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.
The 7th May 2017 is the final date in a 12 month perfect storm of political events that threaten western stability and indeed democracy like none since the 1970s. Between now and that date, the second round of the French presidential election, we will face three major events that have the potential to upend key stability factors in our society.
The first is Brexit. As it happens, British withdrawal from the European Union itself can be managed. The European Community existed before the UK joined, and can function without it. The big fear, however, is that Brexit might trigger a domino effect of populist forces declaring exit from the EU as the Deux Ex Machina that solves all modern anxieties. Even then, it can be contained, provided that Italy, France or Germany don’t leave, with smaller countries leaving just becoming de facto non-voting satellite states of the EU.
The second is a Trump victory. As it happens, such a result would almost certainly result in the Republican party rushing to be forgiven by him in the hope of sharing in the patronage and spoils. But is it impossible for a man with an ego like Trump to decide that he is in fact above party politics and to appoint some popular Democrats to office too? That coupled with the very real difficulties of implementing the more extreme of his policies could trigger a sharp backlash in his hard-core base. Or mass rioting amongst Hispanics if he tries to implement them. Don’t forget, Hispanic-American citizens have the right to bear arms too. The sheer unpredictability of a Trump presidency, never a good thing when the control of nuclear weapons is involved, is a serious worry for us all.
The third and final is the possibility of Marine Le Pen becoming President of France. As with The Donald, “right thinking” people keep saying that it can’t or won’t happen. But we live in dangerous times, and the Le Pen plan, based on withdrawal from the euro and protectionism for French business, as well as mass deportation, would almost certainly destroy the European Union. There can be no EU with France and Germany in step.
Next month, we enter the maelstrom…
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.
Posted by Jason O on Apr 24, 2016 in British Politics
, European Union
One of the key tenets of the last 200 years of British foreign policy has been to prevent the emergence of a single powerful force on the European continent. It’s been a very successful policy. Yet for the last 15 years, the insular nature of British politics has effectively called that policy into question. British withdrawal is now a serious proposition, but what’s more is that other member states are now beginning to wonder as to whether the cost of keeping Britain is actually worth it?
What would be the actual consequences of British withdrawal for the rest of the EU? Trade would continue, after all, it’s in no one’s interest that it doesn’t. Brussels would still set many product rules that UK manufacturers would have to obey anyway, only without a UK voice at the table. Reform of the EU would lose a champion, that’s true, but bear in mind that Downing Street’s obsession with placating the Daily Mail means that Britain has been pretty ineffectual in pushing through reforms at EU level anyway, despite the fact that Britain has allies. British withdrawal would almost certainly trigger withdrawal by one or two other countries, but the reality is that most member states, even with their own gripes about Brussels, see being at the table as the least worst option.
Secondly, whilst the days of the overt federalist United States of Europe are probably over, the gradual subtle process of integration, through technical methods such as the Fiscal Treaty, could probably speed up with British or Danish or even Irish withdrawal. The end outcome would be a European confederation of sorts, orbited by a number of nominally independent states who have to make nominally sovereign decisions whilst paying attention to the vast economic gravity of the politically united Eurozone.
After all, to take one random issue: the UK has been a major obstacle to progress on combined European defence. Despite Nigel Farage’s warnings, it has been Britain IN the EU that has prevented a European Army. Once Britain was out the EU could work on transforming NATO into a binary US/EU alliance with a few junior partners like Britain and Iceland. And all without worrying what the Daily Mail thinks about British soldiers wearing EU cap badges. I’m not sure this is necessarily a bad thing.
The Northern Ireland Tourist Board has confirmed that the iceberg responsible for the sinking of the Titanic will arrive in Belfast later this week. The iceberg, which was discovered adrift north of Greenland and still with the paint markings from its epic encounter with the Belfast-built ship, will be part of the display in the Titanic Quarter.
The NITB has also confirmed that the iceberg will be a major part of the province’s plan for the 2016/2017 tourist season, with a cartoon character, “Bergie”, a mischievous baby iceberg, heading up the campaign. A cartoon series, which involves an evil ship named “Titan Nick” constantly trying to ram the little iceberg, will debut in the autumn.
Not everyone is welcoming the idea. Some have condemned the idea as sectarian. A spokesperson for No-Ice have pointed out that this is “once again celebrating the destruction of one of the great industrial achievements of Belfast”. He also wanted to know what was to stop the iceberg going rogue and sinking other ships. The group has pledged to meet the iceberg on its arrival with kettles filled with hot water. “Iceberg? It should be called Not-Niceberg!”
NITB have dismissed the suggestion, pointing out that the sinking of the Titanic, George Best, and the filming of Game of Thrones are key parts of Northern Irish history. “Nothing else happened here over the last 30 years. Got that?” A spokesman said, with menace.
