By Andy Storey.
Trawling through the website of the Irish Freedom Party (IFP) – the group calling for Irish exit (Irexit) from the European Union (EU) – is a strange experience. Amidst the xenophobia and often crude and puerile attacks on left-wingers, there are moments where those same left-wingers might find themselves nodding in agreement.
IFP support for Ireland’s “meaningful military neutrality”, for example, would raise few hackles on the Left.
Another reason for IFP opposition to the EU is that it, allegedly, “forbids state aid”. In fact, it does not, but it does seek to strictly limit such aid as a tool that governments can use to boost economic activity and equality. The potential in being freed from that restriction, and the other elements of neoliberal EU economic governance, is a point grasped by left-wing supporters of Brexit in the UK.
But the apparent enthusiasm for state aid sits uneasily with simultaneous IFP support for “slimming the state” and cutting taxes. They even endorse the widely discredited ‘Laffer Curve’, which claimed to show that tax reductions, counter-intuitively, boosted a state’s overall tax take, a proposition that is now considered bogus in the vast majority of cases.
The IFP does, implicitly at least, concede that the state might have a role in resolving issues like the housing crisis, but here their approach is overshadowed by their visceral hostility to immigration – they claim that unless free movement of people within the EU is ended then the demand-side pressure on housing will make the crisis intractable.
Which rather begs the question of how other EU countries seem to have dealt with their housing problems while remaining open to free migration across the EU. Vienna’s much-admired public housing model, to take just one example, has not depended for its success on keeping foreigners out of the city.
There is much more that could be said about the IFP. Its stance on climate change is confused and probably disingenuous. And its nativism is sometimes close to comic, such as the pledge to “support all efforts to strengthen the Irishness of Ireland”, whatever that might mean.
But let’s stick with economic policy for now. One of the billboards it has recently erected claims that a “normal self-governing state… can trade globally”, while the website bemoans the fact that Ireland (within the EU) “cannot make bilateral trade agreements”. You might have thought that the Tory Brexit pantomime would have given the IFP some pause for thought regarding the difficulties of maintaining (existing) and establishing (new) trade relationships while exiting the EU.
Economic consequences of exit
In reality, Ireland leaving the EU alongside the UK, as Irexiters urge, would be economically damaging to this country, as a recent study by Davies and Francois indicates. They argue convincingly that any Irexit would generate even worse economic outcomes than Brexit alone (which will be bad enough for Ireland) – while trade with the UK would be less disrupted by Ireland following the UK out the exit door, trade between Ireland and the EU (which is more important than that with the UK alone) would be damaged to a much greater extent.
Davies and Francois conclude that “Irexit in any form is likely to make a bad situation worse” on the grounds that “erecting barriers to trade with the continent would have a massive impact on Irish global economic integration”, with low-skill and low-income workers (the very people whose interests the Left should be prioritising) hardest hit.
And this is only considering trade effects. In all likelihood, Irexit would also see a downturn in foreign (especially US) investment into Ireland on the grounds that we would no longer constitute an uncomplicated bridgehead into the EU market. By way of precedent, foreign investment in the UK has already been negatively affected by Brexit.
Ireland, as many commentators have long argued, is overly dependent (to a much greater extent than is the UK) on such multinational investment but, as the cliché goes, we are where we are, and the Left cannot now afford to be blasé about this. IFP leaders might have no problem telling the workers who depend on those multinationals that their jobs can be sacrificed in order to “strengthen the Irishness of Ireland”, but it is not a task I would relish myself.
It is worth noting that the immigration restrictions the IFP wants to see implemented would also have negative economic consequences. The (partial and uneven) Irish economic recovery after the 2008 crash was, as my colleagues Sam Brazys and Aidan Regan have shown, largely due to foreign investment from, especially, US tech companies, and those companies would not have come to Ireland had they been unable to freely recruit the skilled, specialised labour they needed from elsewhere in Europe.
