has our back covered, much to the relief of the Government.

Mirroring the state of angst in the UK, just two in five (41pc) feel that their voice counts in the EU. There are two schools of thought on this - for hardline Brexiteers, this is their bread and butter argument. However, for others, it may well be the case that the EU's stance in negotiations with the Theresa May government may seem, from the outside looking in, to be inflexible at best.

Notwithstanding this, the result is actually a 10-point increase from the spring, when the Brexit negotiations were entering (at that stage) the final stretch.

Echoing the schism so readily apparent within the UK, when those who voted were asked the main reason they voted in the elections, 27pc stated it was because they were in favour of the EU (up 13 points), versus 22pc stating it was to express their disagreement (also up 13 points). A truly polarised society.

Interestingly in Ireland, the proportion stating they voted because they were in favour of the EU was also 27pc.

The key issue when voting in Ireland was the economy/growth (61pc), third only to Greece and Hungary. Seventeen of the EU28 stated the same. There are notable geographic differences. It is quite instructive that combatting climate change/protecting the environment are the primary motivations among the more affluent (and arguably progressive) Nordic and Benelux countries.

So, on the face of it, this is all good news for the European adventure in Ireland. But complacency is not an option. There is continuing pressure on Ireland's corporation tax rate from many member states, with France being especially hawkish. In addition, the farming community in particular will not take the Mercosur deal lying down.

The election of Ursula von der Leyen as president of the European Commission feels like a good thing for this country, as she has been unequivocal in her support for the EU-UK divorce deal and all that it entails vis-a-vis the backstop.

So all positive on that front. However, there may be some alarm bells ringing within Government circles - she has also said she is open to extending the deadline on Brexit.

It is all very well for the EU to state their continued support for Ireland's position. But with a belligerent new UK prime minister taking up the reins next week, and the increasing fear of a no-deal crash-out in October, extensions to the deadline simply pile pressure on the Government to tweak its stance. Shall the EU become more politically pragmatic, and seek to coerce Ireland to change its stance?

This would be hugely politically damaging for the Varadkar Government - it has put massive energy and political stock into its current position. It is arguably the most successful policy decision of this administration to date. Is there a fear that Ireland could be thrown under a bus?

Paul Moran is an Associate Director with Kantar

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