When the governor of the Bank of England dies suddenly, and his obvious successor Sir Guy Acheson (Rowan Atkinson, in a surprising straight role) is ruled out because of a shares scandal, brilliant but maverick economist Steve Darblay (Episodes’ Stephen Mangan) finds himself appointed Governor of the Bank of England, in the middle of a currency crisis, by the ruthlessly ambitious Chancellor of the Exchequer Tom Parrish (Hugh Laurie.)
For Darblay, his appointment not only places him in the driving seat in dealing with everything from interest rates to the future of the euro to who goes on the new £5 note, but also a target for Acheson who feels bitterly wronged but also that the new governor is not exactly from the right side of the tracks.
With his former Cambridge tutor Bill Burke (Roger Allam-The Thick of It) and even more brilliant economist (and former girlfriend) Yves Cassidy (Lenora Crichlow-Sugar Rush) at his side, Darblay gets ready to take his seat at the most elite of the world’s councils.
Guest starring Delaney Williams (The Wire) as US Fed Chairman Matt O’Malley and Sidse Babette Knudsen (Borgen) as ECB President Martina Delacroix.
Special appearance by Stephen Fry as the Prime Minister.
*I wrote this as a joke, but as I wrote it I thought “Jesus, I’d watch this!”
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.
From Geert Wilders in the Netherlands to Gerry Adams in Ireland to Marine Le Pen in France and Nigel Farage in the UK, there’s a common theme emerging across modern Europe.
After 50 years of European integration and globalisation, it has started once again to become fashionable to believe that nationalism has the answers. That if a country could just retreat behind its borders everything would be fine.
It’s a very attractive proposition in its simplicity. Close the borders, tell Brussels and whomever else to f**k off and we can all go about our business like we did in the nostalgic golden period that existed before the EU. When did it exist again? Before 1914? When we didn’t have obesity because the poor literally hadn’t enough food? The 1920s and 1930s when one after another European government fell under fascist control? That Golden Age?
But let’s set that nostalgia to one side, and face the reality of the nation-state as solution to our modern problems. Can we control multinationals and make sure they pay tax? Perhaps the US can, maybe China, but pretty much nobody else.
Immigration? Given the option of every country just quietly moving the refugees onto their wealthier neighbours, the answer is that border control would cost expenditure on a de facto warlike footing. That imaginary money you’d save by stopping immigrants, on housing and healthcare? Spend that now on border police and fences and holding centres and massively expanded navies.
Then there’s selling stuff. Regulation, tariffs, quotas, all the tools of the nation-state trying to keep various interests happy, and all with a price attached.
Want to buy a new imported car? Sure why would you need that when we make our own here? Why doesn’t it come with Bluetooth? Listen to you and your unpatriotic notions!
There is something of a gut appeal about the nation-state, being amongst “our own”, with our own culture and language and music. It feels safer for sure. And let’s be honest: it does work. As long as a country is willing to make its own hard choices about its own resources, and carry the appropriate burden, it can work. But as you expel young foreign workers and tax their imports and restore the national currency, be aware of the choices, as other countries send your aging ex-pats back to you.
The greatest source of unhappiness during the Great Recession has been the anger created by governments making hard choices. Every nationalist hardliner has tried to suggest that nationalism presents an easier path of less hardship and easing of burden.
A Europe without the euro and the EU is a Europe of sovereign nations standing up for their own interests. Sounds fine, and it will be right up to the moment the French government shields French farmers from Irish and British competition. Or Germany puts a tax on German pension funds investing in London. Or Britain taxes pharmaceuticals coming into the UK from Ireland. Or Spain devalues the Peseta Nuevo against the Franc Nouveau. All the acts of sovereign governments. All new problems.
The European Union was, and remains, a forum where like-minded nations can work together to resolve the problems of the modern world, which are bigger than modern nations. Syria isn’t a British or Danish problem, but it affects them, and their leaders know it too.
The leaders of modern countries know that so many problems from trade to disease to war to refugees to crime start outside our borders. You can either cooperate on them, or hide behind your borders and try to manage the consequences. But the idea that the problems themselves will vanish or get easier is nonsense.
This is the world we live in. It isn’t going away no matter had hard we wave our flags.
Posted by Jason O on Nov 23, 2015 in British Politics
, European Union
Listening to the Islamophobia spewing out of some US GOP candidates, and others in Europe makes my blood boil. As an Irish Republican and a European, I find the idea of any person being categorised and pigeonholed by their religion to be repugnant. That’s why my teeth go on edge when people talk about problems with Muslims and Islam. I don’t see that problem: I see groups of individuals who have made a twisted assessment of a religion and hijacked it for their own vicious fascist ends.
