On Thursday 30th of April, European Movement Ireland hosted a webinar on their annual poll regarding the relationship between Europe and Ireland – The Red C Poll. On the panel there were two highly distinguished guests that joined the Executive Director, Noelle O’Connell in the shape of RTE’s Europe Editor, Tony Connelly and Eisenhower Fellow, Katy Hayward, from Queen’s University Belfast. The discussion that followed outlined that the report was in general, a very positive one for Ireland’s future in Europe, but I couldn’t help but come away from the hour and a quarter long video call feeling a little nervous. Ireland cannot afford to rest on its laurels when it comes to Europe. We cannot sleepwalk into Euroscepticism, and there is some evidence that there were drawbacks from the EMI report, particularly amongst young people.
There are two very important points to make when looking into this report; (1) it was carried out in the context of COVID-19 and (2) there was a large amount of “don’t know” answers throughout the polling. Perhaps the best place to start is “Ireland should remain a member of the EU” which a resounding 84% of people responded “yes”. There is no doubting that this is a very healthy figure. But it is still down 9% from last year, which Tony Connelly believes is due to a “Brexit bounce” from 2016-2019. The issue of Brexit being constantly portrayed as a painstaking process in the news every day for the past 4 years has somewhat passed, and now Ireland has returned to a figure similar to 2015 (86%). However, this is not the figure that concerns me. What concerns me is the huge disparity between the percentage of people supporting the EU and the percentage of people who feel their voice is heard by the EU, a figure which has seen an extraordinarily sharp decline from 2019 when it boasted a 69% figure (Eurobarometer). This, according to Connelly, could be as a result of people being able to separate what they believe is generally good for the state from their own aspirations. But it seems to be a passive form of support for the EU rather than an engaging one, which Hayward attributed to a “not quite so passionate” Irish electorate in defending Europe. This submissive support for the EU is evidenced by the turnout figures at EU elections, which at less than 50% in 2019 is less than the EU average. For such a supposed proponent of the EU, this figure is a little disappointing. Moreover, the Sinn Féin surge of 2020 could potentially galvanise voters into questioning EU membership.
There is no question that Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael are strong advocates for membership of the EU, and their draft document on government formation stipulated increased spending in the EU as well as enlargement of it, apparent positive steps in fostering a healthy relationship with Brussels. Nevertheless, the EMI Poll illustrates that these policies may not be especially popular with voters as 37% polled disagreed with the EU allowing more European countries to join, as well as 41% disagreeing that Ireland should increase funding. The age breakdown of these results is also cause for concern. Only 26% of people aged 18-24 believe they are heard in Brussels compared to over 43% of the over 55’s. Young people were a big base for supporters of SF in the last election and the party is not completely sold on the European Union, although this was placed on the backburner throughout Brexit. Couple this low figure amongst young people with the fact that they are the likeliest age group to vote for SF could mean that questions of Europe could start being raised at a grassroots level. But perhaps my worries are a case of me being a nervous nellie. There are so many positive headlines to be taken from the work carried out by EMI. 84% support for the European Union is a hugely significant figure and places us at the head of member states backing the EU. Furthermore, this statistic is ably supported by three quarters of those surveyed believing that increased trade deals are a positive thing (only 8% of people disagreed) and young people are still leading the charge when it comes to climate change (55% of 18-24 year olds aware of EU’s plans to tackle the crisis) which is 10% higher than that of any of the other age groups. These are all encouraging statistics. But the Poll has provided plenty of food for thought. Not least of which is the lack of people “knowing” enough about certain topics regarding the EU that they do not feel they can agree or disagree with the statement proposed. Engagement is crucial in maintaining the relationship we currently have with the EU, but it is a two-way street. The institution needs to show us that we are being heard, that what we think matters, that we can all make a difference as citizens of Europe. Until that day comes or that process begins, the voter turnout will continue to stagnate, and more questions will have to be answered. True support comes from active engagement and a sense of belonging and if there is one thing I take away from the report, it is that Ireland might not be as actively supportive as it once was, the average citizen inactively loyal to the EU and I believe that this is a dangerous road to meander down as we go forward into the turbulent times that lie ahead.