How much does it cost for an Irish man to travel around Brussels and its environs? Rather a lot if the man in question is former Brigadier General Murray Piggott.
Between 2013 and 2017, he ran up a bill of €310,000 for the hire of a luxury vehicle which, on the basis of a sample audit, was being used by him on an almost daily basis (and for most of each day) at a cost of €35 per hour, according to the Irish Times.
What role was General Piggott fulfilling at this time? He was the Irish representative on the EU Military Committee (EUMC), which advises the EU on military strategy and policy.
But hang on, what is Ireland, an ostensibly neutral country, doing on an EU military committee in the first place? Well, this is a question some of us have been asking for many years. Back in 2005, I wrote that “we are already heavily involved in the EU’s development as a military power”, not least by our participation on the EUMC.
Longstanding as this debate is, the stakes are about to get a great deal higher. Ireland is signing up to the latest stage of European military development through something called Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO), which calls for “increased investment in defence and cooperation in developing defence capabilities”.
Indeed, the first commitment made by member states endorsing this initiative is “Regularly increasing defence budgets in real terms”. In fairness, there is no mandatory sanction for states that fail to fulfill this commitment, but it is still interesting (or alarming, depending on your point of view) as a political statement of intent.
SIPTU researcher Michael Taft has crunched some of the numbers on what this might mean, noting that “One doesn’t have to be a fully signed-up peacenik to be concerned about rising military spending in Europe”.
Taft works off a commonly cited benchmark estimate that NATO (and EU states, including Ireland, cooperating with NATO) should be spending 2 percent of their total economic output on the military. To have reached the 2 percent target in 2016, EU military spending would have had to have been increased by €100 billion.
My UCD colleague Kieran Allen estimates that the 2 percent target, if achieved, would involve a fivefold increase in Irish military spending. This might be at the upper end of likely scenarios, but another UCD colleague, Ben Tonra – who, as it happens, disagrees with pretty much everything I say on these issues – is clear that PESCO means “Ireland would have to spend more on defence”, even if the exact amount is indeterminate as yet.
Tonra comments (approvingly, I think) that “Pesco clearly implies much deeper defence co-operation than has been seen before.” But I agree with him when he says that “The critical question … is whether the overall commitment is possible and desirable.”
How can we best contribute to national, European and global security? Is PESCO the best place to direct our resources? Is this type of increased military spending even a national priority? Or should we instead focus on improving the poverty-level wages that many of our soldiers currently try to subsist upon?
My own position on this is that the world (including Ireland) needs to reduce military spending, and that Ireland is squandering its potentially fruitful role as a neutral country by buying into EU military structures and by facilitating the US military’s use of Shannon airport.
But that’s just my opinion. Others will have different views. It is, as always, a question of priorities.
Reacting to a new and quite ambitious strategy, dubbed Slaintecare, for reforming and improving the Irish health service, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar moved to dampen expectations, citing expenditure constraints, saying that “Some things will maybe have to be done at a slower pace than maybe people would like.”
Is PESCO, which presents an alternative use of scarce resources to healthcare and a range of other possible allocations, something that most people would like at all? And might people prefer that a significant improvement of the Irish health service take priority over the allocation of precious money to European military capabilities?
A significant increase in military spending seems no more prudent a use of scarce resources than the hire of luxury limousines.