Posted by Jason O on Jun 28, 2016 in European Union
Wrote this in December 2015. Think it is even more relevant today.
Never mind Brexit. That’s minor stuff because the European Union can deal with a British withdrawal. The real moment of truth will be May 2017, the second round of the French presidential election. That’s our 1933 moment, when everything can change for Europe.
Now, let me be clear: Marine Le Pen is not a Nazi. She’s way, way too smart to be one. We can beat Nazis. Marine Le Pen is much scarier, because she provides hope. She is by far the best communicator in French politics because her policies and ideas all sound credible, simple, and joined up. Unlike Merkel or Hollande, Marine Le Pen sounds like she has a plan to deal with the refugee crisis, and radical Islam. Will it work? Almost certainly not, but it sounds like it might, and that beats hand-wringing every time.
Le Pen described Brexit as being similar to the fall of the Berlin Wall. She does herself a disservice, because Britain is not vital to the EU. But France is. With no France, the EU is over. She’s already said that she’ll take France out of the eurozone, and seems to have suggested that the sort of changes she wants to the EU will destroy it in all but name anyway. If she doesn’t get them, she’s taking France out. In short, May 6, 2017 is the day the future of Europe will be decided, in France.
Before UK eurosceptics celebrate, however, they should read the Le Pen fine print. British eurosceptics are constantly attributing, wrongly, their own economically right-wing beliefs to all eurosceptics. France under Marine Le Pen will revert to a hard-left economic experiment not seen since the early days of Mitterand in 1981. Protectionism and tariffs will be back, and with that the end of the European Single Market project driven (ironically) by the British in the late 1980s and early ’90s. Le Pen is the biggest of big government interventionists, and no friend of free trade, and if the walls go up in France, they’ll go up across the rest of Europe in retaliation. That coupled with the breakup of the eurozone caused by French withdrawal will herald the darkest of economic days in Europe since the 1930s, as countries jettison the common currency in a desperate attempt to devalue against each other.
Whenever I write pieces like this I’m always accused of hysteria, primarily because those doing it (not all eurosceptics) seem to believe that the key benefit of the EU, the single market and the right to trade freely, is some sort of cast-in-stone natural phenomenon. It isn’t. The end of the single market is the greatest threat to European prosperity and stability since the 1930s.
Take Ireland: we export 90% of what we produce here. Think those US multinationals are here to supply into the Irish market? A Le Pen triggered era of protectionism will cripple us more than most.
Marine Le Pen has a serious chance of being the next president of France not because she appeals to racists (which she does) but because she has broadened her appeal. There are people who have no time for the thuggish anti-semite hardliners of the FN who will cast a Le Pen ballot because they fear that France and Europe have lost control of her borders and Le Pen is the only politician who seems to a) admit it, and b) do something about it. That’s an awkward, uncomfortable but nevertheless correct fact for us liberals to confront. Yes, we must care for refugees. Yes, we must provide sanctuary. But unless we can also convince ordinary Europeans that this continent can control who comes to live amongst us, the 6th of May 2017 is the day everything changes.
Posted by Jason O on Jun 27, 2016 in Books
, British Politics
, European Union
Given this week’s events, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Felix Klos’s slim “Churchill and Europe” isn’t really that relevant anymore, as Britain’s European Union chapter comes to an ignoble close.
You would be mistaken, because the book is an eye opener into a time when mainstream British politicians, and not just Churchill, publicly advocated European integration as a vital and worthy national interest.
Eurosceptics have always suggested that Churchill’s endorsement of a United States of Europe in Zurich in 1946 was done in the context of Britain and her empire not playing a role. As Klos argues, not only was that not the case, but by 1947 Churchill himself was head of the United Europe Movement, addressing the Royal Albert Hall under the banner “Europe Arise!”
As a pro-European and one who had hoped that the UK would have stayed in the EU, it’s hard not to read this without a heavy heart. But it’s worth reading if only to see the curious British path where the UK lost its self confidence as it took its European journey. Britain could have led Europe after the war, and moulded it in its image. Indeed, as Churchill himself said to his wife Clemmie, if he had been ten years younger he could have been the first President of the United States of Europe. Well worth a read as a sharply focused look at a fascinating topic.
