This is the second part of the interview with Michael Hindley. You can read the first part here. In this part, the interview focuses on the border issue between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland following Brexit, but also on Trump, Ukraine, Germany…
We would like to thank Michael Hindley for his time and his insightful answers.
You can also follow him on Twitter and watch his video about Brexit.
B: Moving a bit to the left on the map, let’s talk about Northern Ireland, which also has a feeling of sometimes not being part of the UK at all. But because of the Brexit, is there any chance of another “trouble times” happening again?
H: This often comes up in the present debate on Brexit. I think sometimes it is inaccurate or somewhat hysterical. People on both sides of the border agree that being in the EU certainly helped the Irish/Irish dialogue. Both “Irelands” in the EU helped. There is no question about that. Also, to some degree the EU has guaranteed the peace process. The fact that there was no border helped. If it becomes a “harder border”, I think it is false to assume that it would simply go back to hostilities. Sinn Féin long ago bravely disbanded its link with the IRA [Irish Republican Army]. It is a constitutional left-centre party enjoying shared government in Northern Ireland and has members in the Republic [of Ireland]. So the Party of freeing Ireland by the “ballot and the bullet” has become constitutional. Martin McGuinness (1950-2017) was an active member of the IRA and subsequently shared power with Ian Paisley the leader of the Democratic Unionist Party in the Northern Ireland Assembly. Very difficult if not impossible to go back to the dark days of the “Troubles”.Continue reading “Interview with Michael Hindley – Part 2”→
On the second floor of the Oeconomicum building at Georg-August-Universität, in Göttingen, Germany, during a cold and cloudy afternoon of the end of November, British Labour Party politician Michael Hindley gets ready for a very interesting talk with the “Euroculturer Magazine”.
Former member of the European Parliament (EP) from 1984 until 1999, Michael Hindley was born in 1947 in Blackburn and since 2007 acts as an expert for European Economic and Social Committee (EESC). Graduated in French and German studies at London University in 1968, he finished his Master’s Degree in Comparative Cultural Studies at Lancaster University in 1979 and a Postgraduate Diploma in International Law at the University of South Wales in 2011. Full of historical perspectives, some of which he had just previously shared in two Euroculture classes in Göttingen, in this interview he gives his views about Brexit, Scotland, Ireland, Germany, Far-Right and, of course, the European Union.
Attentive, friendly, humorous and aware that the interviewer is Brazilian, he quickly broke the ice mentioning something that unites Europeans – and the whole world – in many ways: football. – Roberto Firmino [Liverpool striker] is a great player and used to form a great duo with Philippe Coutinho. They knew exactly where each other was on the field. But now that Coutinho is with Barcelona, in England fans say that Firmino is still looking for him. – Well, one is gone, another one stayed… In the end, it may be a kind of Brexit! – I answered.
Becker: After two very interesting lectures here in Göttingen, I wouldn’t have any other question to start this interview instead of: Do you believe in the European Union?
Hindley: Oh, yes. I have always been a critical supporter. I have always remained on the Left politics, so I am a natural reformer. I have never been romantically against the status quo, I have always been in politics to change things. The European Union (EU) is a framework which I think that has been very politically useful and which I have always been committed to reforming rather than simply admiring.Continue reading “Interview with Michael Hindley – Part 1”→
I do not talk, but I heal. I do not share, but I read. I do not speak, but I hear. I do not tell, but I fight. I do not have a voice, but hope needs no sound. Together, we rise.
Bulgaria: a woman was raped and murdered earlier this year. As soon as the international media heard that her job – she was a journalist – was probably not the reason why she was killed, her case ceased to appear in their headlines. A woman’s life is worth less than a journalist’s life. The fact that she was killed because she was a woman did not matter – it happens so often, after all.
Germany: every day, a man tries to kill his female partner.
European Union: “1 in 20 women have been raped before the age of 15. 1 in 4 persons believe that sexual intercourse without consent may be justified if for instance the victim is drunk, wearing revealing clothes, not saying “no” clearly or not fighting back.” (see Amnesty International link below for the source)
USA: a man accused of sexual assault refused to have a formal inquiry from the FBI to determine whether the allegations were true and refused to answer questions from Senators during an official hearing; he was confirmed as Judge of the Supreme Court.
Worldwide: 650 million girls are married within one year before the age of 18 – a large majority of them against their will.
