Project Calm – Referendum Lessons from Ireland


Recent events ensure a return to blogging after some time. I do have the excuse of being somewhat of a practitioner for a recent period! This site has frequently examined the relationship between Ireland and the UK within the EU usually predicated on the basis that such an alliance was key to our national interest and helpful in keeping the excesses of some in Europe in check. Clearly all has changed utterly and a “terrible beauty is born”. There is no shortage of commentary, jokes, anger and emotion about Brexit throughout Europe and indeed the world but perhaps an element of calm reflection would be the best approach in contrast to some of the rashness of our leaders.


From all dramatic events should come learning but the absence of this coupled with the absence of a plan B is the first take away from the Brexit vote. The referendum as Irish people know is a curious instrument and should be handled with the greatest of care by experienced practitioners. Ireland’s two No votes on Nice and Lisbon are highly instructive in the current situation. The recent campaign saw a heady mix of Project Fear and according to Sadiq Khan Project Hate and the aftermath continues to demonstrate more or less the same. The first and surely most important lesson of the current situation is that the referendum is over. There is no need to re-fight it and claim and counter claim about what was said and promised. The rowing back by the Leave side of many predictions and promises would surely see them win gold in Rio but would it have been so different if it was a narrow remain? Flights of fantasy and rhetoric are normal in politics and moreso in referendums. Again those experienced in this blunt instrument will know there is no real fact checking and truth is the first casualty.


The clucking in Brussels is audible and while the behaviour of the Leave campaign was quite breath-taking maybe some in Brussels need to be looking closer to home. Those who subscribe to the federalist dream are the harshest in their response to the UK with some even seeing this as the ideal opportunity to accelerate their project. This would be a mistake but so typical of the approach of recent years. Unfortunately there are still too many at a senior level in Europe who simply cannot think or act in a different way. The federalist view that Europe simply has to keep integrating regardless of public opinion is now nearly as toxic as the Euroscepticism and populism it is feeding. Let’s face it while their leaders make many stomachs churn it is important to listen to what is driving and motivating Eurosceptism. In Ireland we may have finally (never say never) tamed the EU referendum but in many respects we do so by accepting and conceding some of our opponents arguments. Keeping the argument simple but meaningful is big challenge. Many across the EU sighed with relief when a Commissioner for every country was guaranteed for Ireland’s second vote on Lisbon.


The harsh punitive approach to the UK is tempting and many such as Martin Schultz have caved in to it. Here you simply keep fighting on in the jungle long after the ceasefire. Not only is it foolish to do so but it is counterproductive. Again say it slowly…the referendum is over. There has to be a fresh dispensation to deal with the aftermath. Everybody in Ireland remembers what it was like to have somebody like Sarkozy lecture us on how we voted. It probably made him and a few Europhiles feel good but it further annoyed the people who voted and made them less likely to compromise. The “punish the Brits” cabal is motivated by a fear that other referendums might follow. This seems far-fetched, the Dutch vote on the Ukraine was far from leaving the EU and Le Pens politics, while more popular, are a long way from voting France out of the EU. Smart countries will wait and see how the UK/EU situation pans out. More to the point what kind of EU is being defended if it is one that cannot withstand some public scrutiny and if those who advocate for it cannot explain its benefits to the public? Even as the most Eurosceptic country the vote in the UK was narrow and it was effectively hard done by working class areas which swung it.


Project Punish is bad for the EU and will clearly be bad for Ireland as the barriers and blockages being sought to keep fighting the referendum after it is over will place enormous obstacles between Ireland and a harmonious relationship with the UK and EU. Donald Tusk as president of the EU Council has criticised the unrealistic federal vision of Europe at this point in time to the EPP. We simply don’t know what the future holds and rushing to positions and engaging in Project Punish is the least desirable approach. Even formally, as was the case with Irish No votes, the onus is on the member state to take the initiative. There is a debate going on in the UK about precisely how to handle the situation. They should be given time to have this, some are even talking of  a second referendum, a Scottish veto, a general election or a refusal by the Commons to back the Article 50 initiation, who knows what will happen but shrill punishment language form Brussels will not help. Interestingly it was also Donald Tusk who said in a divorce one party can’t stay in the house for another  6 months but if Tusk and his colleagues put out the bins and washed the car a bit more maybe things could work out?


