Europe


There will be tens of thousands of words written this week about Donald Trump’s first year as President of the United States. His first 12 months has been characterised by a gummed-up domestic policy and letting the military apparatus do what it wants elsewhere in the world. In Europe, we may look askance and turn our noses up at the sheer grubbiness of it all. Within the EU we may find ourselves silently smug about how different things are here in Europe. There are however echoes of Trump’s vision for Making America Great Again (MAGA) among the 27 members of the Union. In Hungary, Poland and Austria, right wing parties lay bare the ugly face of late capitalism with anti-immigration measures and welfare retrenchment. In the UK, the unfolding Brexit mess brings with it a number of considerable political and economic costs yet to fully explored. Anyone living near the border in Ireland could attest to this. Similarly, people in Ireland are not immune to the midnight tweetings and wild policy pursuits of a leader who may not see out his first term without a dirty political fight. Trump and his cabinet are determined to bring jobs back from overseas to employ US residents as a way of shoring up working class support. It is not clear yet how US capitalists are taking to this idea but even a moderate success in this regard would make a considerable difference to the Irish economy, north and south.

Two incidents in recent weeks point to how this may unfurl in Ireland. Firstly, Apple is planning to build a data centre near to the town of Athenry, Galway. The planning application has been upheld but not without a chance for the High Court to review a decision to allow An Bord Pleanala’s decision to have effect. Two residents sought a review of the decision on a technical ground.  They claimed that the EIA was based on eight halls of data servers and not only one as sought in the application. Other people in Athenry have been out marching in favour of the planning application, citing that jobs would be lost to some other location if local politicians do not support the application. Not unrelated to these movements of course is the fact that the Irish state will bend over backwards to accommodate a company that owes us at least €13,000,000,000 in unpaid tax. On his return from a recent US visit, the Taoiseach Leo Varadkar committed to Apple, indicating that his government will do anything to curry the company’s favour. It has been reported that “the Cabinet is developing a detailed position on the role and importance of data centers, including on their designation as strategic infrastructure”. It is not at all clear how many jobs would result in the Athenry project (perhaps 100?) but it will be a significant drain on our electricity grid.

During this time, across north America, cities have been competing for Amazon’s second headquarters. Mexican, Canadian and US cities have been offering tax breaks, highway construction and whole city blocks in bids to ensure Bezos’s company would land in their turf. As an aside, it was not radically different under previous administrations, Obama’s included. ‘Infrastructure’ is fast becoming code for the reshaping of entire cities using privately held surplus. This resonates in Ireland where a deeply embedded cluster of policies lowers corporate tax rates and environmental monitoring to ensure foreign direct investment. In Ireland we like to convince ourselves that FDI is because we offer an educated and English-speaking workforce, implicating all schoolchildren in an ideological project since at least the mid-1970s. In reality, as the Panama Papers, Wikileaks and the Paradise Papers all make clear, Ireland’s economy is best in class for tax avoidance. International best practice eludes our health service but in the matter of squirrelling money forced out of people’s labour and pockets, we are among the elite. (What is it about islands and tax avoidance?)

Global finance and money moves quickly around the world, landing in different places in different ways. Regional geographers and others examine this unevenness in great detail. We need, however, to connect political struggles like the election of Trump and the re-emergence of reactionary governments in the EU with this unevenness. The attraction of high quality jobs can no longer act as cover for large scale tax avoidance and politicians in Ireland may have to realise that quicker than they think. The game with the highest stakes is that of money flow derived from profit. The implications of MAGA are being felt in east Galway and elsewhere in the Republic. This is not because of what elected politicians have or have not done in Galway but because of what happens in Washington and California.

Eoin O’Mahony

Teaching Fellow, School of Geography, UCD.