Sexual violence is not happening only in remote areas far away from your comfortable home. Look around. Hear the survivors, believe the victims, and stand up against any form of violence against women and girls.
WARNING! For survivors and victims, some links and some of the hashtags include content that could be triggering. If you decide to still click on the links or check the hashtags, be aware that you can find support from many NGOs and structures in your country to help you go through potential consequences of such triggers.
Participatory democracy is the new trend. With the European parliament elections on the horizon, do citizens still have faith in representative democracy?
The Rise of Participatory Democracy
At a recent European Parliament event to celebrate the International Day of Democracy (18 September), statements proclaiming the merits of participatory democracy abounded. This might seem strange in the meeting rooms of one of the world’s biggest houses of political representatives, but participatory democracy is making waves in Brussels and beyond.
Citizens’ assemblies, participatory budgeting, public consultations…These are the buzz words that are bringing legitimacy to contemporary democracies. On the model of the Irish Citizens’ Assembly, propelled to fame thanks to its role in bringing about the Article 8 referendum on abortion rights, citizens’ assemblies have begun to pop up across the continent. The number of municipalities setting up participatory budgeting is on the rise, with some cities, such as Paris, handing over as much as 5% of their resources to publically-decided projects. And of course, high-profile citizen consultation processes have started across the EU, largely inspired by Emmanuel Macron’s consultations citoyennes.
In his recent article, Stephen Boucher even goes as far as to propose that, post-Brexit, the remaining forty-six British seats in the European Parliament be reassigned to “a contingent of ordinary citizens from around the EU to examine legislation from the long-term perspective.” But isn’t this precisely the role of an MEP? What happened to the concept of electing a trusted figure to represent your views in parliament on your behalf? Continue reading “Is There a Crisis of Confidence in Representative Democracy?”→
An earlier version of this article was first published with the Montesquieu Instituut. Following the results of the Northern Irish Assembly elections, it has been updated.
Of all the complicated consequences of Brexit that have been analyzed at length in European and British media, one issue is often brushed aside as a detail. The island of Ireland is to become home to the EU and UK’s only land border, potentially upending two economies and threatening a fragile peace between Unionist and Nationalist extremists. Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland have long enjoyed an open border as members of a UK-Ireland Common Trade Area, and since the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 all Northern Irish citizens have been able to avail of Irish and British nationality, bringing stability to a region once afflicted by intense religious and ethnic violence.
However, to paraphrase Irish poet WB Yeats, the situation after Brexit is changed utterly. Already, in emergency elections being held on 3 March in NI due to a whistleblower scandal, the Irish nationalist party seeking unity with Ireland, Sinn Fein (SF) has managed a dramatic surge in support at the expense of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) by highlighting the DUP’s support of Brexit and their role in a whistleblower controversy that revealed tax payers money was misspent on an ill-conceived incentive system aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions by paying companies to turn green. The former First Minister of Northern Ireland, Arlene Foster, has come under especially severe criticism for her role in the controversy. SF has managed to get within a single seat of the DUP, and Unionists for the first time ever have lost an outright majority in Northern Ireland, although they still remain the largest political force as a whole. With the outright Unionist majority gone, the political balance that has been maintained since Ireland was partitioned in the 1920s has been destroyed. Under the Good Friday Agreement, SF and the DUP must now enter negotiations to restore government. These contentious negotiations could elapse the set period of time, triggering fresh elections, or more likely, lead to the reinstatement of direct control from the UK parliament in Westminster, a situation that would certainly hurt Northern Ireland’s interests in the Brexit negotiations. Negotiations that already hold direct dangers for Northern Ireland and Ireland’s open border.
The media have been happy to suggest that some sort of deal can be struck to keep the border open, although Kevin O’Rourke’s recent article in the Irish Times has acknowledged how difficult this could prove. In the case of the “hard Brexit” promised by UK Prime Minister Theresa May, the UK will be out of the EU’s customs union. To avoid tariff cheating between the EU and UK and by other trading partners seeking to exploit Europe’s single market or the UK’s favorable rates, both the EU and UK will likely have to insist on a customs check on the island.
Likewise, as long as people can travel into the UK through the North’s open door, Ireland, without needing an ID, May can’t curb EU migration into the UK, a central pledge of the Brexit campaign. This leads to the conclusion that a so-called “hard border” will be the inevitable consequence of Brexit in Ireland.