“Just a mo,” the Prime Minister said, pulling his jacket off, then struggling with the bullet proof vest. His close protection officer helped him. It was the lightest model they could find, as the PM was “fed up looking like the Michelin man” on television, but it still added to his not inconsiderate bulk. The security services had insisted he wear it in public after he’d been shot at a month ago by yet another demented right-winger screaming at him for being a traitor. That was outside of London. In London they screamed at him for being a racist. Tony Blair had rang him recently to thank him for taking the pressure off him.
“I really appreciate it, man. I’m being invited to dinner parties in Islington I haven’t been to in years!”
He ran a hand through his blonde mop, and fell into a seat at the table, facing his chief of staff and that very sharp focus group lady they’d drafted in.
“Right, let’s get on,” he waved his hand in the air, as if signalling a dancing girl whose performance he had to tolerate.
The focus group expert clicked on a slide.
“Basically, they think you’ve betrayed them. The words liar, traitor, all keep repeating. And it is all to do with immigration.”
“But we’ve reduced immigration! Look at the stats! In the last quarter…” the PM blustered.
“Prime Minister, they don’t care about the actual details.”
She wasn’t lying, the PM thought. The justice secretary had his two front teeth punched in by a yob at a public meeting screaming at him about mass migration and “experts”. Indeed, the tone of the country had turned nasty in the three years of his premiership. Hate crimes were going through the roof as people deemed not English, whatever that meant, were subjected to all sorts of abuse on the streets. In some schools they were even having to segregate students to stop them fighting by race.
He’d been appalled by this, and was pouring resources into the police to tackle hate crimes, but that seemed to have angered some people even more. When he appointed the first non-white home secretary the amount of abuse he’d received in the post had been shocking.
“The perception, prime minister, is that you lied about stopping immigration and kicking the foreigners, in particular the Muslims, out.”
“But I never promised that!” he protested.
“They think you did. In some demographics, over 80% of respondents are convinced they heard you make that specific promise. It’s becoming a self-reaffirming loop. The more they get angry at you not delivering what they think you promised, the more they convince themselves as to what they heard you and others promise.”
He picked up a Jammie Dodger and munched on it. He really wasn’t enjoying being PM at all.
“Right, so how do we get the truth out? Brief journalists better? I mean, there’s a 14% reduction in immigration…”
The focus group woman looked at the chief of staff.
“I’m sorry prime minister, but I’m not sure it’s possible.”
“What?” the PM asked.
“This demographic is impervious to statistics or experts. All lies as far as they’re concerned, and Brexit to them was the signal that it’s OK, that they’re the real voice of the ordinary people. They only trust their own eyes, and every time they see a woman in a headscarf or a dark skinned man…I mean, we’ve had to stop using mixed-race focus groups for political work because it’s getting too dangerous. A man was nearly stabbed in one last week. Their measure of success on immigration would involve closing mosques, public arrests of non-whites, evictions from public housing. Making non-ethnic whites carry national identity cards was quite popular, especially if they were required to wear them on clothing…”
“Bollocks to that!” the PM said.
“A significant proportion think we should leave the EU?”
“We have left the EU!” the PM blurted out, biscuit crumbs going everywhere.
“They don’t believe you. Many believe we’re secret members. They believe UKIP are telling the truth. The phrase EU-Lite, you know, his phrase, comes up a lot. Also a number want to know why you aren’t promising to veto Turkey joining the EU?”
“And then there’s the £350 million a week,” the chief of staff said awkwardly.
“Not still!” the PM exclaimed.
The focus group woman nodded.
“It seems to have really locked in to public consciousness. Every local cut to spending, every school, hospital, the 350 comes up. They want to know why you aren’t using it to fund the given service. Some people think you’re using it to build a giant mosque in the next town over. It’s always the next town over.”
“It funds our access to the single market?” The PM said to nobody in particular.
“Yes, well that feeds into the UKIP line about you funding secret membership of the EU.”
The PM looked at his watch.
“I have to go. Have a state dinner for President Capaldi. Wish I had a bleedin’ TARDIS,” he muttered, as he went out the door.
Michael Caine, David Owen and John Cleese have all come out for Britain leaving the EU. I like and respect all three, and it saddens me, but you know what? Good for them.
They’ve expressed an opinion I don’t agree with. Big deal. I have friends that support Brexit, and we go at it hammer and tongs and never agree and that’s friendship, and democracy too. Accepting the other guy has a different opinion. But also accepting that it doesn’t make him a morally inferior person to you.
This is an issue where reasonable women and men can disagree.
What’s really struck me during the campaign is how the phrases “Give us our country back” and “Take back control” have become shorthand for something else.