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Last month, negotiations on the exit of the UK from the European Union commenced. As noted elsewhere, Brexit constitutes a critical milestone of game-changing significance not just for the UK but also for the EU and indeed for the Republic of Ireland. In November 2009, it was argued in the initial post on this blog, that the establishment of NAMA represented a critical moment for Irish Geography. Brexit represents a critical moment of transformation with perhaps similarly far-reaching consequences for geography of the island of Ireland. Brexit represents a reconfiguration of territoriality with direct implications for North-South, Ireland-EU and Ireland-UK relations. I argue here that Brexit thus requires critical and sustained engagement from the geographical community. To date, much of the discussion and debate on Brexit has occurred at macro-level against the backdrop of an implied simplistic geography of ‘London and ‘Brussels’ or the UK and Europe. Discussion of a ‘special status’ for Northern Ireland has occurred for me the most part without due reference to the complex territoriality of Northern Ireland post-1998.

A Briefing Paper recently published by the Centre for Cross-Border Studies sets out the specific geographical implications of ‘flexible and imaginative solutions’ for Northern Ireland post-Brexit. Significantly the paper highlights the potential role of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement (GFA) as a political framework for territorial relations ‘on these islands’ post Brexit. The GFA is composed of three strands concerning the devolved governance for Northern Ireland (Strand I), North-South (Strand II) and British-Irish (Strand III) relations. Crucially these strands are mutually interdependent:

To reach a negotiating outcome that undermines any one of the strands of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement and the geographical spaces they represent would be to undermine the entire Agreement given that they are all interdependent (CCBS, June 2017).

 In this context, the Irish and British governments have pivotal roles as co-guarantors of the GFA. The interdependence of the three strands goes to the heart of the territoriality of Northern Ireland. It follows that this territoriality must be understood relationally – in relation to the UK, the Republic of Ireland and, indeed the EU. This perspective serves to relativize the perception of Northern Ireland as a bounded container space within the UK. Katy Hayward has argued cogently on QPOL that different normative ideas on sovereignty are at the heart of the Brexit debate:

At the heart of this Brexit debate are two different conceptions of sovereignty. If the EU is about the growth of sovereignty by sharing it, Brexit is, in essence, a move to deepen sovereignty by restricting it to the territory of the UK (QPOL, June 2017)

A relational understanding of territoriality helps in moving beyond black/white, either/or solutions to the Northern Ireland question. Maintaining a (for the most part) porous and open border does not need to lead to a border poll and political unity. A hard Brexit does not need to lead to a hard border. The CCBS Briefing Paper sets out a possible post-Brexit geography whereby the island of Ireland under Strand II of the GFA becomes an in-between space allowing access for goods and services from Northern Ireland (but not the rest of the UK) to EU / European Economic Area markets. An alternative model would allow free movement of goods and services between Ireland and the UK due to Ireland’s status as a co-guarantor of the GFA. A recent House of Lords report on the implications of Brexit for devolved governance in the UK, has furthermore suggested that Northern Ireland could maintain compliance with EU law in order to minimise discordance the impact of the border on North-South relations.

Both of the above approaches indicate the potential for imaginative solutions (not necessarily the political will), which requite innovative engagement with territorial relations on the island of Ireland, but within the context of existing frameworks. In the period since the GFA, the island of Ireland has emerged as a coherent functional space with extensive effort gone into the development of shared cross-border spaces for cooperation at community, local authority, regional and inter-jurisdictional levels. Reflecting this, as discussed in a previous post here, the proposed National Planning Framework (RoI) makes substantial reference to the North-South, island of Ireland context and the work of the border area networks. The International Centre for Local and Regional Development (ICLRD) among other organisations has played a key role behind the scenes, in fostering spaces for cooperation in spatial planning and local and regional development within the border region. Reflecting the near-invisibility of the border in the landscape, a comedian quoted anonymously in Garrett Carr’s The Rule of the Land wryly remarked, “We are going to need the border again… if anyone can remember where we left it”.

The shared border region, and indeed the idea of the island of Ireland as a functional space may be understood as soft, non-territorial spaces. They are informal spaces, located outside the regulatory sphere of nation-state territoriality but very much located in shadow of territory and dependent on formal territorial relations, including in this case the GFA. It is likely that in the post-Brexit context such soft spaces will acquire increased significance whether on the island of Ireland or in terms of Ireland-UK or indeed Northern Ireland-Scotland relations. Indeed a number of scholars of European integration and EU reform (e.g. Jan Zielonka, Andreas Faludi), the future of European integration lies in precisely these forms of soft space, in moving beyond the straitjackets imposed by dominant conceptualisations of the EU as a ‘club of nation states’ and embracing flexible boundaries, soft spaces and variable geometries.