Nevertheless, with peace and the economy on the line, it is not impossible that May and Irish Taoiseach Enda Kenny, who have promised to keep the border invisible, might be able to find an innovative solution to the border problem.
Some solutions to this border problem can be dismissed quickly. For instance, a “United Ireland” approach where NI merges with Ireland has, despite what the recent election might suggest, little popular support in NI or political capital in Ireland. Similarly, while the DUP’s Foster, and the Northern Ireland Secretary, James Brokenshire, have suggested a soft border based on “new technology”, this concept has remained vague, and unrealistic in light of the customs and immigration issues.
More likely is the “All Ireland” solution, suggested by the UK, where Ireland would be allowed to take over maintenance of the borders of the island of Ireland, pushing British border control back to the island of Britain but leaving NI and Ireland politically distinct. If a special customs deal could be reached so that EU goods can move freely into NI, this could be a potential compromise. Thanks to the Good Friday agreement, NI citizens would also have EU citizenship, allowing them to retain many of the privileges of full EU membership.
However, this option could face significant resistance from NI’s Unionist majority, who would face border checks when entering other regions of the UK, but not gain many of the benefits of the EU in return, such as EU subsidies or freedom of movement for work in Europe. Unionists, often fearful that they may be “abandoned” by the UK, could see this as the first step towards a United Ireland, making it a politically toxic strategy, and an unlikely resolution to the border issue.
One way of getting Unionists to agree to the “All Ireland” strategy might be the so-called “reverse Greenland” proposal. Proposed by Scotland, this is the idea that individual UK regions, such as Scotland and NI, could be allowed to retain their membership of the EU or the EEA even as other regions, like England and Wales leave. This model is based on the Danish territory, Greenland, which left the EU in 1985 while remaining a part of the Kingdom of Denmark.
For NI this option might offer the most promising outcome, although NI would require far more autonomy from the UK for it to be possible. As with the “All Ireland” solution, the UK border would be pushed back to Britain, granting NI, as an EU member, access to the customs union and the single market, while limiting EU immigration to Britain. For Unionists a major attraction would be access to EU subsidies from the Common Agricultural Policy and EU structural development funding, vital lines of funding for NI’s economy, while retaining all the benefits of being a part of the UK.
Assuming the DUP, who voted for Brexit, is won over, a “reverse Greenland” for NI would face several other obstacles. The main would be UK reluctance to grant Scotland a similar deal, as it might encourage an independence campaign that has picked up steam in the wake of the Brexit referendum. While the UK as a whole might not be affected by NI adopting this unique position, a border between Scotland and England would be unthinkable economically and politically. Coupled with the difficulties in negotiating such a bespoke arrangement, the chances of this approach being implemented are slim.
Hard Brexit, Hard Border
The options outlined above constitute a wish list, not a likely reality. The real shape of the future border is dependent on more than innovative options. It depends on some of the most complex divorce proceedings ever undertaken, the disentangling of thousands of laws, economic relationships and partnerships. It depends on this not just going well, but going amicably, with the UK and EU being able to find common ground. It depends on the EU making exceptions to some of its most dogmatic rules, and the UK softening the blow of its Brexit. For now, with everything as it stands, with an end to free movement and the UK’s membership of the common market, a hard Brexit means a hard border.
With a significant pro-choice victory in Poland as the country’s conservative PiS government performs a U-turn on restricting access to abortion in the case of incest, rape, fatal foetal abnormality and risk to the mother’s life, it is easy to forget that the EU still has one State in which very few of the above constitute a legitimate cause for abortion.
Last year the Republic of Ireland became the first country to legalise same sex marriage through a popular referendum with an overwhelming victory, which seemed to signal a new liberal turn in a country many people across Europe and the world associate with conservative Catholicism. Yet Ireland, despite calls from the EU, the Council of Europe and the UN, has retained one of the most restrictive abortion laws in the world, where fatal foetal abnormalities and rape are not considered legal grounds for the termination of a foetus and where, even in the cases where woman’s life would be endangered by seeing a foetus to term, a woman might be denied the necessary treatment. Enshrined in the Constitution of the Republic of Ireland (Bunreacht na hÉireann) the Eighth Amendment prevents a woman having an abortion because the foetus is considered to have an equal right to life:
This article is the opinion of the author and does not necessarily representative the views of The Euroculturer, the management and editorial staff of The Euroculturer or contributors to The Euroculturer
The Czarny Protest- Women in Poland don black to protest the loss of their dignity and security in rallies held outside of parliament buildings and in town squares across major cities in Poland.
