Sunday, March 2, 2014

An interview with Gay Mitchell MEP, on past, present and future of the EU.
In a recent interview with Gay Mitchell MEP, we discussed about the impact of the economic crisis in Europe, the Irish EU membership and the future of our continent. 

Mr. Mitchell strongly believes that Ireland became truly sovereign the day it joined the EU. “Everyone should think of what it was like before the country joined the block, when the value Ireland’s currency and interest rates were set by the British Chancellor of the Exchequer,” he says. 

“Our biggest export was people,” he adds.  There are 800 thousand people of Irish descent living in Britain to this day, who left during those years. “We had an economy which actually provided cheap food for Britain,” he describes. 

Mr. Mitchell recalls when he became a member of the Dail (Irish House of Representatives) in 1981; there were very few descent roads in the country, no financial services sector and though Ireland had an agricultural industry, it lacked the food industry that it has now. 

Today Ireland has pharmaceutical and information technology industries which are very big. “We export to the EU more computers for business use than the USA does,” he says. 

Ireland has also a booming tourism industry and the EU enabled the country to diversify its economy. “We have one Commissioner plus one Minister at the table in the EU council, on the same basis as Germany and France,” he explains. 

Of course bigger countries have a bigger vote, but the European way is trying to find consensus and agreement. Still Ireland has a disproportionate vote regarding its size.

The Secretary General of the EU Commission is Irish (Mrs. Catherine Day), plus the one before her, as well as the Chief operating officer of the EU Foreign affairs (Mr. David O’Sullivan). Ireland has recently had the rotating presidency of the EU Council for 6 months. “When did we ever have that influence in any international organization,” Mr. Mitchell asks. 

He believes that EU membership has changed Irish society. But additionally it preserved its cultural elements. When Ireland joined the EU, people supported the view that their language is part of who they are and wanted to keep it. 

So the Irish language became one of the EU official languages, while all-Irish speaking schools were established in Dublin. “Europe gave us that” Mr Mitchell explains, when a lot of his generation have lost their Irish because of the way it was taught in schools.

“In my heart I do not believe that Ireland has seen its best days yet. The Celtic tiger years were phenomenal for our country, but our best days are ahead of us,” he states. 

Ireland has been in the EU since 1973, yet it is still not a net contributory to the budget and it won’t become for a number of years. The country receives a lot of money out of the Common Agricultural Policy. 

Each time the Irish ministers boast that they fought a great fight in Europe, to get this money for Ireland. When things go wrong they claim that they have to implement laws because “Brussels” requires it. 

The EU takes decisions through the Council of ministers, the European Parliament and under the proposals of the Commission, in all of which all EU member states are represented. 

When there are talks about the economic crisis people hear the words Troika, the EU, European Central Bank (ECB), and the EU Commission. But they do not hear how the ECB and the European Commission provided a lot of the support which member states got. 

“We got to stop doing that to ourselves and start explaining to people what the EU is about. It is not about us getting money and transfers. I look forward to the day when Ireland is actually a net contributor, because that will be our membership fee for a very good facility,” Mr Mitchell explains. 

“I spend a lot of time visiting schools, speaking with trade union groups, NGOs and business people, explaining to them how the EU works and what it does,” he adds.

In the economic area Europe has to solve the problem of Eurobonds. “And I think that euro-bonds will come about. If we are going to have a single banking supervisory mechanism which we will have, it is sensible to have EU bonds that we can all avail of,” he also says. 

The Germans will write the cheque and give the guarantees for this, so the rest of us we’ll have to get our house in order to qualify. It is important to make it possible for the Germans to sign the guarantee. It will save a lot of money and make a big difference. 

“I also think that any ESM funding directly from banks, has to be retrospect. It is only fair to do so, plus our macroeconomic discipline is measured on our debt being a percentage of our GDP. It is done in the same basis across the whole of the EU. If on the Greek or the Irish balance sheets for example, are things that are not on other balance sheets then that is an unfair comparison. That needs to be resolved,” he explains. 

But that is not the only problems that the EU faces at the moment. Under the crisis there has been a rise of nationalism and far-right political parties. One of the oldest members which always had a difficult relationship with the EU, Britain, is holding a referendum on its membership by the end of 2017.

“I understand Mr Cameron’s dilemma but in Britain it is difficult to debate the EU, just like it is difficult to debate neutrality in Ireland. I hope we never find out through some very bad circumstances, that we really haven’t spent the money that we should on our own defense forces to protect us,” Mr Mitchell says.

