After 15 years as a Member of the European Parliament, in between her stint as an Independent TD from 2002 to 2007, and regaining that Sligo-Leitrim seat last February, Marian Harkin is one of the best informed in the Dáil when it comes to the EU.
As her Dáil colleagues bickered last week over what Ireland did or didn’t get in the EU’s €1.82 trillion budget and coronavirus recovery package, she reminded them that the annual EU budget is between 1% and 2% of what all 27 member states spend nationally each year.
She said that what we contribute and what we get back are important, but if that is all there is, then we should keep our own money, and spend it.
Instead, she explained, we invest in the European budget, so that we have a Single Market, the free movement of people, goods and services, and so that we work together, be it on health research, a digital single market, or on supporting farmers to produce safe, quality, traceable food.
And for the first time, in a historic departure for the EU, we were one of 27 member states, represented by 27 Heads of State and Government, all with one eye on Europe and another on their own countries, who managed to agree a €1.82 trillion fund, thus demonstrating EU solidarity by borrowing together and spending mutualised debt.
“When people speak of an historic outcome, they are, in fact, correct.” said Harkin.
She was relieved that the deal was done, and congratulated the Taoiseach and his team.
She also noted the benefit for member states of the EU, with its triple A+ credit rating, borrowing at ultra-low interest rates.
On the many different views in the Dáil about the recovery fund and budget agreement, she said there was a kernel of truth in each of them.
“The budget is not enough, but it is never enough. I would prefer to have seen more grants and fewer loans, but we must remember that we, as citizens of Ireland, are underwriting those loans.”
Another seasoned TD, former Labour TD Brendan Howlin noted that Ireland would have welcomed and benefitted from mutualising borrowing and sharing debt within the EU during the last economic crisis.
But he too emphasised the importance of the Single Market for Ireland, exporting more per capita than virtually any other country, and thus needing our trading partners to be strong, with healthy markets.
He warned some opposition TDs for what he called their Tory Brexiteer formula of adding up what we contribute and what cash we get back, and saying the EU does not work for Ireland if we do not get back more cash than we pay in.
He welcomed the €1.3bn grant Ireland will get from the recovery fund in 2021, but said it will not be decisive for real and substantial recovery in our economy sectors crushed by Covid-19.
He said Ireland already borrows at rates less than 0.25%, so EU loans are of very little value to us, direct grants are of much greater benefit.
Newly elected Social Democrats TD Cian O’Callaghan also warned against narrow self-interest and playing to domestic electorates with “what we can get out of this deal”, describing it as the politics that fed into what happened in the UK with Brexit.
Nevertheless, there was (as expected) vocal opposition to Taoiseach Micheál Martin and his team’s result in Brussels (the main outcome for farmers is that their direct payments will decrease slightly from 2021).
He said our EU membership is about being part of a single market and an economic union that have brought great benefits to the country.
“We are now net contributors, but for almost 50 years of our membership, we were net recipients,” said the Taoiseach.
Putting the Brussels result in perspective, Deputy Howlin, who represented Ireland in the EU’s long-term budget talks seven years ago, said such talks are torturous and convoluted, and now even more so, because the UK, a substantial net contributor, is no longer part of the calculation.
He called for an open discussion on whether Ireland wants to be ambitious for the future of Europe, now that the EU of 27 nations had passed the fundamental test posed by the need for recovery after the Covid-19 lockdowns.
He concluded that the populism of diminishing the capacity of the Union to act with mutual support is now the dominant view in the EU.
Deputy Howlin raised what is a fundamental question, especially for the Irish agriculture sector: is the EU still committed to the principles of mutual solidarity and mutual support, or has Brexit contagion diminished that principle to the extent that, now, each nation coming to a European Council must prove to a home audience that it won?
The EU passed its recent test despite resistance among the frugal four, or with Finland, the frugal five (called the “stingy five” by some), who diluted proposed direct grant aid to worst affected regions from €500bn down to €390bn, and gained budget rebates for themselves.
Frugal four leaders like Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte have been wanted not to end up like David Cameron, who fuelled Brexit by shunning EU consensus, thus encouraging those Eurosceptics for whom British interests were at odds with European interests.
Despite the opposition voiced in the Dáil to the result for Ireland in the recovery funds’ share-out, there was no evidence of Euroscepticism.
That gives Ireland a lot of political freedom, if the discussion called for by Deputy Howlin were to result (as one would expect) in our full backing for the European project. which we already demonstrated in the crucial EU Council talks.