Theresa May has a problem, and that is that it’s anybody’s guess what Brexit actually is. She has been elected on a “Brexit means Brexit” ticket and yet nobody can be quite sure what the destination actually looks like.
Well, maybe that’s not entirely true: Nigel Farage has an idea. To him, it looks like the humiliating capitulation of the rest of the European Union, possibly accompanied by a gushing apology for troubling Blighty in the first place, and sung to the theme from “Dad’s Army”.
The problem for May is that everything short of that can be sold by her rivals (prime ministers always have rivals) as a sellout, betrayal, or simple lack of moral gumption to get the job done.
So what is she to do? She needs access to the EU marketplace, but she also needs to be able to do something big on freedom of movement (FoM).
The answer might be, I suggest, in two places: the Leave campaign’s fabrications, and Robert Harris’s 1992 thriller about Europe under a Nazi victory, “Fatherland”.
First: can she get wiggle room on FoM? The answer is yes. The rest of the EU could allow Britain an emergency brake within the European Economic Area, in return for a nice fat penalty fee. And how does she justify that? By using the Leave campaign’s £350m a week as gospel, even though it is over twice what the UK actually paid. If, say, £325m a week is the price of FoM brake plus access, she could sell that.
After all, she’d be coming back with money and a brake on immigration and single market access, and although she is actually paying far MORE than the UK is paying now, the Leave side can hardly complain. It’s their figure, after all.
Then there’s the second part, to cap the deal. In Robert Harris’ novel the European Community is a nominal single market of partner nations, but in reality is controlled from Berlin, whilst preserving the veneer of independent nations. May has a lot to play with in this regard. There can be formal withdrawal, the lowering of the union and EU flags, the removal of EU signs in airports, the return of the UK passport, all heavily laden symbolism, all signs that “Brexit means Brexit”, and all total bollocks.
Britain remains in an EEA single market where rules are set by Brussels, bound by some sort of EFTA style court. They get to take down a few blue flags, have no seats at the decision-making tables and stand in longer queues in airports, and we get about £16 billion quid a year for our trouble.
In the words of Del Boy: lovely jubbly.
There’s going to come a time when the EU and UK have to get down to the specifics of a Brexit deal, something both sides can live with that minimizes disruption and allows both sides to move on. As it happens, a modified form of EEA membership for Britain looks like the most logical step, to include:
UK membership of the single market based on a contribution by UK taxpayers, with a discount on the figure of £350m per week given by the foreign secretary, Boris Johnson. Say £200m a week?
An emergency brake on freedom of movement which can be triggered by the UK government. However, the UK will have to pay the EU £350m for each week it is in operation, as compensation for EU citizens not going to the UK. Going on the 2014 figure of 209,000 EU citizens going to the UK this would amount to the UK government paying the EU £86,000 for each citizen who doesn’t go to the UK and pay taxes in the UK, which seems like an excellent deal for both parties. Europe gets €18,000,000,000 and the UK gets to keep the editor of the Daily Mail happy. Everybody wins.
An emergency brake on UK exports and the selling of financial services into our single market may be triggered by the European council.
Both the EU and the UK courts and parliament will be subject to an independent court tasked with ruling on the application of the new agreement.
The UK will be bound by the rules and regulations of the single market.
Britain will lose its seats in the council of ministers, commission and European parliament.
The agreement may be reviewed every five years.
All EU and UK citizens living in the EU/UK area at the time of acceptance of this agreement shall maintain the current rights of EU citizens.
Previously published in The Times Ireland Edition on the 11th July 2016:
Amidst all the pre-heave foreplay and long lingering glances going on within the Fine Gael parliamentary party, let’s put two facts about Enda Kenny on the table.
One: he didn’t win the 2011 election. Fine Gael can dress it up all they like, that a desperate nation turned to the men in blue to step forward and restore a nation’s honour, but that’s not what happened. The country voted for the largest non-Fianna Fail blunt object on offer, and that was Fine Gael.
Two: he has, to his credit, had some achievements. The economy is in better shape than when he found it, and he has to get some credit for that because if it was in a worse state he’d almost certainly get the blame. Secondly, unlike almost every government since the last abortion referendum, he actually did something on abortion. Too much in some people’s eyes, not enough in others, but he did do something. Finally, he kept his word on offering a vote on Seanad abolition, making him the only Taoiseach in a generation to actually deliver action on a major attempt at political reform.
That’s what you can say about Enda. However, what you can’t say about him is that he actually has a plan as to where he wants to take the country. If he does, he’s hiding his light so deep under a bushel that he should ask Arthur Scargill to represent him.