Likewise, Britain in the EU is in a very precarious situation. Mr Cameron has said that he favors Britain remaining in the single market, even if the people voted to leave the EU. The rules governing the single market will be decided by a Commission, a Council and a Parliament, in which Britain will have no input but whose rules it would be required to follow. That does not make any sense. 

Britain should be leading Europe. They have the political and the diplomatic skills to do it. And more Europe would actually suit them better, but they can’t see that. 

Another key issue for Europe is the rebirth of the social market economy. It is not a socialist or a liberal invention, but a Christian Democrat one. Its ethos is not based on a religious element, but on four principles: enterprise and social justice rights and responsibilities. 

“We just stopped talking about social justice. I am in politics because of that and the reason why I spend so much time in the development committee. Anybody can talk to you about it, as a great line to get elected on. But with every right comes a responsibility. We have a responsibility for ourselves and to each other, and if you want social justice you have to encourage enterprise,” Mr Mitchell says. 

“If someone gets out of bed and goes to work every morning then they should be encouraged to do that, because that creates wealth. And if you can’t go to work part of that wealth should be used to help you,” he describes. 

But when you go to avail of the public services, in which we put a huge amount of the tax payer’s money, we have to have accountability. Because there are so many votes in the public service, there should be some kind of protected entity. 

Mr. Mitchell believes that that is the base of a new type of social market economy launch. We need a rebirth of the social market economy, because that is what happened at the end of the WW2. 

Konrad Adenauer, the first post-War Chancellor of Germany, said at the time that the European project is about people, not about money. Business people in Europe need to create an ethical environment in which to operate.

“I am pro business, because business creates wealth. But when we create wealth we got to distribute it well, have good public services and give people a fair opportunity. So all of us who are in the mainstream of politics, we need to think about this and start talking about social justice,” Mr. Mitchell explains.

Europe will have elections in May 2014.  Mr Mitchell believes that who we send to the EU Commission and to the EP, matters. “First thing citizens got to do is turn up and be committed. Also get on to the committees that are relevant to their country and express what their view of Europe is,” he says. 

He brings as example the Irish legal system. Everyday people see one or two judges reported in the papers for a number of serious offenses. They don’t hear about the other judges. But if they were not there, we would live in a jungle. The job they do is important. 

It is the same with MEPs and TDs. “It is not all about the ones who are in the media on a particular day. But about the guys who turn up and do their committee work, network and carry influence, who are measured, have a descent view of what is good for Ireland for Europe,” he continues. 

Whoever people are going to chose, they should chose the ones who are going to participate because they will have a real say for 5 years. 

Ireland is a country that has always been and still is in its majority, a pro-European nation. Yet in the last referendum on Lisbon Treaty, as well as many previous ones, the Irish citizens voted against them.

“I think De Gaul was right. He said that referendums are funny things, because when you ask people what they think, they do not answer the question you ask. In elections of that kind you can have people protesting, because they think they can,” Mr Mitchell notes.

Sometimes in a referendum people vote no, because they want to punish the government. Not all had to do with Europe during the referendum. Nevertheless there was a concern about Ireland losing its Commissioner.

The Oireachteas (The Irish National Parliament) committee collected evidence and they percolated all these issues, which later they identified. Then the Irish government went and renegotiated them. 

“I like the idea of Ireland and all the small states having a commissioner. The Germans, the Brits and the French gave up their second commissioner. But if we get to 35 commissioners, what portfolios will there be and will we end up having a commissioner for something obscure,” Mr Mitchell mentions.

Perhaps if the EU had only 20 substantial commission jobs, with every country having one by strict rotation, potentially that would be a better way. “People chose the former and for now it is probably right,” he notes. 

If there is ever a huge number of Commissioners, there may be a question of revisiting, yet this is not being pushed on Ireland by any party. The Irish people themselves might come to this stage later on, when this is no longer a concern. 

Gay Mitchell believes that his biggest impact in European politics was in the development of dealing with the 3rd world. He was recruited by the assistant secretary general of the UN, to advice her on disaster risk reduction.

Gay Mitchell is an Irish politician and was elected Member of the European Parliament (MEP) for the Dublin constituency, on 11 June 2004. 

He is a member of Fine Gael, part of the European People's Party, and a former Teachta Dála (TD) for the Dublin South–Central constituency from 1981–2007. 

He does not plan to run for this May’s European elections.You may find more information about his work on his website here.

The second part of the interview will be published on OneEurope

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