But away from the limelight, Irish officials at different levels have also helped the country punch above its weight in Brussels and EU capitals.
Now, as Ireland reaches a landmark moment of 50 years' membership of the European Union, the Government is grappling with a serious problem: an alarming drop in the number of our nationals working in the EU institutions, unprecedented in scale during our five decades within the Brussels club.
The retirement of senior officials is reaching ‘cliff-edge’ proportions, with more than a third of officials expected to retire by 2025, while we have simply failed to keep up with recruitment of younger Irish people over the past decade or more.
The EU’s concours examination is the career entry route into the EU’s varied institutions and agencies. However, since 2015, only 22 Irish nationals have passed the concours, far below the 69 officials who are due to depart before 2025.
While the reasons for this are not straightforward, there is growing recognition that it is a significant problem for Ireland and how we both conduct business and defend our national interests in different EU spaces in Brussels.
The Government’s decision in 2021 to pursue a new strategy, ‘A Career for EU’, aimed at recruiting a new generation of Irish nationals to the EU institutions constituted an admission of the seriousness of the problem. It contained some very positive elements, including:
- The prospective expansion of the third-level ‘EU Jobs’ campaign;
- The promotion of EU careers in Ireland’s secondary schools;
- A commitment to double the number of language assistants in Irish schools;
- An increase in the number of nationally seconded experts to the EU institutions;
- An ‘EU Stream’ to be introduced in the civil service;
- New postgraduate scholarships for Irish graduates at the prestigious College of Europe in Bruges.
We argue that Ireland’s secondary schools and third-level institutions should be central to this effort to increase recruitment. We now have an excellent course called politics and society at Leaving Certificate level, in addition to and building on the work students do in civic, social and political education for Junior Certificate. ‘Europe’ has been carefully threaded into politics and society and is thus present within the curriculum for the first time ever.
For the moment, however, the politics and society option is only available in a small number of schools. It should be expanded to every school in the country as a matter of priority and every secondary school student should be provided with basic information about Ireland’s membership of the EU and why it matters.
We also argue that the pervasiveness of the EU’s role and influence across Irish public policy, business and society warrants that education policy at third level should embed ‘Europe’ within every undergraduate degree course taught in Ireland.
The aim here would be to introduce students to the EU, to the institutional machinery and policy apparatus in Brussels, Strasbourg and national capitals.
The potentially rewarding outcome is the emergence of students from our universities who have an understanding of EU affairs and are able to engage much more effectively with EU issues when they encounter them.
One of the long-standing weaknesses in Ireland’s education system has been an inability to produce second- and third-level students who are linguistically competent to engage effectively with the non-English speaking world.
Thus, while the commitment to double the number of language assistants employed in Irish schools is welcome, the Government needs to invest appropriately at all levels of education, to improve the take-up of European language learning and overall competence of our graduating students.
The Government has recently proposed to Brussels that the problem of recruitment be addressed by an ‘Irish-only’ recruitment process. This would happen if the representation of member state nationals in the institutions falls below a specific floor of representation.
Ireland is not alone in confronting this problem: recruitment has fallen back in many other member states. However, there are no plans to progress this proposal until at least the start of 2024.
There are also proposals circulating in Brussels to further modify the concours in the direction of a specialist recruitment process. This would also be more favourable to Irish graduates in that it would privilege the holding of sector/policy specific qualifications over the language criterion. If this does get approval, it should mean that highly qualified Irish graduates who might be somewhat challenged by the language criterion would have another route into the EU institutions.
The issue of recruitment cannot be divorced from that of how Europe is communicated to the public in Ireland. Opinion polls suggest there is an ongoing ‘knowledge vacuum’ in respect of the Irish public’s grasp of European affairs and this facilitates the persistence of all kinds of mischaracterisations of the EU, what it is, and what it does.
Post-referendum research on the Nice Treaty referendum in 2001, for example, demonstrated that 35% of those surveyed said they "did not know what the Treaty was all about" and only 8% had a "good understanding" of the issues.
We argue the Government should significantly expand opportunities for citizen participation in EU issues. Prior to Covid, Ireland began to develop a ‘Citizens Dialogue’ model of engagement with citizens on Europe. It contained the seeds of a potentially transformative approach to the discussion and understanding of European affairs in Ireland.
It provides an excellent model for a more ambitious and permanent form of Citizens Assembly on Europe which could help bridge the gap between elites and citizens and stem the tide of misinformation. It is worth pursuing as Ireland re-commits to European integration in the wake of Brexit, and reflects on how 50 years of membership has contributed to decisive economic, social and political transformation of the country.
We know investing in our people pays off. As Ireland reaches this important milestone of 50 years of membership of the EU, the development of more imaginative and effective ways of communicating Europe to Irish citizens should be central to Ireland’s further engagement with the European Union.
- Mary C Murphy holds the Jean Monnet Chair in European Integration at UCC. John O’Brennan holds the Jean Monnet Chair in European Integration at Maynooth University