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An interview with former Irish MEP, Gay Mitchell
by Christos Mouzeviris
2018-06-28 07:09:23
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Gay Mitchell is an Irish politician who was elected as a Member of the European Parliament (MEP) for the Dublin constituency on 11 June 2004. 

He was a member of Fine Gael, a part of the European People's Party, and a former Teachta Dála (TD) for the Dublin South–Central constituency from 1981–2007.

In a past interview with him, we discussed the impact of the economic crisis in Europe on the future of our continent.

“We really got to look at the history of Europe”, notes Mr. Mitchell, as he describes how the EU is all about peace and stability in our continent. About 60 million Europeans killed each other during the first half of the last century. A small number of people came together after that and had the vision of building European interdependence.

mitch0001_400Sadly, the citizens’ trust and confidence citizens towards the EU institutions were badly damaged by the economic crisis in Europe. “What is different about this crisis is that we now are going through a golden era”, he continues. The Berlin wall has come down, and eleven former communist states have joined the ever-widening and deepening block.

“I know that many people across Europe are suffering because of the crisis. But if you compare what happened back in the ‘20s and ‘30s, things were much worse. Now we got these institutions and they are trying to help. When we look back at this era, we will say that our relationship got us through the worse financial crisis the world has seen since the ‘20s and we’ve weathered it”, M. Mitchell adds.

He also believes that we are wrong to be talking about austerity in Europe. Instead, we should be talking about solidarity - country to country and person to person.

“But we are too near the wood to see the trees. The real problem we have in Europe is lack of solidarity. And I do not just mean the German solidarity with the Greeks and the Irish. I mean solidarity between people - all of us who can afford to give, should give” he continues.

According to M Mitchell, the fall of the Berlin is the source of the problem. At the time, the question was whether Europe would end up with a Germanic Europe or a European Germany. Mr. Kohl and Mr. Mitterrand decided, in a very statesmanlike way, that it would be a European Germany – and the common currency was born.

Abolishing the German mark and the French franc was not easy. The European currency was not well-founded, and when the crisis came, Europe was not able to deal with it because it did not have a central fiscal control.

“But now we have all these foundations, so that when we come out of this, we will do so stronger”, believes Mr. Mitchell “In the meantime, we should remember that the EU is about interdependence and solidarity”.

“The EU is not without its faults and sometimes it will drive you crazy, but so is the Irish political system which it is not without its faults. No political system is perfect. But it really is an extraordinary exercise”, he continues.

He also believes that the more Europe there is, the better it is for small member states. More inter-governmentalism just allows Germany, France and Britain to lead the agenda. When Germany and France broke the stability pack, nothing happened, so it is unfair of them to lecture the peripheral countries. We all make mistakes. The EU Commission is here to protect the Treaties, which are agreed by all member states. The interests of all nations must be taken into account in the European process.

Some like to say that the European continent is set to become the “United States of Europe”. But in reality, this process does not have a name. “In political science, there are terms of federalism and confederalism but what we are doing is unique. The Queen of England won’t disappear and neither will the President of Ireland”, Mr. Mitchell explains. The EU is a new, unique political entity which we are building by mutual agreement and this, along with how successful it has been, is the remarkable part of it.

The Lisbon Treaty brought about a more considerable change in the balance of power in Europe that people realize. The European Parliament (EP) has become really powerful, in European terms. “We don’t do what the national parliaments should do; therefore MEPs should be a bit more accountable”, he notes.

 “I’d like to see some process whereby MEPs and the work that we actually do gets more coverage and exposure, but also more questioning and debate”, Mr. Mitchell says.

“Europe is changing fast and the developments are happening because we are planning our future. The world is moving Eastwards and Southwards. When the USA, Russia, but also China, Brazil and India will be powerful, we will be 6% of the world’s population, so we can’t speak with 28 voices in those circumstances”, he explains.