Those economic considerations doubtless go a long way towards explaining generally positive Irish attitudes towards the EU, as revealed by the most recent Eurobarometer survey data (collected in November 2018). The data show that 64% of Irish people hold a positive view of the EU (the EU average is 43%) and only 8% hold a negative image of it. Seventy five per cent of respondents express satisfaction with how democracy works in the EU, and 76% feel Irish interests are taken into account by the EU. Seventy per cent of those sampled in Ireland do not believe that the country’s future would be brighter outside the EU.
But there are some important qualifications to be taken into account concerning these survey results. The first, as the survey managers themselves point out, is that the views are often ‘soft’ – for example, people’s image of the EU tends to be somewhat rather than strongly positive.
Secondly, and relatedly, these views can change pretty dramatically within a short period of time. Only 8% view the EU negatively now, but that proportion was 31% in 2012 (when the figure for those with a positive attitude was just 35%). Back in 2011, just 38% thought the EU took Irish interests into account, compared to 76% at present.
Thirdly, views of the EU may be broadly positive, but trust is a scarcer commodity – 50% proclaim trust in the EU (up from 24% in 2011) but 38% are still distrustful. Given the EU’s outrageous insistence on Ireland repaying the socialised debts of private banks, that distrust is entirely legitimate and understandable.
A summary paraphrase of what the survey respondents are saying to the EU might read as follows: “we like you, now, and we think we are better off, for now, being a member, but we don’t trust you as much as you might think”.
The relatively high level of distrust may help explain why 25% of people think Ireland’s future prospects would be better outside the EU, a sizeable constituency that could rise if circumstances changed (such as the EU being seen to insist on a post-Brexit hard border on this island) and one which is not currently represented by any major Irish political party. That is the constituency that the IFP (and its allies) is pitching to.
The argument about sizeable sections of the electorate being unrepresented by the current parties is not, of course, confined to stances towards the EU: 38% of voters were against same sex marriage in 2015, 34% were against the legalisation of women’s reproductive rights in 2018. No substantial political party speaks for the No voters on those issues.
The newly formed Aontú party (led by former Sinn Féin TD Peadar Tóibín) is clearly aiming to hoover up that socially conservative vote, and its recent launch saw its leader make a play for the anti-immigrant vote also, albeit under the dog-whistle guise of calling for a “debate” on immigration that would reflect people’s supposed “growing unease and concern” on the issue. Aontú’s position vis-à-vis the EU is not yet known.
So where should the Left go in this context? Well, obviously, not towards social conservatism: that would be wrong in principle but also in practical terms – opposition to LGBTQ+ rights and to a woman’s right to choose is a minority stance, and one that seems set for long-term secular decline in Ireland. Hostility to immigration may, sadly, not be similarly destined for the dustbin of history.
More specifically, how should the Left approach EU issues? The points made above – that Ireland leaving the EU would be economically damaging at present, and that the vast majority of people support (for now) Ireland’s continued membership of the EU – are important, but at the same time they do not invalidate the serious criticisms left-wingers are obliged to make about EU policies and practices.
Those criticisms include a neoliberal economic governance framework that is hostile to state intervention in the economy and to the pursuit of economic justice on the part of progressive governments, trade unions and others. The crushing of Syriza’s short-lived (and only ever limited) Greek defiance of that mode of governance should represent a defining moment for all those on the Left who ever harboured illusions about a ‘social’ or ‘progressive’ Europe.
Subsumed under this left-wing economic critique should be the signing by the EU of trade and investment agreements with other countries and regions that lock in the rights of corporations at the (potential or actual) expense of the public good – of Europeans and non-Europeans alike.
And just as we can make no common cause with the anti-immigrant politics of the IFP and (it seems) Aontú, so also do we have to condemn the EU for cynical deals with Turkey, Libya and elsewhere that deny many asylum seekers the ability to access Europe at all, and consign them to locations of egregious and horrifying abuse. The EU has also engaged in militarised policing actions against migrants that have turned the Mediterranean in particular into a watery grave for many thousands, even before the Union’s recent outrageous decision to abandon the vestiges of a naval rescue operation for some.
A programme for challenging neoliberalism
In practical, political terms, what all this might translate into is a willingness on the part of the Left to be very EU-critical, but not to call, as a matter of preordained principle, for withdrawal from the EU. What would such an approach look like in terms of a programme for government? Here are a few points that such a programme might contain.
