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.
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.
Previously published in The Times Ireland Edition on the 30th May 2016.
Dear British friends,
It’s us, the Irish. You know us. The people next door you don’t quite regard as foreigners yet aren’t sure who we are. We do have that language thing and use strange words for prime minister and there was all that unpleasantness where we were killing each other.
But look, that’s all gone save for the real nutters. Now we both support the same Premiership players, and laugh at “Father Ted”, although we reckon you don’t get half the jokes.
But things are pretty grand now. The Queen came and spoke what we call the Cúpla Focal, and we got her safely out of the country without one of the aforementioned nutters blowing her up. In short, the relationship we have now is the best relationship our two peoples have had since one of our lads asked one of your lads to come over and put manners on some other lads 800 years ago. It’s fair to say that we are friends.
That’s why I’m writing about this Brexit thing. Now, we know how you feel about the Germans. I mean, you’ve been watching “Dad’s Army” for over 48 years now, so that’s bound to have had an effect. Our own attitude to herself in Berlin is mixed too: on the one hand they did build our roads (and are mentioned in our sacred Proclamation) but we also feel not a little aggrieved over the whole baling out of the Franco-German banking system. But let’s cut to the chase: we really don’t want you to leave the EU. It’ll be terribly disruptive along the border, and with regard to the hundreds of thousands of our fellow citizens we have in each other’s countries. Life is hard enough without this.
Don’t get us wrong. We get your complaints about the EU, and they irritate us too. There seems to be blokes in Brussels with nothing to do all day but think up new forms for us to fill in to ensure transgender badgers get their high heel allowance. We get that. But that’s modern life. If you weren’t in the EU your own civil servants would be dreaming up this stuff. The public say they don’t want red tape or regulation until someone finds a bit of Shergar in their sausages then it’s “who’s the Sausage Czar?”
But aside from all the red tape, real or imagined, there’s the fear factor, and this is where the two of us differ. See, you seem genuinely afraid of Brussels. We’re not, and we’re only a fraction of the size of you. I reckon it’s because your politicians aren’t very good at negotiating, whereas ours, like the rest of Europe, are used to coalitions and haggling every day over everything from policies to who’s brother-in-law gets put onto a state board. Yours are a bit shouty, finger-pointy, just a little bit too “Get Carson to bring the car around”, whereas ours are more “I can get you a nice Ford Cortina, easy on the clock. For cash, like. In the hand.”
We engage, because like all small countries we have to be acutely aware of what’s going on around us as we tend to get marched on by chaps in pointy hats and big moustaches. The Nazis, that is. Not the Village People. Us, the Belgians, the Danes, the Dutch, we want to be at the table because we know the table is where it will happen even if we’re not there. That’s what so perplexing for us watching you putting on your raincoat and ambling towards the door with your plastic Co-Op bag. You’re giving in. You’re basically saying that the rest of us play too rough and you think you’ll find the Russians or the Chinese or the Americans easier on you.
But that’s not you, and we know it. You didn’t get off the fishing boats after Dunkirk and ring that Austrian corporal to say that you give up. You dusted yourselves off, took a breather, and came up the beaches in Normandy and put Nazis in the ground. Do you think those poor wizened souls you liberated from Belsen were disappointed that you hadn’t decided Europe was just too hard and walked off the pitch? You helped save Europe. Yes, because you recognised that what happened on the continent affected you but also because it was the right thing to do. You’re not the nation of quitters the Brexiteers say you are.
This referendum is an opportunity for future British prime ministers to say “We live here too, and here’s our plan to make it better.” You’re not without friends. You’re not without allies who agree with you on many of the problems of the EU.
But we can only stand with you if you’re willing to fight, not run for the door because the fight is just too hard.
You’re the second largest country in the European Union. This continent cradles the bodies of thousands of your sons and daughters who helped liberate seven countries from one of the most evil regimes in human history. You don’t lack courage. But you have to use it, and that means staying in the EU and fighting to change it.
In short, fighting them in the commission, fighting them in the council, fighting them in the parliament, and never surrendering.