Immigration is certainly in the mix, and with it, the reality that politicians don’t want to discuss, because it is so unsettling. Large scale migration is here to stay, a feature of the 21st century, and something governments cannot control without taking huge society-changing measures. We know this because Britain has been unable to seriously reduce its non-EU immigration, even though it has the tools that many in the Leave campaign say will reduce EU migration. The US is the most powerful nation in the world, and not a member of the EU, and it can’t seal its borders either. People want to live in Europe and the US because even though they know that they’ll be in competition with other immigrants they still want to come, because they think they might be able to work for a safer, better life for themselves and their families.
Because, and here’s the bit we never get, they have more faith in our system, our way of life, than we have.
The second fact about immigration, which no one wants to talk about, is that birthrates among indigenous Brits are dropping. It is the children of immigrants who will be paying for the NHS and the pensions of older Brits in 20 years time, because someone has to pay. But they won’t regard themselves as immigrants, they’ll regard themselves as Brits, as generations before have done so.
At it’s heart, a lot of Brexit is a lashing out at change, and it’s pace. It’s so easy, so reassuring to believe that Brexit is basically telling the rest of the complicated world and its problems to go away. The immigrants, the economic changes, maybe Brexit might just stop some of that? Maybe Brexit might make modern life just a little bit less complicated? In your hearts you know that just isn’t true, no mater how much you want it to be. You can vote against modern life, or you can try to direct it, and Brexit gives you less control over those global forces, not more.
The biggest absence in the campaign has been the fact that Irish, German, Finnish or Greek families want the same things for their kids that Brits want. These aren’t alien cultures. Take a Brit and put him at a Greek supper table and the arguments and the worries and the laughter will be the same. Yes, we’re all different countries with our own cultural uniqueness, but it isn’t alien. The Austrians and the Danes want the best for their kids too.
For me, the idea that Britain won’t be at the European table is weird. It’s as simple as that. The idea that the debates as to the future of Europe will be missing one of Europe’s most positive forces, the country that gave so many of its sons and daughters to create this free Europe won’t be there is just plain weird. It’s like the US without California or New York.
You own Europe as much as continental Europeans do because you paid for it in blood, in Normandy, in Arnhem. This is your Europe too. Please don’t go.
There’s a lot of hysteria in the British debate on leaving the EU. The Outers paint an image of a glorious new Elizabethan age where a nuclear armed swashbuckling free trade New Switzerland can be towed off the coast of Hong Kong without consequence. The Stayers paint a scenario of utter economic collapse if Britain leaves.
What’s the truth? The truth is that neither will happen. Britain will save some money, although less than they think. After all, the rest of us aren’t running the European Single Market for the benefit of Britain. Britain’s exporters will still have to play by rules set in Brussels, as they currently do with those in Washington and Beijing. If a Britain outside the EU takes serious measures to undercut European workers by imposing less employment protection there’s nothing to stop the EU putting tariffs on British goods in response, and happily spending a few years in the WTO debating it. That’s the thing about not being at the table where decisions are made. It takes longer to change them.
Chances are, it won’t come to that, because as every person who becomes the prime minister of a European country (including Britain) knows, solving problems becomes the obsession. Deals will be done, just not openly at EU summits. Britain, even out, will still be parked beside 450m of the richest consumers on Earth. Eurosceptics keep trying to suggest that Europe is somehow going to die off. The same people, by the way, who claim Europe is being swamped by new arrivals. The truth is, if a country of 450m people arrived beside Britain and announced it was going to leave in 20 years, would the Brits refuse to trade with it? They would in their eye.
Instead, British civil servants will continue to use draft EU product regulations as the basis for draft UK regulations. It’s just easier and suits exporters better.
There’ll be no more EU flags in Britain, but the substance will remain broadly the same. Britain will still maintain a presence in Brussels (as the US does) and that’ll be the de facto permanent representative to the EU.
Britain will of course be able to represent itself in global trade talks, which is a big deal to the eurosceptics. Although you have to ask: if Britain thinks it can’t get a good deal within the EU negotiating with comparable-sized nations (UK is second largest country in the EU) how on Earth will it get a better deal with China, a country 20 times bigger than Britain? will that be the headline on The Daily Mail when Prime Minister Boris comes back from Beijing having been thoroughly rogered in trade talks? “At least it wasn’t the French?” No, Britain will negotiate with the 450m EU as well, only this time from the outside and without rights. Bizarre.
