How the EU might become a divisive issue for Ireland's next government
Mary C. Murphy, University College Cork
Ireland’s 2020 general election was fought and won on a promise of change. Although domestic policy issues dominated the campaign, it may prove to be EU issues which reveal the most divisive differences between an incoming pro-EU coalition government and an opposition led by a Euro-critical Sinn Féin.
In a previously unthinkable political move, and influenced by the longer-term fallout from the Covid-19 pandemic and related economic crisis, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael have agreed to form a coalition government assuming they can secure support from one other party.
Having categorically ruled out sharing power with Sinn Féin, a party with whom Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael perennially clash on all manner of issues, an agreed Fianna Fáil-Fine Gael draft document attempts to woo one of three smaller parties: the Green Party, the Labour Party or the Social Democrats.
The draft document contains 10 missions which centre on the wellbeing of Irish citizens. They include proposals on: reigniting the economy, universal healthcare, housing for all, a new social contract, a new green deal, a better quality of life for all, supporting young Ireland, and opportunities through education and research.
The final two missions are tangentially related to each other: ‘A Shared Island’ and ‘At the heart of Europe: Global Citizenship’. Both issues are framed in the context of Brexit and the future UK-EU relationship.
In its entirely, the document is an explicit response to the Covid-19 crisis. Its contents however, have been roundly criticised for their unrealistic ambition, aspirational tone, vague commitments and un-costed base. Much of the criticism focuses on the two parties supposed volte face commitments in relation to the economy, health, housing, childcare and the environment. In contrast, there has been relatively little commentary or criticism of other elements of the document, namely, its politically significant EU pledges.
In the draft document, the two parties loosely allude to the EU’s much lamented response to the dire economic consequences of the Covid-19 crisis. Countries like Italy and Spain, which have suffered immeasurable loss in recent weeks, have been especially disparaging about the refusal of Eurozone member states to agree on debt-sharing. Instead, the prioritisation of national concerns produced a deal which exposed the shallow nature of EU solidarity.
Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael’s draft document signals support for increased solidarity at the EU level. The parties commit to working ‘to reform the Union so it can respond effectively to the COVID-19 Emergency and its aftermath, based on solidarity between Member States’. This extends to a willingness to contribute more to the EU budget as a means of supporting the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), Erasmus+, Horizon and Interreg programmes, and they advocate for deepening and reform of monetary union, further EU enlargement and enhanced security cooperation.
These positions and pledges are not resource neutral and they are also highly political policy positions. They encapsulate support for both the widening of the EU (through enlargement) and for some deepening of EU integration (through closer policy cooperation between member states). The Fianna Fáil-Fine Gael draft document effectively points to a future Irish government supportive of a reform agenda which strengthens the economic and political bonds between EU member states.
The two parties are seeking to entice other smaller pro-EU parties into the coalition fold. If a coalition deal can be secured on this basis, the Euro-critical Sinn Féin will be the main opposition party in Dáil Éireann.
Historically, Sinn Féin has opposed EU integration, but that opposition has moderated in recent times and the party now engages critically with the EU. The party’s opposition to Brexit, however, does not necessarily signal a principled shift towards a more broadly pro-EU outlook. The Sinn Féin 2019 European election manifesto highlighted resistance to closer EU integration, support for enhanced national sovereignty, and opposition to greater security cooperation. The party was also vocal in its hostility towards austerity during the 2008 global financial crisis and will be similarly exercised by current EU fiscal rules should they lead to the introduction of austerity measures which restrict increased public investment in infrastructure and services during the Covid-19 crisis period.
If Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael are to form a coalition government, Sinn Féin, as the largest opposition party, will have an enhanced platform and a dominant position on the opposition benches to challenge and to resist government support for various EU policies and proposals.
In other words, a pro-EU Irish government will confront a decidedly less Europhile opposition. This may provide a welcome and healthy dose of counter-opinion on Ireland’s relationship with the EU, however, it also has the potential to sow the seeds of disaffection among Irish voters and to add to the pressures facing an incoming government. The smaller pro-EU and left of centre coalition parties, in particular, may be vulnerable to Sinn Féin attacks if future EU proposals clash with leftist political leanings.
With Ireland having been largely immune from the recent rise of Euroscepticism across the EU, the next Irish government may be forced to deal not just with the fallout from the Covid-19 crisis, but also with a strong and disruptive opposition which is less passive and permissive when it comes to Ireland’s EU membership.
As we all well know, other national governments across Europe have stumbled and perished when dealing with contested EU issues. The possibility that Ireland’s next government may face such a fate is no longer as far-fetched as it once was.
Mary C. Murphy is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Government and Politics, University College Cork