Because you see that never surrender bit? On that, you’ve got form.
Previously published on the 24th January 2016 in The Times Ireland Edition.
Watching our British, and specifically English neighbours having their ongoing nervous breakdown over their relationship with the rest of Europe, we have to be concerned. To us, it’s sort of like watching Mammy and Daddy fighting, and knowing with that awareness even the youngest of children have that if the outcome is bad it’ll affect us badly too.
Having said that, it also raises an awkward question for us. As a country that is Olympic gold medal standard in ignoring awkward questions, we have to confront this one. If the Brits go, should we consider leaving the European Union too?
Put that question to the spin-the-bottle FF/FG/Labour political establishment and they’ll blurt out an automatic no. But this is done without thinking, and not because of any commitment to the cause of European integration but to a hardwired revulsion of anything that sounds like change.
As it happens, European unity is not just about World War II but about a group of small countries with similar values magnifying their power to shape the global forces that affect us, from mass migration to terrorism to international trade. But that does not mean that we shouldn’t take a dispassionate eye to what is in our national interest.
Here’s the awkward reality: yes, keeping the Brits in is in our interest. But if they leave, getting them a good deal is absolutely vital. We trade nearly €1 billion a week with them, and anything that interferes with that, from border control to tariffs to British access to the single market is a threat to our national interest. Any threat to that trade is the biggest and most likely single non-terrorist threat to our economy. In short, if our membership of the EU threatened our access to the British market, that would be a serious conundrum for us.
Then there’s our membership of the euro. There are some in the country who believe that returning to a national currency would allow us more flexibility in that we’d have nominal control over interest rates again. They’re right, of course. But we’d also have to balance our desire for appropriate domestic interest rates with the need to keep the currency shadowing both sterling and the euro. And that’s before you consider how lip-licking populist Irish politicians would look at political control of interest rates. It’s not hard to imagine them demanding that the central bank pay attention to “social justice” when setting interest rates and ending with politicians wondering why we can’t just “temporarily” print more of our new national currency.
Sorry, but I have more faith in a currency run by Mario than Mary Lou.
The big question is whether it’s enough to justify our exit? The vast majority of our FDI must regard our membership of both the euro and the single market as a key factor for investing in Ireland. Obviously along with our “Hey, Apple, keep your hand in your pocket, this round is on us!” approach to corporate taxation, but access to the single market matters. It’s certainly not for our tiny domestic market that they’re here. We haven’t even got a proper Apple store. Likewise, leaving the Common Agricultural Policy would be a shocker too, as, post Irish exit, the IFA lads point that famous rattling bowl at the Irish taxpayer and ask “Well?”
I’ve no doubt we should stay. The deciding factor for us on staying will be the same thing that can be traced all the way back to Michael Collins. Small nations need a place at the table, to be inside the room. The Brits used to think that way until the eurosceptics came up with the surreal concept that either a) the EU, and therefore the room, was going to go away, or b) the room doesn’t matter. Or there’s the even more bizarre idea that you can have as much influence in the room by not being in it, like some form of geo-political séance. Sort of “Knock once if you want a change in banana curvature regulations.”
There’s also one reason why examining Irish exit might be dangerous. It might make the rest of Europe look at what they get out of us being in the EU, with our two-faced approaches to things like abortion and neutrality and our bloody referendums. It’s true, Angela wants to keep us on board because she can scold the Greeks and point at us. But that all hinges on Irish politicians not making a future balls of the public finances. I wouldn’t be brimming with confidence on that one. This is a political class, after all, whom I suspect now regard calling in the IMF as a form of political ctrl-alt-delete button.
If someone had told the lads on Easter Monday 1916 that 100 years from then a sovereign Irish government would be sitting in the councils of Europe demanding a better deal for the Brits they’d have choked on their figrolls.
Yet the truth is that it is in the interest of Ireland that we side with them against our gallant allies in Europe on this issue.