They are wearing black to protest the introduction of new abortion laws which would see victims of rape and incest forced to give birth to the result of their violations, whilst those whose fetus has severe or permanent impairment, those who would be at risk of long-term health complications from carrying their child to term, will have no choice in the matter. Soon Poland may see a law passed that restricts abortion in all but the most clear cut life and death situations.
The abortion law in force now, was passed in 1993 and restricts abortions save for cases of risk to the mother’s life, impairment of the fetus, and children conceived through rape and incest.
Women are being told by the Polish Parliament that their life, their place in Polish society, the fact that they are theoretically equal citizens before the law, matters less than what their womb can produce.
Pro-life activists, backed by the Catholic Church, were the ones who submitted this new law for the consideration of the Parliament, asking for the complete restriction of abortions save for life or death situations and gathered half a million signatures, four hundred thousand more than was necessary for submission.
The Law and Justice Party (PiS) who is currently in power and considering these further restrictions, are a national right-wing conservative party but even the main opposition party Civic Platform- a liberal-conservative party, has refused to consider liberalizing abortion laws.
If the anti-abortion bills become law, women and female children who do undergo abortions for any reason short of life and death situations will risk between three months and five years in prison. Whilst doctors who seek to perform these unauthorized abortions will face increased prison sentences. The Gazeta Wroclawska quotes one protester stating that:”It’s a cruel and inhuman law. It will endanger all of us. We do not want to live in a country where the bed of a pregnant woman is surrounded by armed police officers and a prosecutor, where every abortion ends in investigation, where raped girls are forced to bear the children of their rapists ” (Translated from Polish)
Pro-choice activists have tried to counter with their own initiative by producing a bill called ‘Save the Women’, which would allow abortions for the first 12 weeks of pregnancy.Within a very short time the bill had collected215,000 signatures but has since been ignored by the Parliament.
The reasoning behind the Black Protest movement is described by the organizer of the Lublin branch, Catherine Babis, as – “(We) organized the protest, because we are tired of being treated like objects in the ideological controversy. It is easy to talk about sacrifice and holiness of life, if it applies to sacrifice someone else. We do not agree with forcing women to be heroic in the name of someone else’s ideology and someone else’s beliefs. We can see how it ends in countries that have introduced similar laws, countries dealing out sentences for miscarriage, and the doctors looking idly on the death of women who could be saved. We do not want Poland to be turned into a hell for women. We want dignity and security for us and for our families.”
Who will be the next president of the United States of America seems to be the big question of 2016, but in the European Parliament another game of thrones has begun.
At the last European Parliament elections in 2014, the conservative EPP and the social democratic S&D made a deal and signed a written agreement that meant that Martin Schulz, the S&D candidate, would become president for the first half of the legislative period and that the EPP would pick the president for the second half.
Now with the first half coming to an end in January 2017, the current president Martin Schulz does not seem to be willing to leave office, despite the EPP insisting on the instillation a new president from among their own ranks.
The face of EU policy
Schulz has been, with interruptions, president of the EP since 2012 and a Member of the EP (MEP) since 1994. He is often portrayed as a down to earth politician, ingrained and diligent. He is said to have strengthened the position of the European Parliament and even critics say he has made the EP more visible to the European public and the world.
He is considered to be the most influential president in the history of the European Parliament.
However his path to power and appreciation was rocky. The son of a police officer, he wanted to become a football player in his youth but a knee-injury made a professional career impossible. As a result this crushed dream Schulz became an alcoholic in the mid-70s which saw him lose his job and almost get thrown out of his own apartment.
However, despite this inauspicious start, Schulz eventually overcame his addiction with the help of his brother.
What followed is a remarkable career. After a career as a bookstore manager Schulz became mayor of his home town, Würselen, following his first engagement in the German Social Democratic Party. In 1994 he was elected member of the European Parliament and became its president in 2012. He reached a high point of his career when he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize together with van Rompuy and Barroso on behalf of the European Union.
In 2014 Schulz wanted to become president of the EU Commission, but in the European elections the Conservatives became the largest party and their candidate, Jean-Claude Juncker became president of the Commission, a post he still holds to this day. Nevertheless, this setback did not stop Schulz from being re-elected as President of the EP.
