Opinion: 70 years on from the beginnings of what is now known as the European Union, there are many challenging issues on the future agenda

The battle to defeat the Covid-19 pandemic has frequently invoked the language of war. In his St Patrick's Day address to the nation, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar referred to Ireland being "in the midst of a global and national emergency". Europe is familiar with wars. During the 20th century, the European continent endured two catastrophic world wars. Europe Day, celebrated on the May 9th each year, offers a moment for Europeans to remember how the EU emerged from the ashes and embers of war, and to celebrate peace and unity in Europe. 

On May 9th 1950, French Foreign Minister, Robert Schuman presented his proposals for the creation of the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) aimed at starting a process of economic and political cooperation and integration. His plan, known as the "Schuman Declaration", is regarded as marking the beginnings of the creation of what is now known as the European Union.

This year was the 70th anniversary of the Schuman Declaration, but Europe Day celebrations were muted as Europeans endured an unprecedented global health pandemic and economic shock. The EU aims to be part of the solution to these interlinked crises. In the years since its creation in the 1950s, the Union has grown in size, strengthened its institutional base and expanded its policy remit. It now has some capacity to respond to the myriad issues thrown up by today's very different Covid-19 crisis.

From the European Union Archives, a profile of Robert Schuman

But the process of marshalling the necessary political support for EU actions has revealed some stark differences between EU member states. Finding consensus and charting a shared path remains a work in progress for European leaders.

This is not the first time that the EU has confronted crisis in recent years. Since 2008, the EU has faced what has been termed "a polycrisis" by former European Commission President, Jean Claude Juncker. Multiple crises have included the global financial crisis, the migration crisis, geopolitical challenges on Europe’s Eastern borders, democratic backsliding in parts of Central and Eastern Europe, an increasingly antagonistic US-EU relationship (since the election of Donald Trump as US president), a tide of growing Euroscepticism and then, in 2016, the UK vote to leave the European Union

Ireland’s experience of EU membership during this period has been marked by episodes of volatility. The global financial crisis was acutely felt here and involved immensely difficult consequences for the Irish economy and its people. Geographic location meant that the migration crisis and instability on Europe’s Eastern borders did not impact significantly on Ireland. Exposure to the effects of Brexit however, has generated considerable economic and political concern in Ireland. 

From RTÉ Radio 1's The Business, the mood in the United Kingdom the morning after Brexit finally happened as assessed by Sky News correspondent, Enda Brady and former Conservative Party MEP Edwina Currie

Unlike other EU member states, Ireland’s experience of the different facets of the EU’s polycrisis has not led to a growth in Euroscepticism. In fact, support for the EU has remained largely resilient in the period since 2008. According to the 2020 European Movement Ireland/RedC poll, 84% of respondents believe Ireland should remain a member of the EU (although that figure is down on the historically high figure of 93% for 2019).

However, the prospect of strong Irish support for the EU being maintained in the longer-term is not assured. Set against the fallout from the Covid-19 crisis, there are many challenging issues on the EU’s future agenda, which may not fit neatly with Irish public preferences.  

Should a No Deal Brexit transpire at the end of the current transition period, Ireland will feel its economic and political brunt. On the policy front, the EU’s pursuit of an ambitious European Green Deal makes demands of the Irish state and society. Proposals for enhanced EU security cooperation may challenge Ireland’s policy of neutrality and plans to increase the EU budget will require higher Irish contributions.  

From RTÉ Radio 1's Drivetime, Emmanuelle Schoen-Quinlivan from UCC and Sadhbh O Neill from Stop Climate Chaos discuss the European Green Deal

The EU is also contemplating its own future. The Conference on the Future of Europe was due to be launched on Europe Day 2020, but was postponed to September. The conference aims to give all Europeans a greater say on what the EU does and how it works for them. The outcome of the Conference’s deliberations may lead to a new EU treaty. If that transpires, Ireland will hold a referendum on treaty change, possibly within the next five years, which will unleash a (welcome) debate about the advantages and disadvantages of EU membership. 

Understanding Ireland’s experience of EU membership, being attuned to the challenges facing the EU and Ireland, and engaging in responsible discussion about the merits or otherwise of closer EU integration will be an essential means of helping citizens to make decisions about Ireland and the EU’s future. Importantly, all of this needs to be underpinned by a deeper understanding of what the EU is, and an appreciation of the factors which guided its foundation.

Europe Day might have passed quietly this year, but it still represents an opportunity to remind ourselves that in the 1950s, the very creation of the EU was in response to the experience of conflict. The Schuman Declaration begins with the words: "world peace cannot be safeguarded without the making of creative efforts proportionate to the dangers which threaten it". In 2020, the EU and its member states confront a very different kind of enemy. Schuman’s words are a prescient reminder of what is at stake and of what can be achieved if the spirit of co-operation can be harnessed to respond effectively to the extraordinary crisis facing this generation of Europeans. 


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