How Quickly we Forget!


Ireland has made rather a penchant out of the European referendum. Maybe our decline in the Eurovision has left us missing the Euro limelight or maybe more realistically our vigilant Supreme Court has taken a particular view of sovereignty which few want to take on. What is most fascinating about this though is our belief that effectively debating the same question over and over again makes us more knowledgeable about the subject matter. Surely, we believe, dissecting the entrails of the EU treaties every few years must make us experts on all matters EU?

In many respects it’s the opposite, after flagellating ourselves and Europe for an intense period we seem to develop chronic amnesia about treaty provisions good bad or indifferent. Even more surprising, dare we say shocking, is we don’t pay any attention to the new and innovative provisions that arguably gave rise to a referendum and which both sides slogged it out over during the weeks of a campaign.

Yet oddly the new provisions do get used and often in a very different way than many naysayers predicted. One in particular has come in to use a fair bit recently and Ireland has played a role, not that you’d know it from debate and coverage here. The Lisbon Treaty had two notable features which have both come together recently. One, Justice and Home Affairs matters coming fully under the treaties (with an Irish opt out), is clearly relevant to us but usually ignored. The other, the enhanced role for national parliaments, featured in the campaign but was generally dismissed by those who opposed the treaty as window dressing.

The provisions on national parliaments relate mainly to the idea of subsidiarity which is euro speak for having decisions taken at the most appropriate and preferably most local level possible. The EU agenda on Justice and. Home Affairs has continued apace since Lisbon but with little attention in Ireland. The logic that this is all irrelevant as we have an “opt out” is weak. We don’t know when this will change and it is arguably impossible to prevent seepage of many of these matters as people move around, get married, buy property and commit crimes in Europe too! Ireland is in a strong position as it can take part in negotiations relating to matters it may opt out of eventually.

Recently the two matters came together. As the EU becomes more involved in Justice matters it seeks to have institutions that can reach across Europe. Fraud in the EU and against the EU budget has been an issue for a long time and one would have thought an area where many would agree action was needed. The EU Commission response of establishing a new prosecutorial office was seen as a way forward by the EU executive. However national parliaments did not see it that way and utilised their power under the treaties to send the proposal back to the Commission. It should be mentioned that a previous “yellow card” on industrial relations issues was treated as an actual veto by the Commission.

The yellow card handed out to the European Public Prosecutor proposal involved Ireland for the first time. As with all EU legislative provisions the paper trail is available to for all to see, although the documents are found more easily on EU rather than Oireachtas sites. Ireland raised some important issues in its submission about whether this is the best approach to take to the issue. We can only wonder why nobody heard anything about our national parliament exercising such an important power which it received under such a widely debated treaty? The Irish media of course believe nothing happens in Oireachtas Committees and often they are right but parliaments sending back EU draft laws regardless of Governments views is interesting to more than nerds maybe?

The Commission can of course keep on with the proposal but this will not always be smart politics and Governments and MEPs have their say later, a triple lock if you like. It might have been interesting to know how all this happens, do committees in parliaments communicate? What do Governments think?, what about parties and the infamous eurosceptics? Some parts of the EU legislative process are happening in national parliaments but nobody seems to care. How quickly we forget!

Can We Handle the New Truths?


The fact that Irish trade and particularly agriculture could be affected by far away events in the Ukraine seems to have come as a surprise to some. It seems that the EU can insulate our farmers however from the implications of taking even the mildest of stands against Vladimir Putin’s aggressive tactics in his near abroad. This should assuage the fears of people taking an interest in these events in Ireland. However in some countries who share certain “traditions” with us far more lofty issues are arising from events to the east.

Both Finland and Sweden have long shared Ireland’s policy of neutrality in their international relations. The fact that these and other countries prefer to use the term “non-aligned” may say something about their approach to these issues also. The recent events in Ukraine have caused quite a profound discussion in these countries. This is not necessarily so surprising, those countries proximate to the conflict clearly have a very focused view of it and the threats arising. Finland itself has long developed its foreign policy as a direct result of its border and experiences with Russia.