Power play in the middle of the greatest crises in the existence of the EU
Schulz’s future, however, is unclear, as the first half of this legislative term comes to an end. According to the agreement, Schulz will be replaced by EPP member. However, for some, the agreement does not fit the new circumstances Europe finds itself in.
The S&D argues that with Juncker as President of the Commission and Tusk as President of the Council, already two of the key positions are held by EPP members; and to keep the balance between the largest EU parties, the presidency of the EP should stay with the S&D.
Even a prominent EPP politician and former competitor supports the idea of Schulz retaining the presidency after January 2017, with the simple reason:
“We need stability.”
Just recently Juncker spoke about the many challenges the EU faces in his ‘State of the Union’ address. Brexit, the refugee challenge, economic stagnation and youth-unemployment among many other things.
“Our European Union is, at least in part, in an existential crisis.” said Juncker.
To keep stability in these difficult times, Juncker would like to keep the leadership of the institutions as they are, namely, Schulz as president. It is no secret that Martin and Jean-Claude work closely together, Der Spiegel has even accused them of mutually securing each other’s posts. Juncker said:”The relationship between the Commission and the Parliament has probably never been as good as it is now”, so “Why change a reliable team?”
However the EPP has made it crystal clear that they will not have Schulz for the next half of the legislative period. Schulz has been heavily criticised for not sticking to the agreement and the same critics have claimed that he has made the representation of the European people a one-man-. These critics claim that “if Schulz gave the parliament a face, it is primarily his face”.
On the other hand, if Schulz id removed; whom is the EPP going to nominate? For an internal primary on 12 December candidates need to be found. However, they lack strong candidates:
So far the Italian Antonio Tajani, the French Alain Lamassoure and the Irish Mairead McGuinness have been mentioned as possible successors to Schulz. However Tajani is weakened by being close to former Italian PM Berlusconi, who has been disgraced by many scandals. Also as former commissioner for industry and entrepreneurship, he supposedly involved in the emission scandal and has already been summoned before the investigation committee. All of this means that he is seen as unenforceable in the parliament.
The other candidates have similar shortcomings. Lamassoure has the reputation of being uncontrollable and prideful, some say thinking of himself as the French president. McGuinness, as a woman, current EP vice-president and a representative of a small EU Member State, seems to have the best chances of getting a majority in the parliament. Nevertheless she is perceived as a rather plain Jane candidate and has not excited much attention.
Currently, Schulz is fighting to forge a coalition with Liberals, Greens and EPP renegades. Yet it seems to be unlikely that he will cobble together enough votes without the backing of the EPP.
So what is next for him? Luckily another throne, perhaps a greater one, is up for grabs. In Berlin, some people would like to see Schulz as chancellor- the candidate for the SPD in place of the unpopular Sigmar Gabriel, to challenge Angela Merkel in the elections for the German parliament 2017 Regardless, it looks like Schulz has only begun to play.
The term ‘Portuguese Brexit’ has been popping up in Portuguese media as of late. While this is a very unlikely scenario, I think that in the context of growing Euroscepticism and growing support for right-wing populist rhetoric in the EU, this merits some attention, especially given Portugal’s generally favourable attitude towards the EU.
The idea of a Portuguese Brexit was voiced by Catarina Martins, Chairperson of the left-wing Bloco de Esquerda party in Portugal, who is campaigning for a referendum to be held on Portugal’s membership of the EU. This situation arose in response to the possibility of sanctions being applied to Portugal and Spain for “lack of effective action” in dealing with levels of “excessive deficit”, which was discussed earlier this summer.
The decision to discuss the application of sanctions came after a meeting held by Ecofin, the EU’s economic and financial affairs council, as a result of Portugal and Spain’s failure to comply with rules stating that EU member state’s budget deficits should remain within 3% of GDP (gross domestic product). Had the commission decided to apply sanctions, these would consist of a fine that could go up to 0.2% of the country’s GDP, and would be the first case of sanctions being applied to a Eurozone country.
Feelings of outrage and injustice were sparked in Portugal and Spain as a result. In the case of Portugal, its deficit stood at 8.6% of GDP in 2010 and was reduced to just over 3% by 2015. This was the result of horrendous salary cuts and reforms which have characterized an economically precarious situation for Portuguese citizens in the past few years. António Costa, Portuguese prime-minister, argued that imposing sanctions on a country that is implementing demanding measures in order to reduce deficit is unjust and unreasonable, highlighting the unfavourable social and economic European context in which this situation took place. In a period of weak economic growth, perhaps asphyxiating that growth through sanctions is not the wisest move.