What Brexit means is that Britain goes from having some of its key relationships in the openness of the EU moved into the behind closed doors style of the WTO, Commonwealth and NATO. Fair enough. Because let’s not forget: the British tabloids get to bitch endlessly about “mad” EU proposals because the EU actually makes and debates its proposals in public, unlike the aforementioned bodies. The WTO and NATO would pale at EU levels of openness. The Commonwealth is too busying trying to ignore some of its members kicking homosexuals to death.
When it comes down to it, Brexit is based on the belief that you can have more influence over a room by not being in it, but in reality standing outside a half open window and trying to slip notes through the gap, hoping your own people don’t see you doing it.
It’s certainly a novel concept.
Posted by Jason O on Jun 12, 2016 in Irish Politics
, The Times Ireland Edition
Previously published in The Times Ireland Edition on the 20th February 2016.
Here’s a hypothetical for you to consider. How would Irish voters react if the government announced that National Lottery winnings were to be subject to income tax? I have a suspicion that people would be outraged. Never mind the fact that Irish voters constantly tell pollsters that “the rich” should pay higher taxes or that they’d happily pay higher taxes for better public services. If you won €500k on the Lotto and the government announced they were taking half of it, I suspect most Irish people would have their noses seriously put out of joint. Despite the fact that it is effectively free money and they’re getting to keep a quarter of a million.
There’d be all sorts of excuses as to why Lotto winners should be exempt. That they had “invested” thousands already in unsuccessful tickets. That the multinationals don’t pay their fair share of taxes. The banks. Yeah, those two words are now an excuse for anything you don’t like. Or that isn’t it unfair that some poor creature finally gets a break and now the government is piling in on him. In short, the Irish don’t like tax more than they don’t like cuts in public services.
Yet, through this, one of the most boring and curiously distant election campaigns in recent history, that real division in Irish society has barely been touched. With the possible exception of Lucinda Creighton, hardly anyone has stood up and openly defended a view held, quietly, by a huge section of the Irish people. Stuff your public services. You’ll only give my money to pay LUAS drivers more than I earn. I want to keep my own money.
The real issue in this election is, as ever, about tax. Income tax, property tax, USC, water tax. With the exception of the Social Democrats, who are getting margin of error ratings for their troubles, hardly any candidates want to defend the concept of higher taxes paid by you for better services. The alphabet left and Fianna Fail point to those living breathing crocks o’ gold, the wealthy, as the perennial source of finance for all our public service goodies. But hardly anybody will knock on the door and tell you openly that they will tax you whatever it takes to bring people poorer than you up to your level.
Put the people who just want to keep their own money, the people who say they can’t afford to pay any more tax, and the people who say that the government will just squander it and you probably have a majority of the Irish electorate. The next Dail will have a majority, regardless of who is in government, of deputies who will resist any attempt to openly (stealth taxes are different) increase taxes on the great majority of Irish people.
Yet hardly anybody wants to debate the link between taxes and public services. Nobody ever challenges members of the public on TV debate shows or Joe Duffy about why they should get more of someone else’s earnings. It’s that wonderfully Irish ability to hold conflicting views at the same time, and never be challenged on it, and it’s not doing our society a service in ignoring it.
This election campaign would have been better served if non-party people had openly debated the future of Irish society, acting as de facto proxies for our wobbling jelly politicians who won’t say boo to a goose because they reckon the goose might give them a 6th preference. A debate between, say, Fintan O’Toole and our own Cormac Lucey would be a far more engaging and honest discussion about where we would like to go as a country than what is passing for debate between the parties.
The big invisible pachyderm at the heart of Irish politics is a pretence that there is some perfect political G spot where you can get all the public services you want for buttons in taxes. Every opposition claims it, every government fails to find it, rinse and repeat. It’s nonsense, and dishonest nonsense at that.
But instead of admitting that politics is about choices, we have a parade of politicians listing out vast sums of other people’s money which always exceeds even the piddling extra taxes or savings they will admit to supporting. At the moment, our politicians would be doing less harm if they were actually handing out cash for votes rather than making promises that involve huge public sector expansion. Irish politics would be better served if they could offer us money on the doorsteps in return for the promise of a vote.