Former Finnish Prime Minister and now EU Commission nominee Juri Katayanin has already called for an open debate on the issue. Ministers in Sweden’s conservative dominated coalition have similarly highlighted the instability to the east. Events in Crimea particularly focused the minds of those in Stockholm and Helsinki as no doubt did Prime Minister and former President Dmitry Medvedev when he warned the two countries that any move towards NATO membership would lead Moscow to “respond”. It is no small thing for these countries to be raising these issues with Sweden’s neutrality going back to 1812 and Finland effectively being a former province of Russia.

Sweden and Finland have taken quite a different approach to defence and neutrality from Ireland in the past. The concept that a neutral should be able to defend itself was taken seriously by both. Defence spending was always higher and national service in the military far more commonplace and accepted. Such an approach is of course far more consistent with international law in this area which does not see neutrality as opting out of military matters but more avoiding specific conflicts and importantly committing to defending oneself if the need arises. In fact one of the factors promoting soul searching in the Nordic states has been extensive Russian air games in the region, one particularly leading to the scrambling of Danish NATO planes while Sweden looked on! Another feature of the Nordic approach to these matters has of course been strong regional co-operation on defence matters by NATO and non NATO states alike in the shape of NORDEFCO.

Of course no such debate or discussion is happening in Ireland despite the publication of a Green Paper on Defence in 2013. Ireland has taken part in European Security and Defence Policy but has a constitutional bar on taking part in “European Defence”. Ireland is a consistent contributor to ESDP missions as well as UN deployments. Unusually Ireland’s participation in the EU’s battle groups was with Nordic forces rather than the more obvious co-operation with our nearest neighbor, clearly still beyond the pale despite much vaunted good relations. Not many people pay much attention to Ireland’s policy in this area. It seems clear Ireland will commit its meagre resources to the ESDP and maintain its triple lock on deployments effectively allowing the UN Security Council decide on these. Olivier de France of the European Council on Foreign Relations puts Ireland firmly in the “abstentionist” camp in categorizing different groups approaches to defence policy (interestingly Sweden and Finland are categorised as “strategists”). This may be fine when it comes to commitments at the EU level, but what about actually defending the country? With so much defence thinking caught up in international co-operation this basic question often surprisingly gets lost but this is precisely what is driving the debate in Sweden and Finland.

Conflict is changing and we may no longer be facing the simplistic east west European war once feared, although some in the new east may dispute this. However we have to examine what are the real and substantial threats a country like Ireland faces? Answering this means taking an holistic look at Ireland’s role in the world particularly its economic model and geopolitical location. This means our complete immersion in the U.S. global economic hegemony and our common travel area with the UK. Whether we like it or not these say a lot about who we are and the type of threats we face.

What would happen for example if Al Qaeda or similar forces decided to threaten leading U.S. industrial infrastructure here where we boast of having the world leaders in I.T. and pharmaceuticals? What about hijackings or fighters returning to the UK from Syria and Iraq seeing Ireland as an easier touch? Unfortunately the world may not ignore us forever.

In many respects Ireland is seen as one of the free riders in Europe, it is clear that as a country we do not have the resources to mount any effective self defence but there is also an unwritten assumption that somebody else will! However it has to be questioned how wise this is. Surely the primary duty of a Government is to take steps to ensure the security of the people and be able to demonstrate this.

Britain’s EU Difficulty Definitely not Ireland’s Opportunity


In the same way many Irish like to cheer England’s misfortune on the football field despite supporting English teams and watching UK soaps any schadenfreude at the UKs latest travails with the EU should not be a cause for happiness amongst Irish policy makers. In fact a further fracturing of the UKs relationship with the EU over the next few years presents a major policy challenge to Ireland. With hundreds of civil servants, advisors and think tank personnel at his disposal David Cameron could not have made a mistake about Jean Claude Junker and the “Spitzenkanidat” process. The Prime Minister clearly chose this unwinnable confrontation for both domestic consumption and as a scene setter for his EU policy over the next few years which is now clearly focussed on an in/out referendum as a sword of damocles over a renegotiated relationship.

