In the first of a series of conversations with public figures in the European sphere, Ken Sweeney chats with fellow Irishman and MEP, Brian Hayes, about his role as an MEP, the Euro, federalism, Brexit and Irish neutrality.

Brian Hayes is a busy man. It seems to be the norm as an MEP. But after a few quick emails, Europa United got the chance to grab Brian for a chat. I had initially planned to talk to him in a couple of weeks, but I received a call from his office and was informed that he was free sooner, so I got to work. Born in Dublin of a mixed religion parents, Brian, 47, started his career in politics at the tender age of sixteen when he took part in the divorce referendum campaign in 1986 for Irish political party, Fine Gael. In December 1995 he was nominated to the 20th Seanad Éireann (Irish Upper House) as Fine Gael’s government spokesperson on the environment and this was followed by his election to Dáil Éireann (Irish Parliament) in 1996 as a public representative for the Dublin South-West constituency. Various roles saw him move up the ranks in Fine Gael which culminated in him being appointed party Deputy Spokesperson on Finance with special responsibility for Public Expenditure in 2010. His current role as an MEP started in May 2014 when he was elected as the Fine Gael candidate for the Dublin constituency.

Never one to shy away from speaking his mind, Brian has had to deal with a few controversial issues over his career but he has the respect of his fellow peers for being honest and forthright. I was looking forward to getting some insight into what his feelings are on the various issues that Europe and Ireland are facing today.

I first wanted to find out what exactly his role as an MEP is, how his time is structured, and what it is like compared to his previous role as a local parliament representative. “About 70 per cent of my work is in ECON, economic affairs committee so one of the four weeks is a Strasbourg Plenary week where we vote at the Parliament. Then we have one full committee week, where we are involved in our committees, one group week where we meet in advance of Strasbourg. And then we also have a green week where we may represent the European Parliament abroad or at home for example. Each week is very busy, but it’s different to the Dáil per se in that the votes are all made as a committee. In the Dáil you’re a generalist but in the EU parliament you specialise in clear areas of policy and you cover other areas especially if you are in a group like Fine Gael who have only four MEPs so you are trying to cover other bases”.

Who do the MEPs deal with when it comes to their constituents? In Ireland, as members of parliament or TDs, you tend to deal with local people and local issues. I wondered if this was the case at the EU level as well. “Local people come to you, but equally do the Irish NGOs, Irish industry figures and Irish trade unions. A variety of people come in many shapes and forms. You do work differently and the reports and rapporteur work that you do is different, because it’s up to you really. You take a Commission’s proposal and you try to come to an agreement with the Council under trialogue and negotiations and you try to build a compromise from the centre out, so it’s different from the Irish system in that in Ireland, its winner takes all if the majority is there. Whereas the EU system is built on maximising the majorities, so compromise and reaching out to other parties is important; networking is important.” I put the question to Brian about the myth of too much talking and not enough action in the European Parliament and asked if the time spent in negotiating and decision making takes longer than at a state level. “It’s no different than any national parliament, I suspect. I’d say that if you look at the average amount of time that things are done in the Dáil, it’s no different really. It’s a total myth that it takes longer and it’s more complicated in that it’s by co-decision legislation in that the Council must agree with us. So even if we come to a view, unless the Council agrees, there is no agreement. I think there’s a lot of misunderstanding about the level of decision making in our own state and the kind of decisions and how they are formed in the European Parliament. But you could argue that a lot of the recent big decisions, such as the Basel Test and CRD IV, which were about new capital were resolved much quicker than in national parliaments, because we were in the middle of a crisis and even though we were slow to get going, we finally did come to an agreement in the end”.

It’s no secret that Fine Gael is a pro-European party. They are founding members of the European People’s Party. But you can have a situation where MEPs are not necessarily pro-European, even in the ranks of a pro-European party, so I wanted to know how Brian feels about Europe and Ireland’s involvement in it. “One of the reasons I joined Fine Gael was because of its support for the European Union and being at the heart of Europe. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that you can’t be critical of Europe. The last few weeks being the classic example with the Apple case, but I believe that it’s in Ireland’s long term interest to remain absolutely at the heart of the European Union. I personally believe that the success of Ireland since the 1960s to now has been not only our ability to attract foreign multi-nationals to Ireland, but also our willingness to join and become full members of the EU. That was the real staging post for Ireland’s recovery and our development as a country. So I am absolutely committed to the European Union and the Eurozone. I believe it’s in Ireland’s long term interest that we become in my view, a core member of the Eurozone”.

The Euro has been a fraught affair and there are many calls for its abolishment and a return to national currencies. Ireland was one of the original members of the Eurozone and while I think that it has its faults, giving up on it would be a huge backward step. I wasn’t surprised to find that Brian was in agreement. “The Euro of course requires more work, but it has been a success. I think if anybody believes that in some way their own national currency could have been able to buffet the financial crises it is utter nonsense. I think if anything the shock could have been bigger in Ireland were it not for the fact that we were in the Euro. You cannot underestimate in the single market the ability to have marginal rates of currency fluctuations if you are trying to export. Ireland is a small export country, so we produce more than we consume, so it’s logical therefore that we want the best environment for our exporters. So minimising currency fluctuation is an absolute no brainer when it comes to Ireland and the great advantage of having the Euro is that we can compare and contrast prices across the financial member states of the Eurozone. It puts pressure on industry and restrictive practices and makes sure that we open up all these things to competition. The logical outcome of the single market was the single currency market and I think that we have achieved that, but that’s not to say that enormous mistakes weren’t made. And I think those mistakes were really around the initial response to the Eurozone crisis and an inability of some member states to take more bold and decisive measures at the time”.

