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Opinion The four big challenges facing Ireland in its future with the EU

Alexander Conway looks at how Ireland can be involved in the criticial discussions which will shape the next 50 years of the EU.

TWO EVENTS TOOK place at either end of Europe on the same day last month which characterise competing visions of the continent’s future.

One was in Moscow, where Russian President Vladimir Putin presided over a military parade which glorified both the Soviet Union’s victory over fascism in 1945 as well as the ongoing Russian aggression against supposed “fascists” in Ukraine.

The other was a speech by French President Emmanuel Macron, in his first major address since his re-election, which marked the anniversary of the 1950 Schuman Declaration and the culmination of the Conference on the Future of Europe in Strasbourg.

These events set out two contrasting visions of Europe – one defined by conquest and one by cooperation. The struggle between these visions presents a profound challenge for the EU and an opportunity for Ireland to shape the Union’s future.   

Europe today must reckon with several competing powers – as it has always done. To the east lies a reckless Russian regime intoxicated by hydrocarbon wealth and imperialist nostalgia. Meanwhile, an authoritarian China is grappling with a “Zero Covid” forever war.

Across the Atlantic, the United States is facing profound challenges to its democracy and the rule of law. President Macron’s vision of a more interventionist, protective and sovereign Europe offers a riposte to these developments.   

Fifty years since Ireland voted to join the European Union and after the conclusion of the recent Conference on the Future of Europe, now is the time to ask: what kind of European Union does Ireland want?

Irish diplomatic efforts have been exemplary in securing the State’s interests during Brexit, but the critical EU debates which will determine the future shape, direction and purpose of the Union demand greater public engagement. At least four key challenges arise.   

Key challenges  

Firstly, the so-called end of history, which signalled the ultimate triumph of liberal democracy following the end of the Cold War, is over. War has returned to Europe and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine raises difficult questions about European military capacities.

While the Commission on the Irish Defence Forces makes an important contribution to a debate about Ireland’s place within any European defence system, Ireland needs to decide how it fits into the broader global security architecture at this moment of heightened insecurity.

Finland and Sweden’s historic applications to join NATO and the forthcoming Danish referendum on the country’s EU defence cooperation opt-out have reconfigured the security situation in which Ireland finds itself. In a more uncertain world, Ireland may need to contribute more towards its own security if it is to credibly protect its citizens and prosperity at home, as well as promote democratic values and human rights abroad.  

Secondly, as a country with an external EU border, Ireland must continue to expand its perspective beyond its own geography.

The EU needs to reimagine the future of the enlargement process and expansion of the Union to include the Balkan countries, otherwise, they will remain stuck in enlargement purgatory despite having met the technical criteria for membership. Ireland, which has benefitted enormously from EU membership, has long supported EU enlargement around the European Council table.

The EU should seek to assuage member states’ concerns or else develop alternative forms of EU participation, lest our neighbours in the Western Balkans and its hinterland grow increasingly disenchanted with Brussels and look elsewhere for political and economic support.  

Thirdly, the European Single Market needs to equip itself for a more competitive world. Recent proposals to assist the Single Market to develop greater strategic autonomy, in order to protect consumers and businesses at home and to promote the EU’s values abroad, include both offensive and defensive instruments.

These aim to address questions over fractured supply chains and could lead to the possible re-shoring of production facilities to the EU, which would be a step-change for the future of European economic and trade policy. A stronger, better resourced EU would not only benefit Irish firms, investors, and citizens, it would also enhance Europe’s prosperity as well as its geopolitical heft on the world stage.  

A larger common budget, financed through common debt and increased taxation will likely become a greater European priority, building on the precedent of the Next Generation EU Covid-19 recovery fund, financed through common borrowing by the European Commission.

Greater European expenditure may demand greater European rates of taxation, which may have significant implications for the future of Ireland’s economic model and industrial policy.  

Fourthly, with great power comes great responsibility and a stronger European Union with more powers will need stronger democratic controls.

Many of today’s critical policy challenges are being tackled at the European level, including in the fields of climate change, migration, digitalisation, competition, and foreign policy. Dealing with these critical policy challenges may require the transfer of more powers to the European Commission or European Parliament.

It could also mean the end of unanimity within the Council and the adoption of further qualified-majority voting as indicated by leading politicians in Italy, France and Germany, a potentially sensitive move, especially for smaller member states like Ireland who fear being outvoted.   

Ireland needs to balance realism with audacity. The EU has made its most profound advancements during seemingly existential crises and remains the most successful economic and peace project in history. We must be imaginative, creative, and ambitious about what kind of Europe we want and how we can forge a Union that is a powerful global actor and a beacon for democratic values and human rights against a global autocratic turn.

If Ireland and Europe are unable to assert their values and interests on their own, they will increasingly be vulnerable to having them decided by others. We’re fifty years a-growing in Europe; let’s plant the seed for the next fifty years by putting Europe at the heart of our politics and public debate.    

Alexander Conway is the EU Affairs Researcher at the Institute of International and European Affairs (IIEA), focusing on internal EU policy developments and the EU’s role in the world.

This work is co-funded by Journal Media and a grant programme from the European Parliament. Any opinions or conclusions expressed in this work are the author’s own. The European Parliament has no involvement in nor responsibility for the editorial content published by the project. For more information, see here

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