That all this is very serious for Ireland hardly needs to be stated. Ireland needs to establish where the UK is going and how to engage with that journey. While many believe it impossible that the UK would leave the EU the potency of events to lead to unanticipated results cannot be ignored. The first task in this journey is to get a fix on what exactly are the issues for the UK. Despite constant public debate and a level of toxicity about the European issue in UK politics it can still be hard to determine precisely what it is the UK wants in real tangible terms. Certainly there is a general dissatisfaction about the EU and an expressed desire for a loose trading arrangement without much central political authority. This is fine as far as it goes but any renegotiation will have to be article by article on the existing treaties and few of the other 27 will agree to wholesale dismantling of the carefully balanced deals that have gone in to each.

Areas where unanimity exists should not be an issue for the UK and they also currently have opt outs in many other areas such as justice and home affairs and social policy. The other main area would be the single market where qualified majority voting often speeds up the process. While UK tabloids may have great fun with stories about bananas and toilet flushing the reality is the UK is one of the biggest supporters and beneficiaries of the single market. Core to the UKs problems with the EU seems to be being outvoted in certain key areas such as free movement and internal EU migration. The principal of free movement is as central to the EU as parliamentary democracy is to the UK, trying to dilute it for the other 27 will fail. A solution may be found where the UK can resile from some commitments in this field but this will surely come at a price for the considerable UK expatriate community in the EU.

So what are the Issues for Ireland? There could be many. Already we are subject to many restrictions relating to the EU not of our making in order to maintain a bilateral common travel area with the UK for example in relation to Schengen free movement arrangements. Further change in this area could have considerable impact on Ireland and North/South relations on the island. Similarly on justice and home affairs we have been boxed in to a corner due to sharing a common law system with the UK which may have impacts in the area of fundamental rights. Social policy and social security would be another area, in fact the issues could go on and on depending on how extensive the UK approach to renegotiation is.

So critically it is vital to Ireland that the UK establishes what exactly it is they want so that Ireland can shadow the course of negotiations. This is problematic however as the issue has become so divisive in UK domestic politics. Real leadership is surely now needed in the UK. If there is an agreement on renegotiation it needs to be an all party one. The UKs national interest is poorly served by ongoing squabbling and jockeying on the European issue, it is surely now way more important than that. A Royal Commission would enable a truly agreed and national view to emerge which would assist the other EU states and particularly Ireland to get an idea about what precisely is at issue and what is not.

Ireland will have to negotiate bilaterally with the UK on any sensitive issues, similarly Ireland will have to engage with other member states should developments disadvantage us as any renegotiated package must be unanimously agreed by the other 27. In many respects it should not have to come to this. Existing arrangements relating to opt outs and enhanced co-operation may be sufficient to accommodate a member state that is less committed than the others. Ireland also has a similar approach to the the UK on a number of issues like taxation and defence. It would be unfortunate to loose such an ally but we must be prepared for all eventualities

Europe’s Looming Constitutional Crisis?


Usually when you have an economic crisis you make sure politics and institutions are stable to avoid a total collapse. Not so in Europe. European political parties are currently seeking to democratise the election of the European Commission President. They refer to a new provision in place since Lisbon which requires member states to “take account of” elections to the European Parliament when nominating the EU Commission President for approval by the European Parliament. On the whole this is a noble ambition based on the public view of Europe as undemocratic, even if it is a little shaky in terms of legality. Anyway such an approach can become the de facto position if everyone plays along, but it appears they are not!

While the leaders of the main parties are agreed on this approach their enthusiasm is not necessarily shared in all capitals. So we may be facing a conflict between the supranational view of Europe in Brussels which prioritises the ideological persuasion of office holders against the member states who are more interested in their nationality. There are pluses and minuses in both approaches and we should not forget that national governments and national parliaments are key parts of the EU political architecture. However the need for an injection of democracy right in to the top of the EU system is a clear necessity and political groups in the European Parliament have shown transnational ideological politics can work. In short there is politics in Brussels too.