Is there anyone who believes Enda has a vision for where he wants to lead this country? When I say vision, I don’t mean guff, and there is a difference, which all of us in this post-truth age can recognise. A vision made of guff is full of phrases about a “world class health service” and “dignity” and a “nation to grow old with respect in”. You know. Guff.
Vision is what comes from a Taoiseach bursting with new ideas, itching to start implementing them. The words “Enda” and “bursting with new ideas” are not what you would call fellow travellers.
This country has both problems and opportunities, and it needs a leader who doesn’t regard reaching Merrion Square as being the end of the race. Consider Brexit. What’s our country’s position on the access of the City of London to the European single market in financial services? Do we have a position? If we are to poach actual firms from London, do we have a plan to deliver on the extra housing that will be needed in the Dublin region to prevent an influx of wealthy bankers, as has happened in London, driving the natives out of previously affordable areas?
Is there anyone who believes that the current Taoiseach could sustain an hour long interview on that subject without it degenerating into a swamp of the most vague twaddle?
We need a Taoiseach who can tell us the concrete facts and figures of where he or she wants to go. Who is capable of being boring by going into the detail, line by line. Who isn’t afraid to appear smarter than the rest of us, because that’s his job. Above all a Taoiseach who knows that being willing to make long-term decisions that he will never benefit politically from is the difference between being a national leader and a hack.
It also means having a Taoiseach willing to go to the country and confront it about its obsession with avoiding short-term discomfort for long-term gain. From water, to pensions to senior care to planning to health insurance provision, government after government have avoided these issues because they were, quite simply, unpopular. It’s time we have a Taoiseach who is willing to be unpopular for the right reasons and who actually tries to lead the country.
It’s also time for a Taoiseach that recognises the power of imagination and new ideas. Both the Criminal Assets Bureau and the National Treatment Purchase Fund were departures from the dreaded Way We Do Things Around Here and both delivered results. Appointing an outsider as head of the Garda Inspectorate was another one, as was appointing a Governor of the Central Bank and a Financial Regulator not from the usual deserving lads but from outside the prevailing culture. Where’s our minister for Brexit, standing alongside Pat Cox, Lucinda Creighton, Catherine Day, Ruairi Quinn, John Bruton and yes, Bertie Ahern, putting party labels aside at the Taoiseach’s request to be our tried and tested Team Ireland ready to go in for us in the most important negotiations since the War of Independence? That would be leadership.
Noel Browne was minister for health for less than four years, and never held ministerial office again. Yet we still recognise his name, because in that short time in office he made decisions on the treatment of tuberculosis that were literally life saving for thousands of people for years after he left office. It wasn’t a question of him remaining in office for as long as possible, but using that time wisely. We often forget that Noel Browne left office in 1951 generally unpopular, with his courage only really coming to be appreciated years later.
Courage matters. We need a new Taoiseach who has both courage and a plan. But even more so, we need a new Taoiseach who recognises the words of President Jed Bartlet from “The West Wing”:
Some things are more important than re-election.
So, if we were to reset the European Union, what would it look like?
We, the peoples of the sovereign nations of Europe, and members of the European Union, declare the following:
That we recognize, in the ballots of the people of the United Kingdom in their referendum on the European question, that the future of the European Union must be debated.
We also recognize that in casting their ballots they raised questions about European integration which have been raised with equal concern and passion by other peoples in other member states of the union.
Accepting these facts to be true, the European Council, being the representatives of the peoples and national parliaments of the nations of the EU, and its highest body, declares the following to be the basic laws of the policy of the European Union:
The Council recognizes that the European Union is a community of sovereign democratic nations, and that those nations, at the behest of their people, are the primary source of democratic legitimacy of the union. Some of those nations 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, or to withhold participation.
The Council recognizes that no new country may join the European Union without the consent of the national parliaments of all existing member states.
The Council accepts that whilst some member states may wish to cooperate on defence issues, no member state or its armed or security forces shall be obliged to participate without the consent of that nation’s national parliament. The European Union shall not have the power to introduce conscription.
The Council believes that the European Court of Justice exists to interpret the laws of the union as determined by the member states. Therefore, voting by a majority of both member states and population, the Council may overturn any ruling of the European Court of Justice.
The Council also believes that the national parliaments are the indispensable voice of the people of the member states, and so 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.
The Council acknowledges the unique role of the European Parliament, and so grants to it the right to initiate legislation which may only become law if passed by the European Council and not blocked by the national parliaments as per the preceding clause.
