Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees

Wednesday, 29 May 2019

Joint Oireachtas Committee on European Union Affairs

Alliance Building to Strengthen the European Union (Resumed): European Council on Foreign Relations

Ms Almut Möller:

I thank the Chair and the members of the committee for their comments and questions. I will start with the Chair's question regarding disappointment. It is an unusual question that we are asking and it might be wondered why we are doing that. We are doing it because we wanted to understand what matters to governments. To clarify, this question is specifically looking at government positions and think-tanks and academics observing government. This, however, is only one part of a larger puzzle. There are many other arenas that matter as well and what citizens think certainly matters very much. We have some reference to that in our policies and partners section. I ask the committee to forgive me if I am jumping around the topics a little.

Reference was made to engagement. Is there a preference for engagement in the context of all 28 EU states, in groups of member states, in the treaties, outside of the treaties or just alone? There is a view representative of government officials. We also have a sample, however, of the public polling we carried out. It is very expensive to do that in 28 member states, so the smaller countries do not match representative standards. We wanted to include this in order to illustrate the point. I agree fully with the Chair that it is of tremendous importance.

We have another flanking instrument called the EU cohesion monitor. It has just come out and also looks at the 28 EU member states and their trajectory over the past ten years. That has been the most formative time in European integration. We have witnessed crises and responses which affected not only our economies but also the attitudes of citizens. We can very clearly map out what the citizens think in that context and we are doing so. We do not have time now to look at that in detail but that research is also available online and free of charge. Ireland is a very interesting example of how attitudes can really change for the worse regarding approval of the EU and then recover. It has been amazing for us to see the recovery in the past months.

I want to turn now to the Chair's question on disappointment and why we think that matters. Our submission details the countries in the EU that get the most votes for disappointing the most, namely, Hungary, the United Kingdom, Poland, Greece, France, Austria, Germany, the Netherlands and Italy. Those countries do not regard themselves in that light. Why does the rest of the EU make these statements? It is because there is deep disappointment about neglecting the EU and the values of the Union. That tells us about what the governments of the member states care about and that is a very interesting finding.

Ireland is a country that is very much liked. We can see a little bit of disappointment showing up in the data. For a more nuanced picture overall, however, I would like to exclude the French, the Germans and the Spaniards and just concentrate on the other member states. We know that the big countries automatically attract more attention and that this results in it slightly more blurry in respect of the smaller member states. We can see from the data what the Irish respondents are telling us and in whom they are disappointed. The member states most mentioned are the UK, Poland and Hungary. We also see mention of France and Germany, however. My interpretation is that is because of attention not being reciprocated as much.

The Chair also had a query concerning Ireland's role and how it is perceived. My sense is that Ireland is seen as closely intertwined with Brexit. From my perspective in Berlin, I sensed in recent years that there is a clear idea about the interests of Dublin in this process, as well as the associated vulnerabilities. There was much engagement on that issue. I will read with interest the document to which the Chair directed my attention. My question concerns the identity that Ireland wants to shape for itself in the post-Brexit environment. How does Ireland want to offer itself as partner? Our data tell us that an answer is not really emerging yet. There is not enough clarity about that.

The Chair also asked about our recommendations for Ireland. One area where the Union really needs to punch better in future policies is in the digital realm. Our Irish respondents tell us that is an absolute priority for Ireland. That again does not necessarily mean that there is alignment across the Union and that every other country also stating that this is important. There are differences regarding policies but there is a great deal of potential to raise this issue in the future. That is particularly the case in the context of the New Hanseatic League. The French have been talking about this more. There is great potential to engage in these new future-orientated policies and, in doing so, to shape a picture of a country which has the strong backing of its citizens.

As an aside, that aspect also makes Ireland very interesting for all of those committed to European co-operation, if not necessarily further integration. Ireland is a very stable and reliable partner in that context. This is something Germany definitely cares about. My recommendation is to use that advantage and ensure that other member states really see Ireland's potential. The country has had past difficulties within the European Union, but our cohesion monitor data show that Ireland is also seen as a success story demonstrating how Europe can help to deliver on potential. It is necessary for Ireland to paint a clear picture of itself, talk about that vision more and in that way become more prominent on the map. There is much to work with already and Brexit presents a clear window of opportunity because much attention is focused on Dublin right now.

The point concerning the longevity of coalitions is very interesting. I agree that there will be more issue-orientated coalitions. That will be the case because of a more politicised environment in the member states and the EU institutions. At the same time, however, it is important to have longer term strategies for partnership. They can allow a sense of co-operation to be developed that transcends occasional differences. I refer to the current relationship between France and Germany. Normally, those two countries do not agree on many of the issues. They have a framework established, however, in which they can talk about those differences.

We have a special section in our data on France and Germany where we asked only the French and the Germans about themselves. They are well aware of their differences and they are also not very optimistic about overcoming them in the key areas that need to be tackled. The Chair mentioned the Eurozone as one such issue. These types of data are an important indicator for us. It is not enough to know about each other's differences. There also has to be knowledge of the space we need to create to allow action to be undertaken. The French and the Germans have not proved to be very good at that. There are reasons why that is the case, as well as reasons that affect the rest of the Union.

I will turn now to the concerns of Ireland as a minor player. There is great potential for member states that do have the size and heft of France, Germany and others. Ireland already has a legacy and credibility within the EU framework. I had some interesting conversations in Croatia recently. It only joined the EU in 2013 and is coming from a completely different perspective. The level of difficulty is much higher. I refer to shaping an idea about oneself and having the willingness to be proactive in that and not just a passive receiver. That is a completely different situation.

There is an advantage to being recognised as a country that wants not only to take but to shape although that, at times, might look different.

The disregard of smaller countries was connected to point about the reinvention of nationalism. It has less relevance in our data and more in our cohesion monitor data. Following German foreign policy very closely, I agree that the current environment probably brings more focus on the old-fashioned methods of power, which is very dangerous. It will force players within the Union to play and punch, especially when we do not know where one of our most important partners, the United States, is going, but it clearly does not want a strong EU. It understands a more old-fashioned type of power, which clearly is not how we Europeans would like to look at it. It represents a risk and places a duty on the larger member states, especially when shaping coalitions outside of the EU framework. Tying things back into the EU framework at large is becoming increasingly important and I am concerned that this is not adequately recognised. There is an important role for the countries which warn against this. Alliances are important in this regard. This is very clearly seen wherever I travel in Nordic countries, for instance.

I spoke earlier about the construction of the affluent seven group, but it could be an affluent eight or affluent nine or whatever. We could see Ireland as being a part of it but we did not include it for the time being. These are important opportunities beyond the shaping of the day-to-day politics of voting on respective policies; it is on the broader notion of what it means to act together as Europeans.

I will comment briefly on the Senator's point about Saxony, because it points towards a dilemma. In recent days in the vote for the European Parliament, Saxony, along with Brandenberg and to an extent Thuringia, showed large votes for the nationalist Alternative for Germany party. It is coming in first in Brandenberg and Saxony and it came in third in Thuringia. This is something to watch. There is shared interest but then there is the question of how the public allows for closer co-operation. The question related to the regional level, however, which is very important but we are not mapping that in this survey. We deal with it better in other surveys we are undertaking.


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