Having said that, even liberals such as I can’t ignore the fact that Islam seems to be capable of acting as a peculiarly effective breeding ground for extremism.
The role mosques and madrassas play in this can’t be ignored. Many are moderate places that preach tolerance and respect for other faiths. But some aren’t, and we cannot tolerate any place, regardless of how holy or revered it be, being used as a base to plot against western liberal values.
How do we balance our values of religious freedom with the need to exterminate extremism?
One possible solution could be, as happens in Turkey and the UK, for certain religions to be brought under direct state control. At present, the British prime minister appoints the head of the Church of England. It’s a nominal appointment at the moment, but establishes a precedent. Given the unique position of Islam, is it time for European governments to take direct control of its institutions?
Let me be clear: we are not talking about turning Islam into a state religion. Many of our countries, my own included, would have a serious problem now with any state religion. But the possibility of the state taking direct control of the training and appointment of Imams and the running of Islamic schools and mosques, and yes, their funding, should be considered. Better us running them than some fanatic funded by the Saudis.
In many instances, the existing Imams will remain in place, and nothing on the surface will change. There are downsides, of course. Will radicals flee the “official” mosques and set up radical secret ones? Possibly. But they’ll be illegal and will be hunted down. Let’s be clear that those who regard an Imam who cooperates with the state as a traitor are exactly the people we need to be targeting. Let’s also be clear that we are not talking about the state imposing a Christianised or liberal form of Islam. That will be the business of the communities running the mosques under the Imam’s guidance. The state’s only interest is that mosques not be abused to preach against broad western democratic values. They should have the same freedom as any Christian church.
Yes, it’ll be messy and controversial, and maybe it won’t work. And I do find the idea of the state interfering in the private religious practices of its Muslim citizens to be pretty repugnant.
But these are the times we live in, and unusual compromises to defend European values must be considered.
Posted by Jason O on Nov 21, 2015 in British Politics
, European Union
It’s a curious thing watching the reactions of UK eurosceptics to the current difficulties the Schengen area is going through. They sure loving queuing, those guys.
The concept they’re pushing is straightforward enough: if we bring back rigorous border controls we can catch terrorists at the borders. But even that logic is shaky. Won’t we have to stop and search every vehicle, every truck for secret compartments, to make that work?
Good luck with that.
Actually, the anti-Schengen people seem to be relying on a)luck, b)the idea that all terrorists are essentially foreigners, and c)we’ll be able to determine whether someone is an Islamist through some sort of non-intelligence based test. I look forward to seeing what that could be: maybe make them French kiss another man and judge their reaction? Ask them to tell us their favourite Woody Allen film? See if they can dance to YMCA?
UK opponents of Schengen just can’t see beyond the blue flag, as usual. If we called it the Dad’s Army Zone and put up pictures of Gene Hunt on the border maybe that would help?
The way they tell it, Schengen is some sort of rogue self-controlling entity, as opposed to a tool for member states. Schengen can be temporarily suspended (rightly) by a sovereign member state. It also allows the sharing of information, the most effective way of tracking and determining would-be terrorists. Yet ask UKIP about sharing information with Frontex or Europol and they go all Chief Inspector Dreyfus on you.
But, after Brexit who do they think they’ll be dealing with? Do they think they can phone up President Obama, inform him that they refuse to deal with the FBI, and demand that all 50 state police forces deal directly with them? If the rest of Europe decides that Europol or Frontex is to be our central clearing house, then so be it.
Of course, if they really believe that random checkpoints are the solution, then surely they should be implemented inside member states too, along with national ID cards to allow security forces to identify the illegals, right? Checkpoints outside supermarkets, on the tube, train stations, on the street.
There’ll be another irony: eurosceptics bringing in that most continental of devices, one’s “papiers” after leaving the EU.
Here’s an awkward reality: if we can stop relatively small contained terror cells before they strike, it’ll be through intelligence, and that means mass surveillance of phones, social media, gaming sites. That’s how we catch them, not randomly hoping they turn up at our borders in “I love IS” tee-shirts. That’s the debate we need to have. How to do that but prevent abuse of that information.
But that’s not the biggest single reason why we should be wary of scrapping Schengen. Schengen is part of the European way of life, and if we are going to scrap it, let us scrap it for a definite guaranteed result.
But to get rid of it just to do something is to accept that a handful of hateful fanatics in Daesh get to shape our society. Al Qaeda got to change the United States: are Americans living in a better country having permitted waterboarding? Do Americans feel safer? Have you listened to the leading candidates for the GOP nomination?
Of course we must examine every option to make Europe safer. But we should be very reluctant to casually toss away one of the things that makes Europe the freest place on Earth.