The leaders of the EP groups (not the parties or the common candidates, try and keep up!) have made it crystal clear that they will not be party to any “back-room deals” as this is seen to be the old way of running Europe. Such a logic is clear but we might wonder if it is the behind closed doors nature of the deals or the complete lack of recognition amongst the public of any candidates that may be the issue. Of course it has been reported that the UK is set to oppose any candidate that is too “integrationist”

There are a number of disconnects here. Firstly the European parties have wisely gotten out of the blocs early to establish “facts on the ground” and have presented the leading role of the parliament and its elections as they key democratic moment in the EU. Member states are slower and more cautious and often less keen on such a federalist view. Despite living in the same ideological families politicians in member states see the world very differently to those in Espace Leopold. Scorning the parliament is not a smart play though, just ask Jacques Santer. Indeed the institutional balance has moved even more in the direction of the directly elected body in the 20 years since the downfall of his Commission. Most of all European citizens have simply not kept up with the range of powers the European Parliament has or else they have not been properly informed of them. They will still vote in 27 national elections many blissfully unaware of “top candidates” who will claim credit for their support. Regardless of the reasons the EP is very much on the rise in the inter institutional world in Brussels and bolting the common candidate agenda on may seal the deal.

The desire to rid Brussels of behind closed doors deals while noble is unrealistic. The top job in the EU Commission may go to a person who seems to have a fresh democratic mandate but what about the other positions. Since Lisbon there are effectively two new positions with a President of the EU Council, currently Herman Van Rompuy and the High Representative for Foreign Policy, Catherine Ashton. It is hard to see how these positions and indeed countless others can be allocated without some “horse trading”. If all were elected surely small countries would be the first to complain?

It is now emerging that there are a number of other candidates interested in the EU commission role and who see the “old style” method as the way the post should be filled. In fact they may even have the law on their side as the reference in the EU treaties is far from clear. What does “taking in to account” mean? It could be argued it indicates the general party affiliation of candidates, or indeed merely which groups grew or shrunk in the election. Surely it would not be fair, for example, to rule out candidates from smaller political families in a winner takes all approach? Given the determination of both sides of this process could we be heading for a constitutional stand-off between the European Parliament and the member states?

This may seem like normal EU infighting and with little relevance to people’s lives. However it also appears that the real winners in the forthcoming EU Parliament elections will be the eurosceptics and far right who are also in tune with some of the public’s views. Thus we may be treated to a stand-off between the institutions and member states just after an election in which substantial numbers of people Europe wide have voted for representatives who are opposed to the EU project. It is not clear how such a stand-off would be resolved and we certainly don’t want to wait as long as some member states do to have workable institutions up and running. It would be in everyone’s interest if the Council of the EU and the European Parliament issued a joint detailed view on how this process will work in advance of the public going to the polls.

This too Shall Pass?

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Saint Patrick’s Day has become a real triumph for Irish marketing and branding. The lighting up of prominent world monuments in the Greening initiative really catches the eye and gives some credence to the slightly hackneyed idea of “punching above our weight”. So far so good!

Unfortunately though there is always something out there that scratches the surface and requires us to look under the façade. Punching above your weight and being everyone’s favourite for a day might be fun but there’s more to the world than that. You see it’s not just in economic policy that we have to make “hard choices” in order to “punch above our weight”. Sometimes in our foreign policy we have to be willing to stand up and be counted, and not just on the populist things like being against world hunger and for world peace. This March the approach of our national holiday sees one of these times. We’ve heard plenty about whether ministers should or shouldn’t attend the Saint Patricks Day Parade in New York for example due to their position on gay rights.

The Saint Patricks Day Parade is back on in Moscow this year and the Irish Government is to be represented by Minister of State Alex White. Now Ireland has had strong words to say on the crisis in Ukraine. The Tánaiste has described it as the worst crisis in Europe since the Second World War, has called in the Russian ambassador and warned of the EU taking strong action. Rightly so of course, regardless of the rights and wrongs of the internal situation in Ukraine the presence of Russian troops there is a clear and aggressive breach of that country’s sovereignty and international law.

