Sunday, February 2, 2014

Ireland and the EU.
The economic crisis has had an impact on how European voters, including the Irish, view the EU right now. 

In an interview with Neale Richmond, the policy and projects manager of the European Movement of Ireland (EMI),we discussed about the various misconceptions that the Irish or the European voters in general have about the EU. 

We also talked about the various mistakes that took place on national and European level, that had an impact in shaping the European and Irish public opinion. Neale immediately spotted a problem when we are referring to the EU. A mistake that a lot of people make, is that they see the organization as something foreign and distant based in Brussels. 

“Ireland is the EU; it is an equal member of the group of 28 countries. So when we are questioning if the EU treated Ireland right during the crisis for example, it is a two way thing. Ireland got into a difficulty and they got bailed out by a Troika of the EU Commission, the IMF and the ECB. We would not get this assistance if we were not in the EU,” Neale explains.

“The measures that were implemented by the Troika through the program were extremely tough, but ultimately they have worked. We are the first country to leave the program in the EU and we are doing so in a fairly buoyant climate. Growth is expected to go up next year, consumer confidence is back, the property prices are rising and there are job announcements,” he continues. 

The crash was partly caused by international factors, but there were also huge domestic issues which the EU raised with the then government. The EU is not responsible for the crash although they are not blame free. “Equally so the EU is not solely responsible for our bail-out program: we are an equal partner, we agreed to that program and we got one of the best terms there were available to us,” Neale says.

The EU is an easy punching bag according to him, when people are facing tough decisions and start paying property tax, water rates, they are seeing services cut and a huge amount of money going out of the public sector pay. “We have to take personal responsibility. The EU did not force people in 2004 to buy a second apartment, or five apartments in Bulgaria as an investment opportunity,” he explains. 

“It is understandable there is animosity towards the EU because they are the face of the bail-out. But ultimately they did not decide the recovery program for Ireland, our government did in partnership with them,” he continues.

Ireland often comes under criticism from other European leaders, over its tax regime. One of the challenges of Europe as an entity and as a place to do business and trade, is that there are 28 different tax regimes. Ireland’s corporate tax rate is 12.5 % while in France the effective corporate rate for certain departments is 4%. 

So Neale believes that it is a bit unfair for these leaders to pick on Ireland. It is very much the Irish government’s consistent policy, supported by all parties across the political spectrum that Ireland's taxation system is not to be changed. The EU has absolutely no power to change the country's corporate tax rate and no intention to do so.

"Certain people can talk about this issue because they are losing business to Ireland. We are a very attractive place to do business, but not just because of our corporate tax rate. Ireland has an English speaking and well educated population, it is a member of the EU and it has established links with the USA, Canada and Australia already. It is a number of collective points that give us an advantage,” explains Neale. 

Ireland’s income tax rate is much higher than a lot of mainland European countries. The Baltic States have a flat tax and the Nordic countries a much higher income tax rate, so it is not accurate to say that Ireland is a completely low tax entity. 

Ireland may be one of the smallest countries in the EU, but that does not mean it is not equal. “We would very much like to see our role as it traditionally has been, showing leadership at times when an honest broker is needed in the continent. But also to keep developing Ireland’s role within Europe, to make sure that Ireland is proactive in the EU," states Neale.

The country's international reputation got absolutely destroyed in 2008, due to the economic crisis. It is slowly being rectified and the key to the Irish recovery is through its role in the EU, but also by embracing the opportunities that the EU presents. 

If Ireland is to keep its influence in Europe it must be proactive. “Our ministers need to remain attentive and vocal in the EU Council meetings and be positive. Our MEPs need to continue working hard in the EP to show Ireland in a good light. We can’t go back to auction politics and be negative towards the EU or ignore its directorates. We need to continue being on a sensible path to recovery with whichever government is in charge, we can not risk tarnishing our reputation again,” says Neale. 

The year of 2013 has been really busy for the EMI and they are doing a lot of reflection at the moment. Not just because Ireland had the Presidency for the first half of the year, but because as organization they sought to spread their work load and to develop. "The EMI is linked to Ireland’s role in the EU. When Ireland is really engaging with the EU, we are quite big and active organization. When both Ireland and the EU are more distant we do shrink as an organization as people are not as interested," explains Neale.

"We look forward to 2014. It is the European Year of the Citizens again and also there are the European elections, so we will be doing a lot of work on increasing people’s knowledge and interest in the European Parliament, its role in Ireland and the importance of these elections," he continues. 

Voting turnout is not too bad in the elections in Ireland, but the challenge is to make sure that people take the European and local elections as seriously as the general elections. It is understandable that people aren’t taking them as seriously, because they do not see the impact and they do not get much coverage. 

The challenge to the politicians is to keep the narrative European and to show people how important this is. There isn’t a distinction between local and European issues during the elections. "When it comes to European elections, far too many candidates will make it about local issues, or about an issue that there isn’t a European line to play. I am sure we are going to have campaigners who are against the water and property charges running in the European elections, when really they are not European issues," says Neale.

The Irish constitution requires a referendum and approval by the citizens, each time there must be changes to it. Both Nice and Lisbon Treaties were subjects to referendum and in both cases the referendum was run for a second time, after there have been changes to the Treaties. 

"The government that run the first Lisbon Treaty was ridiculously unpopular at the time and that followed through in the elections that came after it. There is always a kick against the government and as all the established parties were in favor, it was a bit of an anti-establishment thing to vote No," explains Neale.

During the Lisbon and with Nice referendums, a number of issues were raised. In Lisbon there were definitely concerns over loosing the Permanent Commissioner, so that was rectified and changed. There were also misplaced concerns about abortion, conscription, about defense and various other things. However there were amends made to the Treaty, to make sure that Ireland was exempt from all that. "That is what happens in treaties," Neale adds. 

The biggest shortcoming that the EU has is lack of communication. Communications skills in the EU don’t necessary translate out and beyond Brussels. "We need to see the EU being far clearer and working with organizations like ourselves," states Neale.

"The Commission representation offices in Ireland and across the EU do a lot of very good work, but there is still more that can be done. We must make sure that people are educated and aware about the EU, because then they are going to be more positive about it," he explains. 

Ireland as a member of the EU does very well for its size that needs to be acknowledged. "One shortcoming that we still have is that we are heavily relying on the UK and that is going to be a massive challenge, if in 2017 the UK opts to leave the EU. That’s when Ireland is going to be faced with real difficulty and it is a huge concern. We should try and maintain the British interest in the EU," Neale concludes.