Furthermore, Portugal and Spain were by no means the first, nor the worst, member states to breach the 3% deficit rule. Fingers were pointed at France, with 11 violations, as well as Italy, and even Germany for surpassing this figure. The debate then turns to the EU’s (in)ability to challenge larger member states. As one Portuguese politician argues, it is inequality that is killing the EU. All this is not to say that the EU shouldn’t take its role of ‘refereeing’ countries that fail to keep within the established deficit seriously, but that discussions and punishments not be dished out arbitrarily, and not throw weaker member states under the bus.
In the end, the commission decided not to go forward with the application of sanctions against the two countries, recognizing the immense sacrifice that has been made by the Iberian people in order to improve their countries economic situation. Both member states are now tasked with coming up with measures to ensure the deficit will be within the 3% limit by 2017, a process which is currently being tackled in Portugal. The situation is a little more difficult across the border in Spain, in the midst of the political gridlock taking place there, due to the fact that the provisional government is not able to make any kind of binding budgetary proposals, thereby assigning this task a more challenging nature.
While sanctions were not applied, bitterness towards the EU for its supposed unfair treatment remains. Situations like these only serve to increase criticism of an EU that is far removed from the lives and interests of European citizens, and will do little to remedy the issue of the perceived democratic deficit in EU politics. Perhaps the commission would do well to pay less attention to the well payed economists of the Eurogroup and instead find a way of decreasing the space between the EU and the ordinary European, . Unless it does this the EU risks fuelling a domino-effect of campaigns for referenda on EU membership in the aftermath of Brexit, jeopardizing the entire European project in a period of great turbulence.
(Ever wonder how difficult it is to bring students from all over the world together in a single program spread over many universities and countries? Albert Meijer, coordinator with the Erasmus Mundus Euroculture program, gives some practical advice in ‘The Back Office”)
Amongst all the sound and fury in the aftermath of the European Commission’s decision that Ireland mustcollect a minimum of 13bn in tax from tech giant Apple, a fury that has included accusations of tax evasion, a tense moment between coalition partners and endless debates over the benefits of the Irish “Sweetheart System”, most observers seem to have overlooked a key piece of dialogue from this drama. The lines were delivered by none other than Irish Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Enda Kenny, and they were part of his response to questions regarding the Irish executive’s decision to appeal the Commission’s ruling. Kenny said:
“…I make no apology about our decision to appeal this because it’s about Ireland. It’s about our people, it’s about us as a sovereign nation actually setting out what are appropriate policies to devise job opportunities and employment careers for our people.”
This statement marks something of a sea change in Irish politics. Far from breaking down under international pressure, Kenny seemed unrepentant before a hostile media response. It is a rare stance to take for a state that rarely raises its voice in class. Long accused by some states, including a SYRIZA led Greece, of failing to fight the imposition of austerity as a condition for an EU bailout during the height of the financial crisis, the Republic of Ireland has cultivated an image of Europe’s “good performer”, as Christine Lagarde of the IMF has put it. This has been bolstered by a stupendous economic recovery, unmatched by any in the Eurozone, and by consistent growth. When Yanis Varoufakis, in his brief stint as Greek Finance Minister, went to war with the EU establishment over austerity, the Irish government kept mum. Where Portugal and Spain failed to find a political consensus in the post-austerity fragmented political landscape, Ireland’s largest party, Fine Gael, managed to cobble together an uneasy alliance to allow their continued governance.
The decision of the competition commissioner Margrethe Vestager to pursue the tax ruling, however, has sparked something that has been quite alien to Ireland in the past; it has brought out the Eurosceptic. If you are not convinced, read another choice quote by Kenny:
“This is about the right to small nations. I’m not sure whether the European Commission want to ingratiate themselves with countries more powerful than ours. But this is a small country, and the first meeting I attended after being elected in 2011 was [about increasing] our tax rate.”
To hear an Irish leader speak of the “right to small nations” is, to an Irish citizen, to be transported to another age altogether, when the island of Ireland as a whole was a member of the British Commonwealth. Now, not yet a hundred years since the dissolution of the union of Great Britain and Ireland, the same rhetoric has for the first time been used by a person of power in Ireland against Ireland’s greatest benefactor: the European Union.