The Council concedes the question of the democratic legitimacy of the European Commission. It therefore announces that the President of the European Commission shall be elected by the people of the European Union on the same days as the European Parliament elections. A method of nomination of candidates may be decided by a majority of the national parliaments.
The Council affirms the right of any European Union citizen to renounce their EU citizenship, and all the treaty rights attached to it.
Finally, the Council proclaims that no member state shall be forced to accept migrants without its consent.
We believe that this declaration, which we commit to transcribing into a binding treaty, shall recognize the modern aspirations of Europeans and the appropriate balance between the union and the sovereign member states.
Previously published in The Times Ireland Edition on June 27th 2016.
If there was one word to describe the European Union’s policy towards almost every crisis, it would be: reactive. From Greece to the migrant crisis to banking to the Ukraine, going all the way back to the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s, the EU just doesn’t do getting ahead of a problem.
That has to change, because we’re moving into endgame here. Brexit is like the political version of the zombie epidemic movie “28 Days Later”, watching a terrible unstoppable force overwhelm and transform something beautiful one took for granted. The problem now for Europe is that the populist infection is going to spread. From Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, to Marine Le Pen in France, or Denmark or Greece or Czechia (yes, that’s what the Czechs are calling themselves these days) or even Italy, the real chance of the EU going through regular bouts of terror as other referendums appear on the horizon just won’t wash. We can’t just carry on with bits falling off at regular intervals. We’re trying to run a continent here. It’s time to cut to the proverbial chase.
One of the problems of European referendums is that they’re mostly not designed to give clear answers, but often, instead, accidentally create new questions. When Ireland voted no to the Nice and Lisbon treaties, we chose between Option A or Not Option A. Even the British Brexit vote was a vote for the unknown. Will free movement still exist after the UK leaves? How much will the UK pay in the EU budget, if at all? What happens to the Finnish wife of an Irishman living in Kentish Town? Neither they nor we know, yet the British people had to vote on it.
Each country has a view as to what it wants. Some want out, some want a trade relationship only, and others wish to integrate further, primarily around the euro. We have to recognise that the European project must adapt to the realities of the people who live in it. If they, or significant numbers of them at least, say less Europe, then less Europe it must be. The old Brussels mantra of More Europe automatically being the solution to everything is not acceptable without popular support.
Let’s let every member state take a fresh look at what it wants. A choice between leaving entirely, the Norwegian arrangement of the European Economic Area, and possibly not being in the euro, or staying in the full union with a clear understanding that it will integrate further as needed.
It might need some tinkering, possibly on the question of free movement and also on the migrant issue, but the purpose of the exercise would be to leapfrog the conveyor belt of crisis that a series of exit votes would trigger.
Would it be high stakes? Yes. But better than random exit votes appearing all over the continent like unpredictable political landmines. Let’s set a date where each country goes back to its people, and by its own national means, whether its parliament or referendum, decides what sort of EU that countries wants to sign up for. Out, EEA, or union.
Of course, every country will want to have a broad idea what other countries are doing first. After all, if the Germans found they were left in an EU with just Greece and Italy they might have second thoughts. That’s why the end of the process would involve every country coming back with its selected option under that great Irish coalition negotiating maxim, nothing is agreed until everything is agreed.
There’s no question that this is high risk. We’d be playing Senior Hurling. But it’s still better than the standard EU operating procedure of hiding behind a very expensive, beautifully handmade sofa and hoping that our problems will think we’re not in and go away.
Some countries will almost certainly decide to leave, and others, including possibly ourselves, will choose to step back into the outer ring of European Economic Area membership. But across the continent, the issue will have been confronted, not left as unexploded ordinance just waiting to be detonated by some random event like some internal party row (I’m looking at you, Dave). Every country will have the chance to debate itself what it wants from Europe, and select from the appropriate option.
We can’t just keep drifting on, waiting for the next Nigel or Marine or Geert to take our continent to the brink. This union, with its warts and pointy elbows and Jean Claudes is worth fighting to save. Particularly for a small country like us. There has never been a Europe better for small countries than this Europe.
Ireland always gets upset when it sees the Germans or French making joint pronouncements, but there is nothing to stop us touring the smaller countries and building a coalition for our vision of Europe. It’s time for us to step up.
Populist euroscepticism is the brassy blonde with the short skirts and the cheap perfume next door, appealing not to your husband’s head but elsewhere. If she tries to seduce him, you have two choices.
You can fight to save your marriage and keep him, or you can throw him out on the road.
But you sure as hell can’t ignore his carry-on as if nothing is happening.
It’s time to fight for this marriage.