Mairead McGuinness, incumbent vice-president of the European Parliament, was welcomed with hearty handshakes and smiles from the PolSoc committee when she entered the Hist Conversation Room on Tuesday evening, March 29.
She apologised for her late arrival, blaming a series of “stacked meetings,” which ensure she makes the most of her time at home, she said.
McGuinness made up for lost time by launching into a description of her political profile. First elected as MEP in 2004, this is her third political mandate. In 2014 she was elected as vice-president of the European Parliament – no small feat given that Ireland has only ever had one other vice-president.
Among the topics of McGuinness’ talk were: the UK’s Brexit referendum, the EU’s security policy, EU trade agreements, Ireland’s relationship with the EU, the migrant crisis, the role of social media in politics, and the upcoming US elections.
She spoke favourably of the EU and its work. She said that people like the idea of a “bossy Brussels,” but insisted that EU regulations are not forced upon member states. She expressed appreciation for the democratic role of the EU and its ability to hold nation states to account, which she said it does predominantly through persuasion, rather than coercion.
McGuinness praised the EU but she also criticised it, saying that there is a democratic deficit in the institutions. She suggested that allowing citizens to elect European presidents could contribute to the reduction of such a deficit.
The horrors of the wars, which inspired the creation of the European project, don’t resonate with Europeans anymore, she said. She emphasised the fact that an integrated Europe, lead by the EU, is better than the alternative: “If it did all disintegrate overnight, we would be trying to recreate it within weeks.”
McGuinness, who was in the European Parliament when the bombs struck Brussels last Tuesday morning, said that security breaches and the migrant crisis have revealed the need for greater political cooperation among EU countries. She stressed the need for a coordinated foreign policy and said that fear is to blame for the introspective trend that is driving political extremism and uncertainty across Europe. She criticised Ireland’s asylum process and said more could be done to help refugees, stressing that it is “not about numbers as much as attitude.”
Asked about Brexit, McGuinness said that it would be a “big punch in the gut” to Europe, or even “a punch lower than the gut.” She said that the UK would enter into uncertain waters were they to leave; their exit would be a lengthy process and it would be up to the 27 remaining member states to decide the terms of the divorce. She stressed the need to be part of something bigger in this age of globalisation and suggested that the UK might end up reapplying for membership in the long term, “but that’s a whole other issue,” she said.
This lead to a discussion about Ireland’s relationship with the EU and when asked about the lack of dominant Eurosceptic voices in Ireland, McGuinness responded by saying that agriculture, trade, and labour mobility are fundamental objectives that unite Ireland and the EU. She also said that joining the European Community in 1973 gave Ireland a sense of “self-worth” and that we became more independent because “we were equal to others” for the first time. She also suggested that Ireland might be more engaged in European politics because we have voted on the Treaties.
“I was wondering when TTIP would arrive,” McGuinness revealed when asked about the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). She noted the amount of negativity surrounding TTIP, but stressed the importance of trade for our small country: “If trade stops, Ireland closes. That’s it.” She said that the EU-US trade partnership must be nuanced and that no compromise should be made on standards. However, citing the current climate of political uncertainty and the general aversion to TTIP, she expressed doubt over whether the trade agreement would ever come to pass.
Before joining politics, McGuinness worked as a journalist, a profession in which there is “no accountability,” she said before adding, “it was great!” She believes that nowadays politicians are expected to instantaneously choose to be on one side of the fence or the other, a trend she blames on our increasingly instant access to information. She added that it is important to acknowledge the complexity of certain issues and to struggle with them occasionally. “I would love to have fixed views but I’m conflicted by a lot of things,” she said. She highlighted the need for privacy in the political sphere, which she said is necessary in order for politicians to reflect and ultimately to make the tough decisions. “People should be asked but they shouldn’t have to answer,” she said.
McGuinness concluded her talk with a reminder of how lucky we are to live in the EU: “Very often in Europe we have no idea how well off we are.”