It just happened to be St. Patrick’s Day that Helen McEntee had chosen to speak about the future of Europe in Vienna. Deliberately or not, the Irish Minister of State for European Affairs used Ireland’s quasi-national day to present the Irish vision for the future of the European Union.
During her visit, McEntee reaffirmed the deep friendship and similarity between Ireland and Austria, as well as Ireland’s commitment to the European Union.
The Irish government has conducted citizen dialogues and consultations over the past few months to find out what the Irish really care about. According to their survey, the top issues in people’s mind are environmental sustainability, intergenerational fairness and education in all fields and beyond just university were the top issues on people’s minds. Above all, citizens were asking: “How can we shape globalisation, before it shapes us?”
Based on this, the minister McEntee and her party Fine Gael (EPP) have their own policy agenda in place. The Irish priorities for Europe lie mainly in the completion and deepening of the Single Market, particularly in services and the Digital Single Market. Specifically, Ireland aims for better conditions for cross-border trade and services and a free flow of data across Europe.
Ireland is also committed to complete the banking union and fighting youth unemployment. McEntee believes education will be key to do so. This is also, why they encourage greater education exchange programmes, much like Erasmus+, going beyond universities and including other kinds of education as well.
McEntee also wants to push for more investment in infrastructure and R&D, which was instrumental in overcoming the crisis for Ireland and tackle climate change with the rest of the EU member states.
Finally, the minister also believes in greater EU enlargement and its transformative effects for potential accession countries. That is the reason why the Irish government, much like Austria, pushes for greater efforts to have the Western Balkan countries join the European Union. In this context she mentioned not only her support for an enhanced connectivity agenda, but also for greater room for the perspective of the regions in the EU.
In early March, a joint statement of the “Northern Alliance” (Ireland, The Netherlands, the Baltic and the Scandinavian EU member states) opposed Emmanuel Macron’s EU reform plans that would include greater political integration of the union.
We asked her to clarify if Ireland was against further political integration on principle, or simply rejected the particular proposals made by Macron. McEntee praised Macron’s enthusiasm and passion for Europe. However, she believes the integration of the EU needs to happen step by step. A deeper political integration at this stage, such as a EU finance minister dictating EU’s fiscal policy from Frankfurt, would only further alienate citizens from the institutions., Instead, the Northern Alliance’s priority is to deepen existing integration and ensure that all citizens benefits from the European Union, not just university educated city dwellers, but people living in the periphery as well.
It comes as no surprise that the northern countries are opposed to any further fiscal transfers or funds that would serve to do so, as they are largely the EU’s net contributors, as well as some of their richest countries. However, McEntee would be very much in favour of integrating more policy areas such as education, as long as crucial areas, such as health care still remain on the national level. Subsidiarity is important to keep in mind when integrating further and Ireland is not willing to undergo any further treaty changes at this time.
To the audience’s (and McEntee’s) surprise, an official from the British embassy in Vienna asked the minister directly about the Irish government’s stance on Brexit and if she had any advice for Britain to keep their strong relationship with Ireland. Helen McEntee explained very frankly that the easiest solution would just be to not have a Brexit at all. At the same time, she respects the will of the British people, but when it comes to creative solutions, it will be up to British brains to think of a way out of their own mess. She also made it very clear that Ireland couldn’t possibly accept any solution that did not involve an open border between the Republic and Northern Ireland. The Irish solution is to not have Brexit or keep the UK in the Single Market and Customs Union. Nothing the UK government has proposed so far is viable for Ireland.