That doesn’t mean, however, that we shouldn’t stop trying to slap some sense into them before the referendum. Nor will we be alone: I suspect the run up to the referendum will have the Americans and the rest of Europe imitating that scene in “Airplane” where a queue of people line up to slap sense into an hysterical passenger trying to get off the plane in mid-flight.
Still, surely we’ve come a long way. 100 years ago we would have just shot them.
Memorandum to the Federal Chancellor from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Berlin.
Subject: British withdrawal from the European Union.
As part of our preparation process with regard to the upcoming decision of the British people, I’d like to take this opportunity to put an alternative viewpoint.
As you are aware, it is the stated policy of the federal republic that Britain should remain in the European Union, both for her own benefit but also to avoid the disruption and possible “copycat” moves by other member states to leave the union.
I would like to suggest that a decision of the British to “Brexit” the EU does, in fact, open up a number of options for us which may be of great usefulness.
1. Britain has been, as you are aware, the key obstacle to many initiatives with regard to further integration. In particular with regard to greater defence cooperation and a super return on European defence spending, the so-called “bigger bang for our buck” issue. Even with British withdrawal, EU defence spending is significant, and removing the British ability to constantly veto defence integration may allow us to make progress on common defence and possibly even a common defence force. Our friends in Washington have voiced support discreetly for such an option.
In short, “Brexit” may allow us to achieve something that hundreds of years of British foreign policy has prevented: the emergence of a single unified European superpower right on Britain’s border.
2. The so-called “domino effect”, where a low drama British departure may encourage others such as the Dutch, the Swedes, the Danes, the Czechs and the Hungarians to depart the union could be problematic, but not without possible merits. Let us bear in mind that all those countries will still be major trading partners with us, and will desire to continue. Only under a new arrangement (possibly EEA?) they won’t have seats, votes, or veto powers at EU level. But they will still be effected by decisions we make at EU level through sheer economic geography. In short, we end up with a leaner European Union decision making structure but a de facto same single market size. It’s true, the EU budget will have to be trimmed, but that was going to have to happen anyway as expectations exceeded resources.
3. Finally, the Scottish question. Whilst we must be hesitant about yet more members joining the union, with Turkey and Serbia both bringing their own problems, we should be willing to make an exception for Scotland as a developed effective existing member which also allows us to have two land borders with the UK. I would suggest that if “Brexit” occurs the EU should move to embrace the Scottish Government in Edinburgh, with the Scottish First Minister being accorded head of state status on her visits to EU institutions, and with an invitation to her to attend, as an observer, the next European council meeting.
I look forward to your comments.
Watching the British debate over Brexit one would be forgiven for regarding both sides of the argument as slightly hysterical. One side say that Brexit will destroy the British economy. The other that Brexit will unleash a new Elizabethan age, setting Britain free to sail off towards Asia.
You could spend months, as we probably will, arguing the details.
But for me, here’s the single biggest reason that Britain should remain.
The European room isn’t going away.
European integration is often painted in the UK (and Ireland) as a bit of a cult obsession, about building a superstate. There are, no doubt, some who believe in that goal, but that is not the reason why many moderate and mainstream continental office-holders continue to support the EU.
The first time I realised why continental Europe views European integration so differently was standing in a railway station in Paris, and seeing destinations on it that in Ireland you’d only see in an airport. It made me understand how on top of each other European countries actually are, and not just for trade, but shopping, work and school.
So many Europeans think nothing of crossing the border every day.
That mentality forces their elected leaders to work together. To respect each other’s workers and products. To want each other’s cars and trucks and drivers to obey the same laws. To want to ensure that other countries care for your people when they are visiting. To help each other’s police chase terrorists and sex traffickers across Europe.
These issues are all resolved in the European room, by ministers sitting and meeting and discussing and arguing and finally agreeing.
They will continue to be discussed post-Brexit and they will continue to affect Britain. Britain has been affected by events and decisions made in Europe for thousands of years, from the Vikings to Napoleon to Hitler. Why on Earth will that suddenly stop post-Brexit?
And here’s where it gets tricky: once the 27 members have decided a position, it becomes much more difficult for Britain from outside to get that position changed.
