Fiscal and economic crisis a crisis of politics and engagement

Taoiseach Jack Lynch and then president Patrick Hillery formalise Ireland's membership of the EEC in Brussels

THIS year marks the 40th anniversary of our membership of the EU. The canvass of Ireland’s experience within the European integration process is a dramatic one, a story of successes and failures and plenty of twists and turns.

A decade ago, it was relatively easy to argue that the first 30 years of Irish participation in this unique trans-national experiment in governance represented an unqualified success. Membership had yielded tens of billions of euro in subvention from the Common Agricultural Policy and EU structural funds and the ever-expanding benefits of being at the heart of the EU’s single market were clearly evident.

By 2003, Ireland was one of the most prosperous countries within the EU club, with GDP per capita 120% of the EU average. Europe had also been a catalyst for all kinds of positive changes in Irish society.

The protracted fiscal and economic crisis which has affected Ireland and much of the EU since 2008 has changed these dynamics significantly. The crisis is also a profound crisis of politics, political institutions and representation. Public opinion across the EU demonstrates an alarming drop in support for the European project; the turnout rate at next year’s European Parliament elections could dip below 40% for the first time. In a majority of EU states, it will struggle to go beyond even 30%.

In Ireland, the EU has been closely associated with austerity since the arrival of the troika in Nov 2010. Notwithstanding the recent exit from the bailout regime, there remains a distinct fragility about Irish popular attitudes towards the EU.

We know that Irish citizens’ support for European integration is highly contingent and cannot be taken for granted: The failed referendums on Nice and Lisbon tell us that. But even the successful EU referendums demonstrate a consistent pattern: Irish citizens’ lack of knowledge and information about the European integration process emerges as the most important phenomenon in reporting patterns.

This is exacerbated by limited knowledge and interest at parliamentary level and a related lack of capacity in tackling Ireland’s EU agenda. Indeed Ireland’s membership of the EU has reinforced existing tendencies toward governmental control over the Oireachtas. EU policy-making has been overseen by a combination of the Departments of Foreign Affairs, Finance, and An Taoiseach, assisted by a highly effective civil service. There has been little or no room for the Oireachtas to assert itself, whether in the early stages of policy initiation or the later stages of implementation.

Mary C Murphy’s recent report for the Hansard Society on the experience of first-time TDs confirms that these TDs see the Dáil as a “straitjacket” and an “unproductive environment”, and that backbenchers feel “generally ignored”.

Indeed a majority of all TDs feel frustrated by the unresponsiveness of Government to opposition amendments and perceive a poor degree of accountability and openness.

Despite promises of significant reform, successive governments have failed to change very much about the way we do Europe or the mechanisms through which we process European affairs.

Although, we are encouraged by some recent developments including more frequent reporting by the Taoiseach and ministers, and the presentation of an annual EU work programme by the select committee on European Union affairs, we harbour some concerns about the capacity of the new parliamentary steering group to oversee EU issues.

Although the group will be comprised of some of the most senior members of the Oireachtas, most of these individuals lack the kind of deep specialist knowledge of the EU that is needed to properly appraise economic and legal jargon and the content of policy dossiers. So, although we welcome these changes, they still fall far short of making the Oireachtas fit for purpose on EU affairs.

The Government should also move to establish a framework for expanding citizen participation on EU issues. There is a clear and urgent need to educate Irish people about the dynamics of EU policy-making and why Irish membership is important for its citizens. The experience of those involved in the Constitutional Convention process suggests there is considerable potential for such deliberative forums to enhance the legitimacy of political decision-making in Ireland.

AN EU-oriented public space should be set up as an ad hoc body which would arrange and oversee town hall meetings between policy-makers and citizens around the country on a regular basis. Involving young people in particular should be a primary objective.

We also advocate a much more substantive effort by Government and the education sector in tackling these persistent “knowledge and information deficits” around EU affairs. At second level, the EU remains either a very insignificant part of the civic education programme or does not get taught at all.

This needs to be corrected. Every secondary school student in Ireland should be exposed to basic information about Ireland’s membership of the EU and why it matters.

Students should emerge from the school system as knowledgeable citizens, with the capacity to evaluate how the EU impacts the lives of Irish individuals, families and communities.

We also argue 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 a solid understanding of EU affairs and are able to engage much more solidly with EU issues when they encounter them.

At this 40-year juncture, the development of more imaginative and effective ways of achieving Oireachtas oversight and of communicating Europe to Irish citizens would empower this state and its people to engage more effectively with the next forty years of EU membership.

* Mary C Murphy lectures in European politics in the department of government, UCC. She is also president of the Irish Association for Contemporary European Studies (IACES). John O’Brennan lectures in European politics in the department of sociology at NUI Maynooth. He is director of the European Studies programme at NUIM.

A two-day conference on Ireland and Europe is taking place at UCC today and tomorrow. The conference, ‘Reflections on Four Decades of Irish membership of the European Union’ is bringing together academics, civil society representatives, diplomats, journalists, and politicians to examine the Irish experience of European integration since 1973.


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