By any objective measure last week’s summit was a mess. At a time when the citizens of Europe are demanding a plan to reform and renew the European Union the heads of state and government did little more than argue about jobs for themselves. The debate was about personalities with vague platitudes being offered on substance.
With much of Europe threatened with deflation and already experiencing a weak or non-existent recovery, leaders discussed nothing which would change the direction of policy.
Incredibly a new President of the Commission has been nominated without any discussion of what he proposes to do in that job.
Jean Claude Junker has a well-earned reputation for being able to get deals done. In his years in the Council he repeatedly helped to offer ways of nudging disputes towards a resolution. That is important for one aspect of the Commission President’s role; what it isn’t, is a qualification for the job.
The Commission President is supposed to be a leader with a clear vision of the future. With a deep commitment to making the Union work for its citizens, not just for the political elite.
As I said last week, Mr Junker was an active enforcer of failed policies which did Ireland real harm when he was Chairperson of the Euro group. The orthodox policies which he supported are directly linked to the scale of the bank debts being carried by Ireland – large parts of which were converted into sovereign bonds last year by the government.
I think it is amazing that the Taoiseach and Tánaiste supported Mr Junker’s nomination without asking him to at least acknowledge how the policies he supported had impacted on Ireland. Indeed a clear statement of support for Ireland’s case for significant relief on bank related debt is something which could and should have been asked for.
Mr Junker may well turn out to be a good Commission President. He may be a visionary. He may show leadership and a real connection with citizens. He may even be a forceful advocate for Ireland’s case. If he is any of these things it will have had nothing to do with anything he said before the Taoiseach signed up to supporting him.
Jean Claude Junker is not the choice of the people of Europe. To claim that he is would turn the basic concepts of democracy on their head.
He was a legitimate candidate for the job. His record makes him a credible choice – however to present him as inevitable and to refuse to discuss the substance of his programme as Commission President should not have been acceptable.
The lead-candidate system has no legitimacy and it did not lead to a pan-European debate and campaign.
It is a sad fact that in the sixth year of a pan-European crisis, with many of the foundations of the European Union badly damaged, there has been no substantive discussion about reforming the Union.
The only matter which any member of our government has talked about publicly is what job they might get for our next Commissioner. The Tánaiste and Minister Hogan are now in an open fight for ‘who will get the job’ – each pretending that they can deliver more for Ireland and each targeting elements of the media to push their case.
Of course not one word has been uttered about wanting to reform the Commission, change its policy direction or do anything else of substance.
Minister Hogan’s media briefings have said that he is on a promise of the agriculture portfolio and that this will mean big things for Ireland. That portfolio is indeed on worth having, but only if the holder of it has a commitment to fighting the non-stop effort to move Europe away from supporting farm families and rural communities.
Minister Hogan is the chief political enforcer of a government which has targeted cut after cut at rural Ireland. The basic educational, security and commercial services which our rural communities depend on have been singled out for cuts.
Three years ago Minister Hogan grabbed control of community development programmes and has since then used then as areas for easy cutbacks. This has gone so far that, as my colleague Deputy Ó Cuív has exposed, even a committee appointed by this government has called for a reintroduction of many of the programmes which have been shut down.
We can only hope that Minister Hogan has a different set of priorities to bring to the Commission, because the communities of rural Ireland cannot take any more of this.
The only argument pushed in favour of the Tánaiste being appointed to the Commission is that it gives him a decent exit from government and it is claimed that he is so prominent amongst socialist parties that he will get a big job.
Once again no one, either on the record or off the record, has said a word about how his appointment would be good for Ireland or for Europe.
This is the logical extension of a situation where the government has consistently refused to lay out any European policy. Whenever something is agreed, the Taoiseach tells us why it was a great decision, but he has never set out what we want from Europe, what reforms we are looking for.
This has now become critical because of the scheduled British referendum.
It has always been the case the much British euro scepticism has been based on slogans and prejudice rather than a fair response to the Union’s activities.
It is a simple fact that Prime Minister Cameron launched a campaign for renegotiating membership without deciding what he wanted to renegotiate. Eighteen months ago he launched a ‘Review of Competencies’ to study the facts of membership of the European Union and to set out areas where competencies should be repatriated to member states. So far this review is behind time because in area after area the facts are proving to be stubborn barriers to the grand renegotiation the Tory party has announced.
Following public consultations and detailed studies the bulk of the Review has said that the British economy and society are benefitting from membership and would suffer if every country were to do their own thing.