Understanding the significance of this will take a little background. For those of you who have not been keeping abreast of the Irish Apple drama, it can be summarized easily enough. Apple has used the Irish county Cork as the base of its European operations for nearly four decades, taken advantage of a lucrative Irish corporation tax of 12.5 percent. The Commission has found that, rather than paying this rather paltry sum, Apple has been afforded a special arrangement involving some complex constructions which allowed the company to pay next to nothing in taxes- which has been referred to as a “sweetheart” deal – by successive Irish governments. Although this deal is set to expire in 2021 in order for Ireland to be compliant with EU competition law, the Commission has decided that the Republic of Ireland was breaching EU law in its refusal to collect the full scale of Apple’s taxes on all of its European operations, and has demanded that the Irish government collect between 13bn and 19bn in back taxes from the American company.
The Irish government has responded negatively and vowed to appeal this decision, citing the potential loss of 5,000 Irish jobs and the possible knock-on effect the decision might have on Ireland’s financial recovery. Apple has stated that it has not broken any laws, a sentiment broadly backed by the Irish government. However, other commenters, such as economist and Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz have dismiss this argument as “balderdash”. At the same time, a few Irish politicians say they would welcome the cash influx to invest in Irish society. Irish Finance Minister Michael Noonan, however, claims that the sudden windfall of 13bn to the Irish budget would have to be used in full to pay back Irish debt, an argument that is being vehemently denied by Commission spokespersons.
All these dissenting voices lead to a complicated international incident, rife with tension and accusations. The only consensus to be found, it seems, is among the Irish population; the decision by the government to appeal this decision is one of the least divisive issues in Irish politics today, as in a recent survey, 62 percent of Irish people have said they support the government’s decision. This perhaps appears to be less than shocking in the current European climate which has seen the beginning of a Brexit, and the rise of Eurosceptic parties across Europe. However, when you put it in the context of another recent poll, in which respondents were asked whether Ireland, given a Brexit like vote, should remain in the EU, things seem somewhat different. The poll by Ignite Research found that 76 percent of Irish adults would vote to remain in the EU. This poll was not conducted in the distant past during the first flush of Euro money into the Republic, but in June of this year, after nearly a decade of austerity.
In this context, the government’s talk of “sovereignty” for small nations seems premature and out of tune with Ireland’s relatively positive relationship with the EU. Indeed, the Irish have many reasons to view the EU positively, as access to the single market and stability funds has allowed the young Republic to make investments, build roads and establish an international reputation in business. It could seem like the comments by the government and the recent poll are a fluke: an issue-based response to a current crisis. This is only the comforting reading of events, however, which conveniently forgets the fledging movement that was UKIP in the UK, and forgets that a snow ball rolling down a hill gains mass.
Irish Euroscepticism is not unique, but it is new, and may even be nipped in the bud. The Brexit referendum has shown that public opinion in European nations is volatile, and the EU does not need a big toothache from little Ireland. The fear of a knock-on effect from the Brexit and a disintegration of the EU is by no means an inevitability. Ireland, along with many other countries, do indeed gain from their membership of what will remain – even when the Brexit negotiations have concluded – the world’s largest trading bloc, and this in itself can be enough to keep the project moving forward. However, it might take the Commission developing a different political sensibility.
This is not to say that Apple should not pay its taxes. By all rights it should. What it means is that a stronger Europe might be better achieved quietly. Loud pronunciations and condemnations from on high can spark a fire in a population. The Apple ruling, no matter if it was legally correct or not, came at a time when the rhetoric of sovereignty is echoing across Europe, where smaller nations are clinging to their rights under subsidiarity. The decision here, to rule against a law already destined for the rubbish bin strikes many as high-handed and has definitely been taken as politically motivated. At a time when the Commission has failed to deal with, for instance, the flagrant disregard for environmental law shown by the German car manufacturer Volkswagen, Kenny’s reference to larger countries highlights a keen suspicion that the Commission serves the interests of the EU’s larger, more populous states.
To fight off such accusations the Commission is forced to either launch an assault on the various corruptions afflicting every EU state, or to take a more practical approach, finding compromises rather than delivering rulings. Issues such as the Apple “sweetheart” deal and the Volkswagen emission scandal must be dealt with for the sake of all European citizens, but perhaps, in a time when Europe hangs in the balance, a quietly achieved consensus is better than a trumpeted success.