Speaking to a crowd of students in Trinity College Dublin, European Commission President José Manuel Barosso said that “you are a privileged generation, all of Europe is yours.” This can and should be seen as a reflection within the European Union of an attitude welcoming further Irish engagement within the EU, and the story of Ireland in Europe is one that Irish people can and should be proud of. There are challenges to be met within the EU, of both a democratic deficit, and a more existential question of what the EU is to be, and why. But Ireland is uniquely placed to have a role in answering those questions.
Our geographic location deprives us of any engagement of strategic relationships with other small states based on geography like Visegrad. Coalition building has therefore been based on policy domains rather than strategic relationships. Former foreign Minister Brian Cowen articulated this in 2003 when he suggested that “We have affinities with countries like Sweden and Finland on security and defence. Our views on the commission coincide with that of Benelux. We cooperate with the UK on taxation and with France on Agriculture. This honest engagement with the EU was also reflected in the presidency papers prepared in the lead-up to the June European Council 2004, which are replete with references to “overall and balanced agreement” and “balance among all member states”. In short, what’s best for Ireland is what’s best for everyone, and that’s what Ireland has pushed for diplomatically. The preferred EU for Ireland than is one of equilibrium between different forces, which is in keeping with the founding ethos of the European project.
The biggest hurdle for that push is the lack of general knowledge about the EU in Ireland. It is somewhat ironic that it should be the Irish who voted against the Lisbon treaty given that the consensus in its contents was the result of Irish diplomacy. It is indicative though of a broader European trend of ignorance about the affairs of the EU, which is parallels an increasing tendency towards technocracy away from democracy, and a descent into the politics of the intra-national bear pit rather than the supra-national collective endeavour that the EU was originally envisaged to be. At present, a single RTÉ reporter covers the Plenary sittings of the European Parliament, and his coverage is broadcast once a month, at 12:30 AM on a Sunday night/Monday morning. There is ample scope for dramatic expansion of this, not least as the sole native English speaking country in the Euro.
This should be a cause for optimism for the glass-half-full community, because it speaks to just how easy it would be for the Irish media to corner the market in European news just by trying. As a young student journalist with an interest in politics, I see that potential as an easily exploited opportunity, at a time when the news industry is in turmoil, and that news is more important than ever.
As Sean O’Faolain wrote in ‘The Irish,’ “If Ireland has endured much, and has in the long view of history as yet learned little by experience and that slowly, she has learned. She will, painfully, learn more.”