Even if it is hard to find a way forward in this crisis it is clear that the most basic measures would involve some form of sanctions. Usually the least painful sanctions involve diplomatic, political and cultural isolation as we learnt in South Africa. So what will be our approach to celebrating and sharing our national day in Moscow? Will we take the logical step following from our strong statements and not have ministerial attendance at the event which has significant Russian political involvement? Let’s just say Paddy Powers may not be giving good odds on it. Rather like the photo leaked British position we’ll talk a good game but effectively do nothing. You can’t help wondering sometimes do Irish diplomats live in fear of the lack of an EU common position as it actually means you have to take your own view and stand over it. It seems that’s where we’re headed.

It’s not such a big deal some people may say, perhaps not. Is it worth risking good relations with Russia over, would it possibly risk our energy security? Maybe, but as Jason O ’Mahoney has pointed out what if it is Ukraine today and Estonia tomorrow. When do we actually say that an authoritarian regime to our east cannot simply invade a sovereign country because there is a like-minded minority there? What does this mean for the Baltic States who have similar minorities and are EU and NATO members? Globally Russia and China are on the rise due to their economic prowess and resources. This will inevitably lead to political dominance, are we all OK with this? The stakes are high and we might want to reflect on them.

With so many world capitals and landmarks basking in green and hosting the ever popular Irish, what better way would there be to show that being Irish means supporting a world where we really do value international law and the peaceful settlement of disputes as it says in our Constitution? The isolation of Russia by not being invited to our party would say a lot about how we see the world today. Unfortunately like many others when we are actually faced with a crisis where we could actually have some impact we bow our heads and say, This too Shall Pass

Remembrance – A Foreign Policy Issue?


We are in a period of remembrance for events which happened 100 years ago and shaped modern Ireland. On the face of it these are profoundly domestic issues relating to internal politics and debates, however a cursory glance at the events of 100 years ago illustrates they were profoundly located in the realm of international relations and Ireland’s place in the world.

The very notion of Home Rule agreed 100 years ago restricted one of the high level goals of most independence movements, to decide on ones relationship with the rest of the world. Those thousands of volunteers who fought in the British Army were part of one of the most significant and bloody events which has shaped the modern world and the 1916 proclamation was overt in its references to Ireland’s international links. Indeed for centuries before whether it was revolutionary France, the Spanish Armada or the Irish personnel who staffed various imperial outposts, our history has been intertwined with the rest of the world.

So what of remembrance? Clearly this is still a controversial area in Irish life and it is now more widely agreed that previous airbrushing of a huge element of Irish life and history has not been helpful. More recently Ireland has engaged with the legacy of the clear majority of the population who decided fighting in the British Army on the encouragement of John Redmond was the best way to secure national independence. Yet remembrance still remains a thorny issue. It was considered quire significant recently that Irish troops took part in the regular Menim Gate memorial in Ypres in Belgium. Yet there are still shortcomings in the States approach to remembrance particularly in France and Belgium.

A new and impressive peace park has been supported by the state outside Ypres to remember the fact that Irish and Ulster Volunteers fought side by side. However this is not a state memorial despite the fact that it was opened by the respective heads of state. Joint ceremonies with heads of state and government in this area have become more common in recent times yet the main memorials in our own state are not directly supported by our Government and one official day of commemoration is pointedly addressed to all who people who lost their lives in all conflicts.

Maybe this is the way we want it? It is probably felt that we have an ambiguous relationship with the First World War and as an independent state with control of our foreign policy we stayed out of the Second World War. Yet there are other states with equally conflicted pasts who fully engage in this process, in fact the memorials of countries like South Africa and Canada are some of the most engaging in Belgium and France.

Clearly remembrance should be just that and not a celebration or glorification of war, but a sensitive approach to any ceremony can ensure that. The clear belief of many who fought and died in the “Great War” that it was a contribution to Irish freedom has to be be officially recognised. Remembrance is a foreign policy issue because it is part of Europe and much of the worlds common history and how we look back on our role 100 years later should not forget this.