Brexit will lead to paradigmatic shifts in the political geographies of these islands as well as of Europe more broadly. These shifts will play out at multiple scales from that of the EU to the micro-geographies of the Irish-Northern Irish borderland. It is imperative that current and future debates on post-Brexit geographies are informed by critical, theoretically informed perspectives recognising the complex relationships between shifting territorial spaces and the lived places that lie behind them.

Dr. Cormac Walsh

University of Hamburg and ICLRD

I think there is an election on? From where I sit here in Luxembourg you would hardly know. The lamp posts are not festooned with every manner of local and European election candidate posters. Now and then a billboard reminds you that there is in fact a European election on – and only a European election. Meanwhile, the commuter buses are daily packed with bureaucrats busily going about the policy work of the EU – policies which are having an ever-increasing and direct influence on Irish people but which have barely registered in the European election debate.

election+posters+kerry+3

Take for example the Europe 2020 strategy which is currently the flagship overarching policy initiative of the EU. The strategy is built around five ambitious headline targets for each Member State to achieve by 2020 in the key areas of employment, R&D, climate and energy, education and the fight against poverty and social exclusion – pretty much the entire sphere of national government. Yet, reviewing the European election manifestos of each of the major political parties and trawling news reports on the elections, the Europe 2020 strategy is not mentioned, not once.

These are not vague or distant targets which have no immediate concrete policy meaning in practice for Irish people. The Europe 2020 strategy is now implemented and monitored through the new European Semester, the yearly cycle of coordination of economic and budgetary policies at EU level. Within this new process the European Commission can, depending on performance towards achieving targets, issue Country Specific Recommendations on the basis of National Reform Programmes which must be carried through in the annual budgets of each Member State. Where recommendations are not acted on within the given time-frame, policy warnings can be issued. There is also an option for enforcement through incentives and sanctions, including by withholding structural funds.

Ireland’s National Reform Programme 2014 was published just last month – again without a murmur in the media so fixated on reform at the last election. It is clear from EU monitoring that Ireland is struggling badly to meet many of our 2020 targets, particularly in respect of poverty and greenhouse gas reduction, which could prompt policy warnings from the European Commission. As part of the National Reform Programme, the government also published the Draft National Risk Assessment 2014 for public consultation. This new strategic policy initiative is designed to identify the future risks, both financial and non-financial, which Ireland faces and, which according to the Taoiseach, is “an attempt to avoid the mistakes of the past by not only identifying risks the country faces, but also encouraging debate in the Dáil and by the public”.   

It is hard to think of a more meritorious political debate to be had during the European elections than the future direction of the Europe 2020 strategy.  However, judging by the woeful election campaigns, most Irish people, including most of the candidates, have most likely never heard of it. Just this week the European Commission announced a review of the Europe 2020 strategy as it is now considered time to reflect on the design of a new long-term ‘post-crisis’ strategy. The review presents an opportunity for an informed national debate on a whole series of risks and issues which can now only be effectively tackled at pan-EU level including: fiscal imbalances, renewable energy, growing energy dependency, greenhouse gas emissions, real estate bubbles, unemployment, widening social inequalities, dysfunctional financial systems and underperforming public administrations. These are the real European policy issues which struggle to rise above the clutter and polemic of the election campaigns.

As we creep incrementally towards greater European integration and an ever greater importance of EU policy, it may be about time that we consider separating European from local elections. Having both elections on the same day, and with both sets of candidates competing for scarce space on lamp posts and in the media, inevitably results in a conflation of local, national and European issues.  Granted, there may be a genuine fear of plummeting voter turnout given the general apathy towards Europe. However, I am equally unconvinced that the status quo is the way forward. The important European reform agenda needs to be met with a maturing political discourse in Ireland and a significant change in attitude in how we engage with EU policy making.

Gavin Daly

  • Submissions on the Europe 2020 Strategy can be made here before the 31st of October 2014
  • Submissions on the National Risk Assessment 2014 are being accepted before the 30th of June 2014. See here.