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Why the Irish have bitten the hand that feeds them

By Manneken Pis   July 2001

The Anglo-Irish axis

The Irish establishment was horribly upset by their countrymen’s rejection of the Nice treaty. But they have themselves partly to blame. Over the past year, some leading Irish politicians have begun making Eurosceptic noises. Mary Harney, the country’s deputy prime minister, gave a speech last year in which she said that Ireland is spiritually closer to Boston than Berlin; and Charlie McCreevy, the Irish finance minister, displayed a Gordon Brown-like relish in clashing with the European commission earlier this year, over the commission’s ill-timed reprimand for Ireland’s allegedly inflationary budget. Both McCreevy and Harney’s interventions reflect an acknowledgement that the country’s low tax policies are out of step with much of the EU, and may be threatened by any drive to tax harmonisation. The Irish noted with a shudder that Lionel Jospin’s recent speech called for a minimum corporate tax rate-Ireland’s rate is currently 12.5 per cent.

While it may be acceptable for the Irish to emphasise their closeness to Boston, Irish closeness to London on European affairs is still something of an embarrassment. But on economic policy, a clear Anglo-Irish axis is emerging. Bertie Ahern and Tony Blair led a successful charge against tax harmonisation at Nice; and the Irish and the Brits were on the same side in an unsuccessful attempt to block an extension of workers’ rights through the EU’s information and consultation directive. The Irish have enjoyed drawing a contrast between their own open-minded, forward-looking attitude to the EU, and the xenophobic Brits, hung up on their colonial past. (One Irish journalist in Brussels says that whenever he makes anti-Brit noises to his French and German colleagues, “they absolutely love it.”) This line will be rather harder to pursue after the Nice referendum.

The Eurosceptic international

Ireland’s “No” to the Nice treaty was a moment of sweet vindication for Anthony Coughlan, a delightfully batty semi-retired academic, who operates out of a portakabin behind one of the quads in Trinity College Dublin. Ever since Ireland first joined the EU in 1973 Coughlan has acted as a one-man “No” campaign, staging futile-seeming campaigns against every EU treaty that has been put to a referendum. Like many Eurosceptics Coughlan is a great lover of sinister-sounding quotes from European leaders, dug out from obscure journals and speeches. His office desk groans under files, dog-eared books, legal texts and post-it notes. Just two weeks before the Nice vote, Coughlan seemed certain that his side would lose-but every dog has his day.

It is often assumed that most Eurosceptics are swivel-eyed nationalists, who would sooner spit on a foreigner than co-ordinate a campaign with him. But in fact there is an informal Eurosceptic international, which has created many bizarre alliances of convenience. Anthony Coughlan’s own Euroscepticism is based on a sort of Bennite leftism. But he is perfectly happy to write for Bill Cash’s European Journal and is also a regular contributor to euobserver.com, a Eurosceptic website based in Brussels and run by the wife of Jens-Peter Bonde, the right-wing Danish “No” campaigner. If it is true, as Bertie Ahern alleged, that British Tories were funding the Irish “No” campaign, then right-wing Brits would have been funnelling money to a campaign led by Sinn Fein. Coughlan himself is unfazed by alliances of this sort, remarking grandly that after all Churchill and Stalin came together to fight a common enemy.

Running out of jargon

Many outsiders find EU-speak impenetrable. On occasion even some of the commission’s own officials get a little lost. After the recent battle over the EU takeover directive, commission spokesman Jonathan Todd was briefing the assembled hacks about what it all meant. Suddenly a look of sheepish confusion overtook him, and he blurted out “I’m terribly sorry, I’ve forgotten the relevant piece of jargon.” For a few agonising moments he looked out over a sea of blank faces, before an alert hack at the back of the briefing room shouted out “comitology” (the science of structuring EU committees, in case you care) and normal service was resumed.

Stepping stones

The European commission may be regarded as a bit of an elephant’s graveyard in Britain and other big European countries. But if you are an ambitious politician from a smaller country, a stint as a commissioner is regarded as an ideal way of burnishing your credentials. Two prominent examples in the current commission are Anna Diamantopoulou, the Greek commissioner for employment and social affairs, and Antonio Vitorino, the Portuguese who is in charge of the justice and home affairs. Both are regarded as having impressed in Brussels and both are being tipped for returns to high-profile jobs back home. The one criticism some of her colleagues have of Diamantopoulou is that she spends too much time in Athens, keeping up her contacts with the Simitis government. Meanwhile it is rumoured that Vitorino, a former defence secretary and deputy prime minister in Portugal, was recently offered his old job back as number two to Antonio Guterres, the prime minister. Vitorino declined, preferring to stick to his job in Brussels-for now.

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