- We will not be bound by economic rules that prevent us solving crises such as those besetting the housing and health sectors – if we have to breach EU deficit, debt, state aid and other regulations in order to abolish homelessness or fix the health service then that is what we will do. This does not put us out of line with other EU states: Portugal and Spain have breached the EU Fiscal treaty provisions and not been penalised for it, while Macron in France has made tax and spending concessions to the ‘yellow vest’ protests that will likely see France also miss EU fiscal targets. What is sauce for the Iberian and French goose is sauce for the Irish gander.
- We will not endorse trade and investment agreements that privilege investor profits over the public interest and the fight against climate change; in this, we share, for example, the current reservations of the French government, and of large swathes of European civil society, over the proposed reopening of talks on a trade agreement with the US.
- We will not sign up to Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) that would see Ireland be pushed to raise military spending and to boost the profits of arms manufacturers – our resources will instead be devoted to lifting Irish military families out of poverty and contributing to genuine peacekeeping operations on the international stage. Again, this does not put us at odds with other EU member states – neither Malta nor Denmark has joined PESCO.
- We will not participate in inhumane and deadly actions at the European level that prevent refugees claiming protection in Europe, in the same way that we will defend and enhance the rights of migrants and asylum-seekers in Ireland through the abolition of, in particular, the brutal and indefensible system of ‘direct provision’. Our opposition to racism and violence directed against migrants will be as clear and unambiguous on the European as it will be on the Irish stage.
I suspect that critics will respond to such positions by saying that, whatever about individual acts of resistance, the cumulative impact of this suite of measures would put us on a collision course with the EU. And I think we will have to answer honestly: it may well do. And, again in all honesty, it may generate at least the prospect of punitive action against us if we were ever in government – the ECB might, for example, threaten to cut liquidity to the Irish financial sector as a form of leverage against a real left-wing challenge (they have done so in the past to other countries, most notably Greece).
Justice and realism
So there are risks here, and a need for contingency planning (including for exit from the Eurozone) if likely EU threats are followed through on – one of Syriza’s many tragedies was its failure to prepare for what they would do if the EU powers rejected their modest proposals for reform. But this type of resistance on the part of a Left government would have a massive advantage in terms of mobilising potential public support: it would be clearly identified as a last resort that the Left, as it sought to defend the interests of people living in Ireland, had been driven to by a recalcitrant EU.
In other words, the starting position would not be a reflexive Euroscepticism (that can be left to the likes of the IFP) but, rather, a willingness to stand up to bullying and to do what it right by people here (and indeed elsewhere also) – through negotiation and constructive engagement by preference, and working closely with like-minded groups across the continent, but through principled resistance if necessary. That would provide a context in which already changeable public opinion might be more readily brought along to EU-critical positions, even while remaining cognisant of economic risks being run. Tax policy, which I have not discussed here for reasons of space, would inevitably loom large in that context also.
There is no point pretending this is not going to be a difficult balancing act, but nor can we wish away the choices we will have to make. In making those choices, we need to see the Irish-EU relationship as a dynamic and changing one, and one we ourselves can help change, not as static and fixed.
To commit to the EU come what may is to collude in the neoliberal attenuation of democracy and economic oppression of the many in Europe, to militarisation and to the violation of the human rights of migrants and others. Equally, to commit, as the IFP does, to leaving the EU come what may is to gamble recklessly with the welfare of people living in Ireland and to endorse a reactionary right-wing Euroscepticism.
The Left needs to steer a course between these opposite poles, one that is based on both justice and realism and that is willing to seek to change the terms of the debate at the same time as it is willing to adapt to changing circumstances. It will not be easy, but not to try is to cede the field to either the EU’s neoliberal autocrats or to right-wing xenophobes at home, or to some unholy combination of the two.
Andy Storey teaches political economy in the School of Politics and International Relations, University College Dublin, and is on the board of the justice and human rights NGO Action from Ireland (Afri). The views contained in this article are expressed in a personal capacity.