Northern Ireland and the future of Europe: Anyone’s vision please
by Nicolamaria COPPOLA for Northern Ireland Foundation
4 April 2014
At a local debate on Europe’s political economy and its effect on young people in Northern Ireland, good speeches were let down by a lack of interrogation or even presentation of any vision for the future of Europe and Northern Ireland’s role.
This is all the more relevant because the next European Parliament elections are the first since the blast of the economic crisis and the economic recession in the eurozone, as well as the first since the Lisbon Treaty of 2009, which gave the European Parliament a number of important new powers, moulding the policy of the European Union over the next five years, in areas from the single market to civil liberties, trade and foreign affairs.
Northern Ireland has benefited from membership of the European Union. European leaders and institutions played a key role in its peace process, encouraging moves towards reconciliation and a shared future based on equality and fairness. Since 2007, the Peace III Programme, specifically outlined for Northern Ireland, has been supporting conflict resolution and mediation at the local level, by financially supporting “meaningful cross-community and cross-border initiatives” that improve trust and tolerance, and reduce levels of sectarianism and racism.
Northern Ireland has had good relations with the European Union, and it has strong reasons for wanting to find an agreed renegotiation (if necessary), so that the UK remains in the European Union. If the United Kingdom were to leave the EU, there would be the consequence of the removal of, or substantial adjustment to, the Common Agriculture Policy (CAP). There is a risk that the interest of the UK Government to reduce the cost of the CAP would be contrary to the interests of local farming and food exports.
The next elections to the European Parliament — taking place in the UK on 22nd May — will affect all these points above.
Some of the candidates from Northern Ireland participated at a debate on the future of Europe, which took place in Riddell Hall, Queen’s University Belfast, on Friday, 4th April.
The main questions of the debate were “Is globalisation leaving Northern Ireland’s young people behind? Is more Europe the answer?”, and the panel discussion was hosted by TV and radio presenter Connor Phillips, speaker of the “Cool Saturday Show” on Cool FM.
Sam Bowman (Research Director at the Adam Smith Institute), Carol Fitzsimons (Chief Executive of Young Enterprise Northern Ireland), Ciaran Gallagher (President of Queen’s University Student Union) and Glyn Roberts (CEO of NIIRTA) took part in the debate as speakers. Comedian Tim McGarry was a special guest, with his well-known light and humorous touch giving the audience a vivid overview of Northern Ireland’s politics.
The topics under discussion were about the relationships between EU and globalisation, and between globalisation, unemployment and Northern Ireland. It was a good moment and a great occasion to discuss how to relaunch Europe, how to create a stronger and more powerful Union with the contribution of Northern Ireland, and how to solve the problem of unemployment.
But it was a missed opportunity.
Both the speakers and other participants did not take the chance to provide fresh ideas.
The speakers had very good speeches, with examples and good points: Sam Bowman talked about the benefits of globalisation in the 21st century and the importance of Northern Ireland as a strategic hub for trade in the north of Europe; Carol Fitzsimons stated that the European Union is a good opportunity for young people in Northern Ireland, but she pointed out that they do not make the most of this; Ciaran Gallagher claimed that the European Union gives us the necessary clout in competition with the rising economic giants of the world; Glyn Roberts asserted that our lives should benefit from what Europe offers, and he added that leaving the Union now would be an utter madness.
The discussion heated up over the value of European student exchange and training programmes. Everybody — the four speakers and the audience — agreed on the importance of Erasmus in building a strong European civil society, in fostering a sense of community among students from different countries, in giving opportunities to young people, in offering them a high level educational experience, and in imprinting a more European perspective about the world.
At the end of the debate, it was clear that Europe is seen as a big opportunity for Northern Ireland and its economy. Sam Bowman said that we need more Europe, but he pointed out that Europe should not be like it is now. When he said that, it was the right moment to propose something new, to give innovative ideas about his vision of Europe, in order to distinguish this from other debates that take place in other cities and other countries. But he didn’t.
There remains a lack of serious momentum on the discussion about the next steps of EU political development.
How should Europe be? In which way could we contribute in changing it? What could and should be the role of Northern Ireland in relaunching Europe and renegotiating its membership?
When I was waiting for the debate to commence in Riddell Hall, I was sure that the speakers would address these kind of questions. After an hour and a half of discussion, my certainties were proved unfounded.