Saturday 15 December 2018

Ronan McCrea: 'If we are to stay in EU, we need frank debate on enormous challenges that lie ahead of us'

Sealed with a kiss: EC president Jean-Claude Juncker, centre, kisses EU chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier, right, as European Council president Donald Tusk looks on at the conclusion of an EU summit in Brussels. Photo: AP
Sealed with a kiss: EC president Jean-Claude Juncker, centre, kisses EU chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier, right, as European Council president Donald Tusk looks on at the conclusion of an EU summit in Brussels. Photo: AP

Ronan McCrea

Since the UK's Brexit referendum, Ireland's political class has been fully engaged in thinking about the EU. There has been a high degree of consensus, both in Dáil Éireann and among commentators more broadly, about what Ireland needs to do and what its priorities should be.

One key point of consensus has been Ireland's loyalty to the EU. Even traditionally Eurosceptic parties like Sinn Féin have made it clear that they consider continuing EU membership vital to Ireland's interests.

It is interesting to remember that this was not always clear that this would be the case.

The hard-left in Ireland has long been anti-EU. From a more right-wing perspective, during the Celtic Tiger years, figures like Mary Harney vocally endorsed the view that Ireland was "closer to Boston than Berlin".

And during the economic crash, commentators such as David McWilliams were also advocating that Ireland loosen its ties to the EU in favour of being more closely aligned with the UK and US.

However, when push came to shove and the UK voted to leave the EU, almost the entire spectrum of Irish political opinion from right to left had no hesitation in choosing Berlin over Boston (left-wing backers of Brexit like Richard Boyd Barrett being one of very few exceptions).

Indeed, in late 2016 with the UK in a mess, the Boston option then became even less attractive when Donald Trump took the presidency, ensuring that both 'Anglosphere' powers would be highly unreliable partners.

In any event, the extent to which the UK and US would ever have been partners for a country as small as Ireland was very questionable. The EU was an attractive option for Ireland not only because of the economic benefits it bestowed. It was also a way, to use Robert Emmet's terms, for Ireland to emerge from the UK's shadow and "take her place among the nations of the earth".

However, although Ireland has opted for a future in the EU, there has been a significant failure in recent times to think about non-Brexit-related EU policy. Ireland has key choices to make in relation to its future in Europe. While every element of Brexit policy has been exhaustively discussed, in relation to EU matters other than Brexit, decisions are being made with astonishingly little political debate.

For example, over the past few weeks the Irish Government has been strenuously resisting EU moves to impose a minor tax on internet companies.

The Government is worried about the setting of a precedent that might be used to pass EU laws that would disrupt our low corporation tax regime.

But Ireland's rightly resented fight against measures to combat massive tax avoidance by internet giants is rightly controversial and should be the subject of debate.

More importantly, the past month also reaffirmed that Ireland appears to have thrown its lot in with the so-called 'Hanseatic' group of states, such as the Netherlands and Finland, who take the hardest line against any measures to provide the eurozone with a budgetary capacity. 

There are reasons for Ireland to oppose giving the eurozone its own budget. As a rich member state, Ireland is likely to be a net contributor.

On the other hand, it is far from clear that the eurozone can survive in the long run without greater fiscal integration.

As Ireland would be very badly affected by a collapse of the eurozone, it may well be worthwhile agreeing to the creation of a eurozone budget even if we pay more into it.

Either way, the decision the Government has made to oppose such a budget is extremely important and deserved to be fully debated in a way that has not occurred.

These are just two of a number of key issues that arise in relation to Ireland's future role in the EU. There are good reasons for and against Ireland adopting a generally more pro- or anti-integration stance going forward.

We may also have to adapt in some areas to the reality that many EU states will regard Ireland as owing the rest of the EU for the huge support it has received during the Brexit process, so we should carefully consider what proposals we will and will not support.

Furthermore, there should be much more discussion of how Ireland sees the Union evolving and what the EU's future aims should be.

Brexit has given a definitive answer to the Boston versus Berlin debate, but Irish politicians need to realise that there is more to debate on Irish EU policy than Brexit.

Whatever kind of Brexit ultimately occurs, Ireland is staying in the EU. This means that decisions that are currently being taken without significant debate will affect Ireland for decades to come.

This is particularly true of the question of the eurozone where the Government has, with little discussion, allied itself to a fairly extreme position that may end up helping to destroy the single currency altogether. At the very least, this decision needs much more political scrutiny than it has received to date.

Ronan McCrea is professor of constitutional and European law at University College London

Irish Independent

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