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Sunday 1 August 2004

Will Mandy and McCreevy mix it as political bedfellows?

WELL, the tumult has died down, so maybe we can take a calm look at two new EU commissioners. Charlie McCreevy's on his way to Brussels because his financial rectitude might prove an electoral embarrassment. Mandelson's going too, because a past financial indiscretion is the excuse for his enemies stopping Tony Blair bringing him back into the British Cabinet. Which leads me to reflect on the two political cultures. 

"Disgraced crony" is a popular British media term for Mandelson. And yes, he has twice had to resign from the Cabinet for what The Times primly calls "allegations of impropriety". But quite apart from his being now acknowledged to have been innocent on the second occasion, on the first, by Irish standards, his sin (dodgy carry-on over a mortgage) would not have been considered even venial. EU members have two standards of behaviour about matters financial: broadly, the northern Protestant culture is fussy and the southern Catholic is deeply relaxed (for these purposes, Ireland is seen as spiritually residing in the Mediterranean). 

Italy's Prime Minister Berlusconi and France's President Chirac are crooks, who - like our own dear Charles Haughey and many others - stayed out of jail because they knew how to misuse power to protect themselves. And anyway, their electorates weren't bothered. 

In Germany there was hell to pay when it was discovered that ex-Chancellor Kohl had accepted secret cash from business for his party (NB, not to buy islands or farms for himself or his wife). 

In England, Jonathan Aitken and Jeffrey Archer went to jail for perjury. (At least, in McCreevy - despite his tendency to throw buckets of Government money at his favourite pastime - we have a commissioner from whom we could confidently expect a receipt in exchange for a €50,000 contribution to Fianna Fail.) Blair feels, not unreasonably, that his most loyal confidant deserves another chance, but he's not being sentimental: he needs a heavy-hitting Europhile. 

The UK is down from two to one commissioner, and with the United Kingdom Independence Party benefiting from deep public Euroscepticism, Blair wants someone who will be seen to challenge - in a positive spirit - the overweening bureaucracy, the drive for further centralisation and tax harmonisation and the federalist agenda. 

By and large there have been, historically, no such expectations of Irish commissioners, who have traditionally been required to remember where they were reared and never to put the good of Europe ahead of Ireland's short-term gain: our ferocious defence of the iniquitous, destructive and eye-wateringly wasteful CAP is a testimony to irresponsibility. By accident we have had a few good representatives - Peter Sutherland and David Byrne (both ex-Attorney Generals), for instance - but they were not parish-pump politicians and they will have garnered no votes for their parties back home, compared to commissioners who concentrated on road-widening schemes and subsidies for non-existent three-legged cows. 

The truth is that in general - despite our Europhile rhetoric - in practice we have cynical contempt for the EU. Do any oldies out there remember Haughey sending Fine Gael's Richard Burke to Brussels in the hope of winning his seat for Fianna Fail? 

Or the manner in which, in 1997, Bertie Ahern dealt with the political threat from his country-and-western faction by dispatching Pee Flynn to Brussels, and Maire Geoghegan-Quinn to the European Court of Auditors? 

And does anyone doubt that Joe Walsh - who is almost certain to get the boot in the reshuffle now made possible by McCreevy's relocation - would in other circumstances have been dispatched eastwards with a recommendation that he become Agriculture Commissioner? 

Good enough for Brussels, though not for us. We remain consistent in our determination to export our problems. 

As we sent troubled children and unmarried mothers to the clergy to get them out of our sight, merrily dispatched, annually, tens of thousands of our citizens rather than sort out the economy at home and even now send our unhappily pregnant women to procure British abortions, so Europe has been a dumping-ground for whatever politicians a taoiseach most wants rid of. 

However, one cheering result of the latest local political dramas is that the EU has just acquired two new commissioners of outstanding ability, a predisposition towards economic liberalisation and an instinctive loathing of bureaucracy. 

However, they are both arrogant, make spectacular mistakes and are individualists rather than team workers. 

Depending on how the chips fall in Brussels, they may be sidelined into the commissionerships of fairground regulation and sandwich sizes because of the Franco-German determination to preserve the economically sclerotic status quo. 

But if they get half a chance, they might forge a formidable team. The EU has suddenly become more interesting. 

Ruth Dudley Edwards

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