The EU is already planning for that and its institutions are what allows Europe to be heard. The block already has one spokesman for foreign affairs, a permanent head of the European Council and an external action service.

“Have a look at the picture of the EU Parliament in Strasburg. It is architecturally designed like an unfinished building, because the EU is a work in progress. We are deciding all this together. It is an extraordinary democratic process”, Mr. Mitchell describes.

“It is a great thing that the European nations cooperate in this. I think that this whole exchange of cultures and people is a great thing, it as it has enriched us all”, he adds.

Of course, it is now the ECB who sets the interest rates and decides on the value of our common currency. “But we have a feed in the ECB through the European system of Central Banks and in time we might have an Irish Governor of the ECB. That is far better for us than when the British were setting our interest rates, as it happened when Ireland had the pound”, he notes.

“People have to realize that within the institutions of the EU there has been a shift of power, and somehow the European Parliament needs to become as accountable as the US Congress. When they think of an MEP, they should think of a Congressman. And the only way we can achieve that is actually by giving more coverage to what the EP does, so people will be aware of its work. Who are our Commissioners and our MEPs matters.” Mr. Mitchell believes.

Yet any serious political business is very hard to get coverage for. “I remember what a prominent RTE journalist told me years ago. If you want to close a newsroom in the RTE, send a news-story about Northern Ireland or Europe. These two were the two most important policy issues for us at the time”, he says.

“But the only thing that made the media aware was a bomb in Northern Ireland, and that’s not the media’s fault. When they start broadcasting serious stuff, people switch stations”, he adds.

The EU has to engage the people somehow, and make them want to know more. Maybe something needs to be done in the area of public sector broadcasting, so that people could switch on and listen directly. Europe needs to find a way of communicating issues to the people.

European citizens, on the other hand, must not just be defensive of their country, but participate and have a say. Express what their view is on where Europe has to be. Collectively, we should be building coalitions with other EU nations and work on sorting out things.

“We are doing an examination of what and how the Troika did, when dealing with the economic crisis. There were mistakes made and wrong things done, but the government at the time and the one that succeeded it, fell themselves at a sort of “3 o clock in the morning” scenario and so did the EU”, Mr. Mitchell explains.

“If everybody had full hindsight I think there are a number of things that could have been done differently. For example a bail-in rather than a bail-out, that would be there for everybody. There are still some issues that I think really need to be renegotiated. The government here is doing remarkably well in the economic area and they are winning the war. They did not win every battle of course”, he adds.

Mr. Mitchell suggests that Ireland and other countries under a bail-out program will not get the money back from the people they paid, but the EU has to look at it again. “We all participated in that decision, which was not perfect and so there must be a revision”, he says.

We are lucky that we had the right institutions in Europe. The deputy governor of the British Bank of England made a speech about their importance. They made a difference this time, in Europe’s battle with the crisis.

“The Markets threw everything at us; they tried to bring the single currency down. Do you know what the implosion of the currency would mean? The implosion of the union, because barriers then would go up, people would start devaluing their currencies for competitive advantage and then the single market would fall apart”, Mr. Mitchell explains.

The consequences of that would be similar to what happened to Yugoslavia. Peace and stability are what the EU is about, building economic interdependence and then prosperity can follow. And not just in Europe, but in the world.

Gay Mitchell will not be running for the 2014 European elections. After ten years in the European Parliament and 26 years in the Dail (the Irish House of Representatives), he decided that it is a good time to go and focus on other things that he wants to do.

 “I feel very privileged to have been an MEP and I loved the job in the EP. I have had an influence and a say. I found it hard in ways because it is very difficult for small states to break through and get higher jobs. It was lonely at times, ten years of not being at home with my family. Because when you are finishing in the Parliament in Strasburg, you got to go and visit other places”.

“One of the most interesting and influential jobs I have held is as an MEP. I can persuade other people, the Commission, as well as the Ministers, want to talk to you when you are an MEP, depending on what Committee you are on”, he says.


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