Some EU member states have reservations about joining the Euro and the question is, should the Eurozone states remain as they are, or is it good to invite other states to take it up as a replacement for their own currency. Brian has a clear idea of how we should proceed if we are to grow and settle the currency. “Only January of last year we had Lithuania join so there is no reason why other member states of the European Union should not join. In fact seven of the other member states who didn’t join have stated publicly that they want to join, but this isn’t the right time for them. I think it’s a logical outcome that we should move towards greater membership and greater integration of the Euro currency itself. The great pillars of the banking world are a firewall behind which is what the ESM is and the other great pillar is the single regulatory system or single supervisory mechanism under the ECB where local central banks are effectively now reporting the European Central Bank and the single supervisory mechanism. The third pillar is on the question of bail-ins which we now have agreed on which would have been very useful at the time of the banking crisis. And the fourth pillar is the deposit on the interest side which is a current issue that has to be worked through. So three of the four big characteristics of a single currency are now in place and I suppose it will take a crisis to know how they will work again in conjunction with that crisis and the member states involved”.

It’s difficult to determine what the future path of the European project will be. These are testing times for a pro-European. There are those who believe it’s time to remove the EU and there are those including myself, who believe that a federal system is the right way to go. To be honest, I knew before asking the question what Brian’s opinion would be on this. I guess it’s a hard ask to expect a state politician to believe that losing a certain degree of sovereignty for a greater union in the shape of a kind of united states of Europe is good idea. Ireland is a keen member of Europe but after spending nearly eight hundred years as a colony to England and then Great Britain, we as a nation don’t seem too keen to give up what has taken us so long to achieve. But that’s not to say that we wouldn’t be in favour of some kind of federation and Brian has that idea in mind, too. “I’m not in favour of federal state and never have been and I think that’s not the way Europe wants to go and I don’t think it’s the way the great majority of Europeans want to go either. I think what we are moving towards is a confederated situation whereby you have a very strong European identity with strong institutions that act at the European level to achieve things for people and equally strong national member states with the power to tell people what they need to do. There are things we need to do at a European level such as the environment, building a capital markets union and making sure that we can develop a single policy on a single trading base. All those things are European policy but of course there are a lot of things at a national level that don’t and shouldn’t impinge upon the ability of the member states.”

There has also been talk of a two tier proposal that will facilitate a core group of states committed to a federation with the rest of the member states continuing in a form similar to the way the EU is run today. I have severe reservations of any group, club or organisation where there aren’t equal rights among members and I wouldn’t like to see that happening in a future Europe; you either go with all involved or you don’t. I put this to Brian wondering if he would agree. “I think you are right. I would fully agree with that. I think it has to be done by consensus and agreement and you are not going to do that by forcing people’s hand.”

There is also talk of an EU army and my fear is that Ireland’s neutrality would be compromised as a condition of membership in the EU. Could we have a situation where Ireland would be made to change its stance in the world and how our government would react to this was a question I wanted get answered from Brian. “Well, we are currently signed up to the security defence policy by being neutral because we operate a triple lock system which means we can only commit troops after three forms of authorisation from the Dáil Éireann, the Irish Government and the UN Security Council. But I think there are other things we can do to co-operate and integrate our high security apparatus in Europe. There are certain historical reasons why we are neutral and they have to be respected.”

I agree with Brian on this. Ireland has no history of invasion or subjugation of another country or state. Our neutrality is a core value in our nation’s psyche. We see it as part of being Irish; we are peacemakers not peace breakers. There is no doubt however that we do need to address our defence capabilities as we traditionally have relied on our very powerful neighbour for support in times of war and trouble.

Brian studied at St Patrick’s College, Maynooth and in Trinity College, Dublin, where he received a degree in history and sociology in 1991. Before becoming a politician, he was a secondary school teacher, so I wanted to get some insight from him about the current rise of far right parties across Europe. “I think the great challenge for Europe is the rise of populism and populism arises with the hard left and the hard right who oppose things just for the sake of it with no alternative. How do we counter that? I think the centre ground has to deliver on jobs and investment and the more we do that, the better we can be long term in trying to stem the tide. But there is no doubt the decision making in the banking crisis has been paid for hugely by centre ground politics. We can’t underestimate that and we should recognise it and make sure that it doesn’t happen again. Populism is taking hold in Europe and it could demolish the very edifice of the European Union which of course is the greatest peace project of our generation”.

Finally, I was going to try and see if there was any inside information on Brexit. What is the mood in the parliament on the question of whether Britain will actually leave? “I do think they will leave. I think it will all depend on what their economic situation is and they might look at it again but what they decide is the question”. And what of Scotland and its claim that the majority of its people want to stay in Europe? Would Brian be in favour of giving Scotland express entry into the EU? And would a decision like that cause friction for other EU states such as Spain? “I’d certainly look at that in a positive way. It would be an issue for other states, but that is an issue that we must address at the time and I think that if an independent nation wants to apply, that would be a separate issue to, say, if a region of another country was to apply. And I think that would have to be dealt with in due course. Buy it certainly is an unusual situation”.

I think Brian’s opinions are in conjunction with a lot of what Irish people think about Europe. We do support the EU, but we also cherish our independence. Europe will have to give a convincing sales pitch if it wants to sell the idea of closer integration, in whatever form that may take. It will be interesting to see if other states, in particular, the ones who have recently gained independence think the same way. We at Europa United will try to address the question of whether Europeans want to be part of a larger union or stay as citizens of their own states, because when it comes to a proposal for a federal union of Europe, it really is the only question that matters.

Ken Sweeney
Committed to idea of supporting aspiring writers and journalists. Serial podcaster.

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