What makes a good European country? According to many of our European neighbours — specifically the French and Germans — Ireland post-Lisbon, can’t be regarded as a good member of the EU club because we are ungrateful and unpredictable.
More egregiously, the spin is that the Irish people are in someway intent on blocking enlargement. The storyline continues that, given how much we gained from the EU, how could such a nation of malcontent ingrates deprive our eastern neighbours of their opportunity?
Do you go along with that view? Certainly some of the crestfallen ‘Yes’ campaigners are using similar arguments, toeing the French line that “eaten bread is soon forgotten”. How could we possibly trouser the cash and then give them the two fingers?
It is easy to see the world this way, particularly if you regard politics as one giant inter-country game of treaties and committees. In this world view — one usually formulated by over-educated, risk-averse courtesans — people do not matter. The only thing that counts for the Eurocratic worldview is summits, leaders and the elite.
But Europe is about more than countries; it is about people. It is about 400 million individual people whose ambitions, aspirations and lives can be improved by the opportunities that economic integration affords.
If you take this people- centred view of things, it is interesting to contrast Doubting Ireland and Enthusiastic France. French politicians have conveniently forgotten that while they might hob-nob with their Polish counterparts, France does not allow Polish immigrants to work freely in France. So France talks the language of solidarity but freezes out the people that this very solidarity is supposed to help. What breathless hypocrisy!
While France threw up barriers, Ireland on the other hand opened its doors to hundreds of thousands of ordinary Poles, Lithuanians and Latvians whose lives have been greatly enhanced by the opportunities we have given them.
Ireland is a proper European partner to the Joe Soaps from Warsaw, Riga and Vilnius, while the French and Germans have closed their doors to them.
This distinction between a Europe of the peoples — the Irish view — and a Europe of the elites — the old Europe view — goes to the heart of our differing approaches.
So, for example, the French foreign minister claimed indignantly that over the 35 years of EU membership the Irish people have received â‚¬33bn in aid from the EU. This is true.
But because Ireland, unlike Germany or France, allowed the people from the accession states to come and live and work freely here, we have given back to the East in wages and opportunities.
Let’s do a little calculation. We have close to 300,000 immigrants working from the new accession states here. Let’s say they are on a wage between the minimum wage of â‚¬17,000 and the average wage of close to â‚¬35,000 a year. So let’s say â‚¬25,000. That’s a total wage bill of â‚¬7.5bn per year.
As we are now going into our fifth year of open borders, it is likely that Ireland has put back more cash in the pockets of poor European immigrants in five years that the EU has given us in 35 years.
We have also provided an open platform for people to come and go without recourse to registering with the local authorities or without the need to be monitored by identity cards. Furthermore, the Irish Ryanair, not the EU Commission, has been the single greatest force behind actual integration, flying the poor people of the East cheaply all around the Union. We’ve yet to see a low-fares French carrier demean itself to carry ordinary citizens to work.
So, not only have we given hundreds of thousands of eastern Europeans a chance to fulfil the promise of the EU and have their children educated here, but given that the propensity to save is higher among immigrants than the rest of us, billions of euros earned in Ireland are likely to have been sent home to Eastern Europe to build opportunity there.
Only Ireland, Britain and Sweden — the three countries most regarded as sceptical on Europe — have shown real, material solidarity with the poor of Eastern Europe.
While the French, Germans and Italians might lecture others on being good Europeans, they don’t stick to the spirit of the treaties they sign.
The question then arises again: which is the better European country; the one that blocks the freedom of mobility but accords to the fine rhetoric of the ‘grand projet’, or the one that allows free movement of people but might be more quizzical about the rhetoric?
Go down to your local Spar or Centra and ask the Polish or Lithuanian working there (who would not be freely allowed to work in France or Germany) who has done more for them — France or Ireland?
Also ask them, who made xenophobia part of the last referendum? It was in France not Ireland that the anti-EU vote made a big deal of the threat of the ‘Polish Plumber’. The ever-so-European French played the race card last time they voted with the ‘Yes’ side, ensuring the ‘No’ side that a ‘Yes’ vote would keep the Poles off French building sites.
The problem for the elite is that Ireland has given back money to the EU, but just not to them. We have given the poor an opportunity to work which is precisely what an economic union is all about.
Tomorrow morning, when Brian Cowen is facing the music and feels he is dealing with a meagre hand, he should remind his tormentors, such as former communist Mr Kouchner, that Ireland has given back to European workers in wages far more than we have taken in direct subsidies. Ireland is accepting in eight times more EU immigrants per head than France.
There are many ways of looking at Europe. Some of our neighbours are ‘top down’ Europeans, pushing through treaties in parliament, not consulting their electorates. This makes them look powerful at summits.
There are others who are happy to enhance ordinary peoples’ lives but have to face the electoral music at every turn.
We are the ‘bottom-up’ Europeans — the more honest and less hypocritical EU members.
If you want to see what European integration is for ordinary people, don’t watch the pomp and ceremony of the leaders’ summit tomorrow, go to the arrivals hall at Dublin airport.
There, amid the stonewashed denims, shaved heads and East European biker jackets, you will see the true hope that Europe brings. It is a chance of a better life for the immigrants and their children. It is the chance to bring money home, to plan and to invest in the future. This is what Europe is all about.