I understand the difficulties which were faced last week in finding a face-saving formula after Prime Minister Cameron’s grandstanding on the Commission Presidency had failed – but it would be completely unacceptable if the Council were to actually agree to the Tory agenda.
Their vision of a simple free-trade zone is absolutely against our interests. It would destroy the basis for large numbers of basic social protections and threaten real market access for our companies.
Everyone is in favour of reducing bureaucracy and of removing unnecessary regulations. However if the intention is now to begin the full-scale rollback of core protections – and this is unequivocally the Tory agenda – there will be massive public resistance.
It is one of the great failures of the European Union that it has allowed a false choice to develop which claims that you can either be a sceptic or a federalist. This is a superficial and damaging choice which misses the fact that the significant majority of people, even during this crisis, want the Union to work better. Over two-thirds of citizens voted for broadly pro-EU parties in the recent elections both here and throughout Europe.
At a time of unprecedented crisis, of a challenge to the Union’s basic principles and the resurgence of extreme ideologies Ireland has to stop standing on the side-lines waiting for everyone else to sort things out.
Where does Ireland stand in the debate on the future of Europe? What are our plans if Britain votes to leave the Union in three year’s time? What are we going to do about the glaring holes in the response to the Euro crisis?
At a very minimum it is long past time for a formal statement of Ireland’s European policy. The last time this was done was before the Lisbon Treaty was ratified and events have changed radically since then.
The summit also discussed the situation in Ukraine and the continued efforts of Russia-supporting elements to further partition the country. The decision which the leaders made about a new round of sanctions is fully justified by the facts.
The signing of association agreements with Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova was an important and welcome conclusion of a process where their former imperial power did everything it could to undermine their sovereign choice to enter these agreements.
The argument pushed by some, including some TDs, that Europe is partly to blame for the situation in Ukraine because of these agreements is ridiculous. The effort to imply a moral equivalence between the behaviour of Europe and Russia is offensive.
These association agreements are freely entered into by the democratically elected governments of sovereign states. They are about neighbours agreeing ways of helping each other and achieving sustained development. In contrast, Russia’s behaviour has been purely about an imperial power demanding its right to control the destiny of neighbouring states.
Each of the three states has territory under the control of Russian troops and has been effectively threatened with permanent partition and part occupation because of a refusal to follow Moscow’s orders. In each of the occupied territories there has been a clamp-down on many civil rights.
As a small nation which has itself suffered the long-term impact of partition we should reject the false relativism of those who try to avoid calling-out Russia’s aggressive and unacceptable behaviour. In an irony which should not be left uncommented upon, Russia is currently demanding regional autonomy within Ukraine even though similar autonomy was abolished with Russia itself.
The member states of the European Union are entitled to form close and peaceful relations with neighbouring states. We must remain committed to this and follow-up the many promises which have been made to the democratically-elected governments which have been attacked by an increasingly irredentist neighbour which appears to be operating an ideology which combines cold war and Tsarist themes.
The conclusions of the Summit in relation to energy security are welcome because they are the first time in a number of years that any sense of urgency has been seen on this agenda. It was mostly about taking stock, with the bigger decisions remaining to be taken. A good move by our government would be to show its commitment through reversing its downgrading action on climate change and sustainable energy.
It is very likely that Mr Junker will be confirmed by the European Parliament. Once this is done, leaders will meet again to sign off on other appointments. For the role of Council President someone is needed who has shown both leadership capacity and a willingness to respect all member states equally.
The drift towards exclusive clubs of larger countries and the marginalising of the full Council has to end. It is eroding the legitimacy of the Union and it is leading to bad decisions. The failure to properly respond to Ireland’s situation in 2009 and 2009 was directly linked to a Council which was too dominated by a small number of voices.
The Taoiseach has recited the European Semester agreements as an important contribution to growth and jobs. This doesn’t pass even basic scrutiny. The recommendations agreed by the Council involve a further doubling-down on the principle of austerity for all and growth through competition. This is the same strategy which there has been for five years and it does not work. Countries which could be helping stimulate growth are instead being pushed into being more restrictive.
As was confirmed yet again at the weekend, there is a two-tiered recovery under way which is seeing huge numbers being left behind. The domestic economy, here and in many countries, needs a stimulus and the Taoiseach has signed off on recommendations which oppose this.
The Taoiseach has once again given us little more than a reading of the final communiqué from the summit. He has continued his policy of taking no position on any contentious matter and saying absolutely nothing on major issues of concern to Ireland.
This strategy has to end. Ireland needs a reformed and renewed European Union to lead real growth. Nothing the Taoiseach has said and nothing which was discussed last week brings us any closer to this.