At least then, come the day of the count, it would be the politicians who’d be storming around the count centre in a temper because they’d been lied to. “I was promised thousands of votes on the doorsteps! I gave away thousands of euro! I can’t believe the voters lied to me, I mean, what sort of lying, dishonest…” They’d stop spending money on posters and leaflets and instead every election campaign would involve the candidates and a van from Securicor going from door to door haggling like Tunisian carpet salesmen. You’d certainly make sure that you were in to meet them. Indeed, you’d probably make an appointment. In the Philippines some candidates for office are known for giving out a left shoe to voters, with the promise that the voter will get the right shoe if the candidate is elected. I could easily see a candidate working his way down a street in Ranelagh or Donnybrook with a selection of Jimmy Choos.
Wouldn’t be the worst thing that could happen.
A version of this was previously published in The Times Ireland Edition 6th June 2016
Supposing one had to conjure up an ideal candidate to bridge the divide between the British and their continental partners. For a start, such a candidate must speak English well, grasping all the nuances such as when a Brit says “that’s an interesting idea” they mean “there is not a hope in hell we’re agreeing to that”.
Secondly, the ideal candidate must have a grasp of British society and culture and the realisation that the British grasp of European history, for many, struggles to get beyond “Where Eagles Dare” and the girls from “’Allo ‘Allo”.
Thirdly, that country must understand the EU and the way around a CAP application form.
Fourthly, they must be trusted by the rest of the EU as a country that believes in the concept, or at least is willing to pretend it does and doesn’t get all snarky when the Germans start crying during Ode to Joy.
Finally, the ideal candidate must believe in both sides coming away from the table with enough in their back pocket to be able to go home and brag that they rogered the other guy good, in the traditional European manner.
You can see where I’m going here. We’re the guy. We’re the country that stayed in the euro, survived an almighty kick to our economic unmentionables but still didn’t go all Greek. We’re the poster boy for Angela. But also the Brits know, despite our history, that we’re not ideologues about the great European project. We’re about what works.
The problem is that we don’t have a plan, and that’s always been our problem. We react. We panic about CAP, abortion, neutrality and the tax opt-out and let the others think about the big picture: what sort of Europe we want in twenty or thirty years.
What’s the Ireland Plan?
We need a plan which addresses some of the British worries but also the concerns of the rest of the EU. We have friends in every capital, and we also recognise that the British do raise genuine concerns but are so cack-handed about it that they can’t build a consensus on it. We can.
We’ll call it the Dublin Declaration. A short, legally binding statement of principles, not much longer than this article, signed by all Europe’s leaders and sent to every household in Europe. In language that Citizen Sean in Galway or Citizen Maria in Malta can read and understand. A clear declaration about what the EU is for, and possibly more importantly, what it’s not for.
Every member state will have a few pet demands it’ll want in the text, but here are a few we could push for, and why:
The member states recognise that the European Union is a community of sovereign democratic nations, and that some may wish to integrate to different degrees from others. The EU will respect the sovereign right of each nation to determine its own level of integration. Let’s shout that reality from the rooftops.
No new country may join the European Union without the consent of all existing member states. Sorry Turkey: it isn’t happening any day soon. We just can’t get it past the voters, and you know, they own the place.
Whereas some member states may wish to cooperate on defence issues, no member state or its armed or security forces shall be forced to participate. The European Union shall not have the power to introduce conscription. As if it even could. It can’t even ensure bananas are straight.
The European Council, voting by a majority of both member states and population, may overturn any ruling of the European Court of Justice. This would be a biggie: recognising that the ECJ is a servant of the elected governments of Europe, not the other way around.
A majority of national parliaments representing a majority of the population of the EU may vote to suspend or abolish any existing EU directive or regulation, or block any proposed one. This would be another big deal, recognising that the EU is not all heading in one direction. Power can be taken from Brussels too.
Any European Union citizen may renounce their EU citizenship, and all the rights attached to it. Let ordinary Europeans strip themselves of EU rights, with a single signature. It’ll greatly focus the mind. And make UKIP MEPs swap their seats for a UK Only passport. Snigger.
Finally, no member state shall be forced to accept refugees without its consent. Currently the law, but there’s no harm reminding people.
As it happens, many of these are already EU law, or a variation of, buried in the treaties. But a blunt reminder to every European on these issues would not do any harm. In addition, giving such powers to national parliaments would be a clear recognition of the fact that most Europeans, even those who support the EU, still see it as a bloc of sovereign nations.
At its heart, such a declaration would have a core message: Brussels works for us, not vice versa, and when we snap our fingers, Brussels should be politely asking how high we’d like it to jump.
That’s a message I suspect would resound across the union, and not just in eurosceptic Britain.