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A commemorative stamp issued by Ireland's national postal service, to mark the EU enlargement as the 25 heads of state met in Dublin's Farmleigh House. 2004 PA
VOICES

Analysis How is Ireland doing after 50 years in the EU?

Emma DeSouza recently visited Strasbourg and looked at how Ireland has been doing as a member state.

AS 2023 OPENS up, January will mark the start of Ireland’s second year of celebrations honouring 50 years in the European Union.

It is a historic milestone; Ireland’s entry into the EU has undoubtedly been good for the country. Since our entry, Ireland has thrived both economically and diplomatically as a fully-fledged member state, but the country is a long way off from being a European leader; In areas such as climate, women’s inclusion in politics, and voting rights, Ireland trails at the bottom of the league table.

Take representation of women in politics – only 22 per cent of the individuals elected to the Dáil are women, while our European partners in Sweden ensured 47.3 per cent representation, followed by Finland with 41.5 per cent and France with 39.7 per cent.

Globally, Ireland ranks 100th for representation of women in parliament, a woeful position given that women make up over 50 per cent of the population. There was no greater exemplification of the power imbalance in our politics than the photo of the not-so-new Cabinet following Leo Varadkar’s return to the position of Taoiseach; five women versus 12 men.

During the pandemic, the Covid-19 emergency team was made up mostly of men, despite the fact that evidence demonstrates that the pandemic has had a disproportionate impact on women.

Gender balance

The 2024 local government elections and the 2025 general election will provide parties with an opportunity to balance their tickets, but the political will needs to be there. The last election included a quota for candidate selection of 30 per cent of women, a bar that many of the main parties struggled to even meet.

Ireland has taken many influential roles in Europe, punching well above its weight in terms of representation and influence. This includes the selection of Minister and Green Party leader Eamon Ryan TD to lead in the EU’s Climate talks – an interesting selection given Ireland is one of the worst performing countries in the EU in the Climate Change Performance Index, with projections from the European Commission illustrating that Ireland is not on course to meet 2030, or 2050 Climate targets.

Ireland has set out a plan to reach a 51pc reduction in emissions by 2030, placing the country on a path to net-zero emissions no later than 2050, however, to date, the country has reduced emissions at a slower pace than the EU average since 2005. This low performance can be attributed to three primary factors; The first is the country’s failure to allow low or zero-carbon projects to connect to the national grid. The failure to do so is delaying Ireland’s transition to renewable energy. The Energy Transition Readiness Index 2022 has ranked Ireland in joint last, while Finland topped the list.

Electric vehicles serve as another industry in which Ireland is lagging compared to its European counterparts – the country received the lowest score of any other within the EU when it came to EV charging infrastructure, with the only exception being Poland, with whom Ireland tied.

Thirdly was placed Ireland’s shortcomings in regard to public transport; Ireland has been ranked as the second most dependent EU member state on cars as the primary mode of transport. Several counties have no rail infrastructure and some rural areas as serviced by only one bus per week. A failure to roll out ambitious public transport investment has contributed to a 9 per cent increase in vehicle use since 2019, while other EU countries have decreased their dependence on personal vehicles. Green Party MEP Ciaran Cuffe has said that, “At a European level, and at an Irish level, transport has been the outlier in terms of emissions”, he contends that Ireland is “starting to build the infrastructure that will make public transport work better.”

Affording life in Ireland

In terms of the cost of living, inflation in Ireland has risen along the same rate as the EU average, however, Ireland now tops the table along with Denmark as the most expensive country in the EU for everyday expenses; Utility bills such as electric and gas are 88 per cent higher than the EU average, and housing is 88.5 per cent higher, with rents increasing four-and-a-half times faster in Ireland than in Europe over the last decade.

Ireland has taken measures to address the cost of living, including reducing public transport fares by 20 per cent, but this pales in comparison to the 90 per cent reduction in fares brought in by Germany. In Ireland, travel costs are 39 per cent higher than the EU average for travel by air, train, or sea.

Green party MEP Grace O’Sullivan acknowledges that efforts to decrease the use of personal vehicles, including better and greener public transport is “very much a green space” but adds that the Green Party are “the smaller member in government”, and that more needs to be done. Ireland has also been less ambitious than our European counterparts when it comes to the energy crisis, with France quickly moving to protect consumers with a price cap, as well as nationalising the energy grid.

Democracy

When it comes to voting rights, Ireland is the only EU Member State which does not allow its nationals living in another EU Member State to vote in European elections. This restriction is in direct violation of the EU freedom of movement principle which allows citizens to vote in their home country.

Then there’s the ‘Brexit seats’ – following the UK’s withdrawal from the EU, Northern Ireland lost all its seats in the European Parliament, while Ireland gained two. Fianna Fáil MEP Barry Andrews has said he feels a sense of “responsibility” to Northern Ireland after gaining a so-called Brexit seat and added that work needs to be done to build the  “Belfast to Brussels connective tissue”. There remains a plethora of ways in which Ireland could increase Northern voices in the EU, such as awarding Northern representatives speaking rights or observer status.

It is expected that a referendum on extending presidential voting rights to Irish citizens resident outside the state will take place during the lifetime of this government. Of the 14 EU Member States that hold direct Presidential elections, only Ireland, Slovakia and Cyprus deprive their overseas citizens of the opportunity to cast their vote.

In countries such as France, not only do citizens abroad retain the right to vote for their president, regardless of how long they have been outside the country but an additional overseas constituency was established within parliament to ensure citizens abroad have representation and are not denied democratic participation. Globally, over 125 countries and territories enfranchise their citizens abroad; Ireland is an outlier, not only in the EU but globally when it comes to providing democratic participation for its citizens.

Ireland does lead in some areas, such as educational attainment and life expectancy, but these successes can distort our perception of Ireland’s performance and position within the EU. As we continue to mark 50 years within the European Union (the celebrations will run through 2022 and 2023), it is paramount that we do not merely mark the successes, but that we cast a critical examination of the failures.

Yes, Ireland is European, but we are a long way off from being a European leader.

Emma DeSouza is a writer and campaigner.

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