By Matt Ellison
Ireland has the ‘legitimacy and authority’ to outline an alternative ‘Irish vision’ for the future of Europe, in contrast to the one laid out by French President Emmanuel Macron in September, the Seanad Spokesperson on European Affairs has said.
Senator Neale Richmond, who is involved with EU policy development for Fine Gael, says that he expects ‘a weighty declaration along those lines in the next month or two,’ and that Ireland has an opportunity in the wake of Brexit to have its voice heard on a European and international level.
Ireland; At the Centre of Europe
‘There’s nothing stopping Ireland propelling itself onto the centre stage here,’ Richmond says. ‘This doesn’t just have to be Macron and Merkel deciding the future of Europe, far from it. We’re losing the UK, but Ireland as the representative of smaller nation-states, we are in the best possible position to state what our future is. It doesn’t have to be what the French or Germans say.’
In comments made during an interview, the Dublin Senator said that issues such as Ireland’s low corporation tax, while being at odds with the wishes of the larger member states like France or Germany, would allow it to find common cause with smaller states, particularly in Eastern Europe.
‘They talk about our corporation tax, but corporation tax is a huge issue for Slovakia, for Estonia, for Malta, for other small member states,’ he said. ‘They don’t have the mass industrial power that France and Germany do, so they look at, who can be our voice? Why can’t it be the one country in the European Union that is literally the most pro-European now?’
In May, a Red C poll commissioned by European Movement Ireland found 83% of respondents in favour of Ireland remaining a part of the EU, even in the wake of Brexit.
‘We can go round to our traditional allies in the Benelux region, Denmark, Scandinavia, the smaller nation-states, the eastern Europeans and central Europeans and say ‘Let’s get behind this vision.’ It’s not Macron’s vision. It’s going to cherry pick the best of Macron’s vision, but we’re going to put a slant on it, that we want to lead it, and we want to talk about where it’s going.’
An Irish vision for the future of Europe would differ from Macron’s, primarily, Richmond states, on the issue of European federalisation.
United States of Europe
‘The notion of a United States of Europe is a romantic ideal that will never happen,’ the Senator argues. ‘But everyone’s definition of federalism is different, and looking at federalism as it applies to the US will never happen in Europe, because we are distinct entities with an ancient history. America isn’t. Americans are all relatively the same. There isn’t that massive difference in terms of history, culture and language between New Mexico and South Dakota. So you can use the term federal Europe and get to very different destinations.’
Where the two proposals may converge, Richmond concedes, is over the issue of collective defence, an issue made much of in Macron’s September address and an issue that Senator Richmond says Ireland cannot ignore if it is to step up as a leader among small European countries.
‘We’re very lucky in our geographic position as a western isle as far into the Atlantic Ocean as Europe goes,’ he says. ‘We don’t have the threat of Russia on our nearest border. When you move across Europe, the further east you get, you don’t hear about Brexit much more, but you hear about Russia. That doesn’t mean we can shy away from that, and we must respect that Europe must react to all crises.’
‘If we want Europe to take Brexit seriously then we need to start taking Russia and we need to start taking refugees seriously. And that’s where there needs to be greater cooperation when it comes to security and defence. People will rapidly say, oh, do you want a European Army? Not necessarily. But you can have a level of cooperation that looks at our neutrality, that maintains its integrity, but allows us to be more efficient in working together.’
Ireland, he says, having withstood ‘horrendous sacrifice’ during the years of austerity following the crash, has earned the respect and maturity in the eyes of Europe to lend credence to its demands.
‘We can genuinely stand up with legitimacy and authority and point to what we’ve contributed to Europe,’ he says. ‘We’re net contributors now, we’re no longer net recipients. The last two Secretaries General of the European Commission have been Irish.’
That authority, he argues, is already being demonstrated in the conduct of the Brexit negotiations, which have given over a great deal of focus to the outstanding issue of the Northern Irish border once the United Kingdom leaves the EU.
Brexit and Ireland
‘For our size, it’s a horrible cliché, we more than bat above our weight,’ Richmond says. ‘The negotiating positions of the entire European bloc, 27 member states, 450 million people, led by a former French minister, when it comes to Ireland, they have literally copied and pasted our ask.’
‘This wasn’t done just because they like us. That was through over 500 meetings, political, diplomatic and societal with European partners. We’ve done the rounds on this. We’re leading Europe when it comes to Brexit, there’s no reason why we can’t push a really powerful vision for the future of Europe as well.’
‘We have an opinion, we’ve a bloody good opinion, and we’ve got a great story to tell as a small, young, dynamic country, and there’s nothing to stop a smaller country, part of a larger bloc, part of the most important economic bloc in the world, and we know that.’
‘This is an opportunity. We mightn’t take it, and I think it would be to our detriment if we don’t.’
Senator Richmond says he expects the Taoiseach will make an announcement of an Irish alternative vision for Europe within the next couple of months.
‘I think he will do it, and I expect him to,’ Richmond says. ‘To set out an alternative vision of Europe along the lines of Macron’s.’
‘If he doesn’t do it, I’ll be ringing him on a daily basis.’
A Seanad debate on the future of Europe will take place on Thursday.
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