Barry Andrews is a Member of the European Parliament for the Dublin Constituency representing Fianna Fáil and the Renew Europe Group. In a new column for Dublin Gazette, he gives an insight into what life is really like in European Parliament.
The Czech team, Slavia Prague were beaten by Danish team Midjytland in a recent European Champions League match which was refereed by Damir Skomina of Slovenia.
One Czech MEP was so incensed about the performance of the referee that he took to twitter to describe Slovenians as ‘opportunistic pigs’. Surprisingly, the MEP in question, Alexandr Vondra, is a former diplomat and his outburst caused a storm of protest among Slovenian MEPs.
The next day, all eight Slovenian MEPs circulated a letter demanding an apology.
Eventually, diplomatic instincts returned – Mr Vondra apologised and deleted the tweet.
In an email sent to all MEPs, Mr Vondra said he had failed to separate his emotion as a fan from his responsibility as a public representative. Dignity restored, the Slovenians gracefully accepted the apology and everyone moved on.
It was entertaining to watch the email exchange over a few days from the sidelines.
However, the thought occurred, and I hope it’s not a stretch to say so, that the EU and its institutions serve an important purpose in helping countries to overcome minor and major disputes.
When Ireland and the UK joined the EEC in 1973, tensions between the two countries were as bad as they had been since the War of Independence. Over the subsequent years the European institutions served two important functions in setting the groundwork for the breakthroughs of the 1990s.
Firstly, the fact that Irish and UK officials and elected representatives met on a daily basis on the margins of the endless EU meetings, helped to form bonds of friendship and, eventually, trust which formed an important foundation for the hard won peace.
Secondly, the structure of the EU is such that the leaders of the Member States meet on an almost equal footing at Council meetings to discuss the overall political direction of the EU. That was very important for a small country like Ireland in its relations with the much larger UK. It is true that there were many more UK MEPs than Irish ones. But at Council level, every member state has a veto on many issues.
So, as a result of EU membership, we suddenly moved from a very uneven hostile relationship to one of much greater parity.
Brexit has really underlined that shift in the Irish UK relationship.
When Ireland joined the EEC in 1973, almost 80% of our exports went to the UK and we shared a common currency with the UK. On one occasion in the 1970s, the UK devalued the currency with notice given to Dublin the night before!
Now, Irish exports to the UK hover at around a mere 10% of the total. Alongside, membership of the Euro, the two economies have essentially decoupled.
It will be interesting to see if Scotland, which has an economic relationship with England that is similar to the one we had in the 1970s.
The move out from under the petticoats of the much larger neighbour is also noticeable in the role that Ireland is playing in the world.
Irish people hold three of the most powerful economic posts in the EU. Mairead McGuinness is Commissioner for Financial Services, Pascal Donohoe is President of the Eurozone and Philip Lane is Chief Economist at the European Central Bank. Between them, they hold enormous influence in decisions affecting the economic lives of 450 million people.
And Ireland successfully won a seat on the UN Security Council starting in January 2021.
Therefore, we are now faced with a new series of political questions. How do we maintain the proximity in the Irish British relationship that the EU previously facilitated? And how do we engage with the UK on a reasonably equal footing?
On the first question, there are British Irish structures in the Good Friday Agreement but they have very little clout. This needs to be refashioned and given some real functions and a significant budget. It should be based on the model of the Nordic Council.
On the second question, I believe that our membership of the EU will give us some clout when it comes to dealing with the UK but there are 26 other member states, all with significant national interests at play. We will have to invest significant time in the bilateral relationship. We will have to remind the UK that they need us as much as we need them.
It is worth recalling that the UK trade surplus with Ireland is its second largest in the world after the US at €13 billion. Also the UK exports more goods and services to Ireland (population 5 million) than it does to China, India and Brazil combined (population of 2 billion).
In the future, we need new structures for the relationship between the two islands so that when an English ref disallows a perfectly good Irish goal there is a civilised way of letting off steam.