That’s not hyperbole, it’s simple logic. Imagine being a member of any club where one member refuses to attend meetings and then demands later that whatever everybody who attended the meeting decided be over turned. The rest simply won’t agree, especially not for a member who deliberately chose to vacate their place at the original meeting. British demands will require the other 27 countries still in the room to return to the room and carefully unpick agreed deals with each other to suit a country not in the room. Really? It’s like giving Canada a veto over anything decided in Westminster.
This is the issue at the heart of Brexit that eurosceptics choose to ignore. That there will be a place were most of Britain’s closest allies will meet and decide issues that affect Britain and Britain won’t be there.
It is, quite simply, odd.
If anyone advocated the same logic for NATO, the WTO, the WHO, the IMF, the G8 or the UN eyes would roll.
Eurosceptics keep pushing a vague idea that Britain will still somehow have some form of say over what the rest of Europe decides and debates. But that is also the logic for Britain withdrawing its ambassadors from across the world on the basis that “if it’s important I’m sure they’ll give us a call.”
Britain is important to the rest of Europe. But the idea that other countries in a room will put Britain’s interest ahead of their own is very courageous. Best case scenario will have British diplomats hanging around the wheelie bins outside the European Council building hoping to buttonhole the Swedish or Irish foreign minister to stop a directive that will inadvertently hurt Britain. This is how Britain sees itself? Hanging around the bins at summits?
Finally, on a non-technical point, how weird is it that Britain decides to walk off the pitch because it’s too hard and the other players are just too rough? The idea that Britain can handle the Chinese but not the Belgians? Please.
Britain has legitimate complaints about the EU. But if anything, it has been the hesitating by the door that has prevented the UK’s leaders from going full throttle in Brussels to get what Britain wants. Perhaps, after a clear yes, a British prime minister could go into the council without worrying about what the Daily Mail says and get a better deal? Just look at Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker. Britain was powerful enough to do a deal with France and Germany and block JCJ. But only if it had a serious candidate it would support. That’s the problem: even if David Cameron had nominated a serious British candidate the right-wing press would have called him a traitor rather than hailing it as a huge success. No serious candidate would have been insulting enough to the rest of Europe.
That’s the post-Brexit challenge: a British PM with a mandate to face down those who would sabotage Britain leading Europe.
The scene: The Irish EU commissioner is strolling down the Rue Archimedes to work one crisp Tuesday morning, two years after Brexit.
Voice from behind bin: Psst!
Paddy stops, strolls over to the bin. A man in a long coat and hat, with an enormous false moustache is hiding.
Charles: Paddy! It’s me! Charles! (lifts hat)
Paddy: Charles? What the f**k are you doing? Is that a real moustache?
Charles: No, I had to go in disguise. If the euroskeps knew I was here I’d be done for treason!
Paddy: Oh yeah, I suppose. Eh, what can I do for you?
Charles: Is there any chance you could stop having meetings about things that affect us?
Charles: It’s just that you keep discussing things that affect us, and we’re not in the meeting, and it’s very awkward. See this? Stuff like this. (removes a sheaf of paper he had shoved down the back of his trousers)
Paddy: Where have you been keeping this Charles? Look at the state of it.
Charles: Yes, sorry, Cameron and I have to be very careful that the Taliban don’t see us reading draft EU directives. It’s kind of heresy now. The official line is that nothing the EU does affects us. So we have to read them in the jacks in Downing Street. They’ve people everywhere.
Paddy: What’s this anyway?
Charles: It’s the draft proposal on pension funds, putting a tax on funds leaving the EU. That’ll hurt the City.
Paddy: So? This is an internal EU matter.
Charles: Yes, but it affects us! There’s a load of countries in a room talking about stuff that affects us and we’re not there!
Paddy: Yeah, I can see that. Alright, I’ll see if I can put in a word.
Charles: Thanks Paddy, we really appreciate it. Have to go: I’m meeting the Dutch behind that skip on Square Ambiorix.
Paddy: Sure. Take care, foreign secretary.