Posted by Jason O on Oct 20, 2016 in European Union
, The Times Ireland Edition
Previously published in The Times Ireland Edition.
On my desk, as I’m writing this column, is a small EU flag on a stand. It’s typical of the overpriced tat on sale on and around the tourist devouring gravitational black hole that is the Grand Place in Brussels. No self-respecting EU official would waste their money on rubbish like this. And yet I spent mine, and it sits on my desk, meaning something to me, a symbol of an almost lifetime of belief in not just European integration but an actual United States of Europe. It’s that belief which is what makes this particular column so hard to write.
Last week there was a debate about the European Commission insisting that the Irish government had no choice as to whether to levy a water charge or not. That it was EU law, that our derogation was over, that was that. Now, as it happens, I believe in water charges. Clean, safe water is a precious commodity that costs money to deliver to our homes, and should be treated as such, and that means putting a value on it. People respect something far more when they have to pay for it.
But a question niggled in the back of my mind. Why is it Brussels’ concern whether we charge for water or not? We signed up for the water framework directive, but the bigger question is why does our system of water supply funding matter to Brussels at all?
Defenders of the directive will say, quite fairly, that if you sign up to something you should carry it out. They also raise the question of why we sign up to some of this stuff in the first place. These decisions are not forced on us by Brussels but by our own national ministers agreeing, and our national parliament not holding them to account before they do so, as say, the Danish parliament does. Indeed, Danish ministers often have to brief their parliament before they go to Brussels, and receive instructions.
It also raises the question, which seems to be regarded as heresy in Brussels, as to whether a member state can change its mind about a directive or regulation and go back to the council and say “you know what, this isn’t working. Let’s get rid of it.”
But the water directive is indicative of something much bigger, and much more troubling. The truth is, we now have a situation where Brussels has direct involvement in the finances of the member states, actually telling us what we can and can’t do with our own money.
Now let me be clear, less some eurosceptic reads this as a Damascene conversion to euroscepticism: I get why we do it. We do it because the euro, our common currency, can only work if its participant nations operate on the basis of sound finances. But that’s the problem: in order for that to happen, we have to go the full federal route, with an economic policy decided in Brussels. The problem is that there is no support for that in Europe, and so we end up, pardon the awful pun, stuck in the middle with EU.
I believe in the euro. I don’t buy the argument that the euro caused our property bubble. The fact that we complain now about the Central Bank restricting lending shows that we had the power to restrict the availability of cheap money during the Tiger years but chose not to use it.
I support a common currency because it makes a political union wealthier. Is there anyone who thinks the US would be the world’s preeminent power if it had 50 competing currencies?
But our problem is that we’re not willing to go the full route, to a central economic policy and a central treasury with Eurobonds. Without it, the euro becomes a convenient demon, for UKIP or AfD in Germany or the Five Star Movement in Italy to easily blame for problems and even failures of national policy. In short, it becomes a weapon to use against the EU itself.
The euro has made countries share power with each other, making German prosperity reliant on Greek finances, but has not given anyone enough power to actually complete the job. If a federal government in Brussels actually collected Greek taxes, and returned a block grant to the Greek government, we’d all probably be better off, including the Greeks. But that’s not on the table, and trying to put it, or something like it, on the table will almost certainly break up the EU.
The euro is becoming a scapegoat for nationalist populists to blame, either directly, as in Italy, or indirectly, as in Ireland with our fiscal treaty obligations to balance our books.
I voted for both the Maastricht criteria and the Fiscal Treaty because I wanted to restrict the ability of Irish politicians to recklessly abuse the national finances. But instead we have created an unforeseen consequence, where rather than forcing national politicians to be honest about tax and spending, we have given them a faceless stooge to blame.
Should we break up the euro? The consequences of such an act, and the devaluation wars it would set off, are horrific to contemplate. So I honestly say I don’t know.
But I’ll tell you one thing: if the belief that it is some unaccountable thing in Brussels which is making you pay for water or queue for hours in A&E is permitted to grow, it will eventually destroy not just the euro but the European Union itself.
Posted by Jason O on Oct 15, 2016 in European Union
, The Times Ireland Edition
Previously published in The Times Ireland Edition.
If one wanted to begin the process of creating an Irish Donald Trump or Nigel Farage, one could start by adjusting a single newspaper headline.
Last week there was much on-air and online preening about how proud we were of the Irish Naval Service. The L.É. James Joyce had just returned from the Mediterranean where it had pulled nearly 2,500 people from the sea, and headlines announced the news with a hint of national self-applause.
But what if the headlines had continued to say something like “and ferried them onto Ireland to be housed.”
Imagine the popular response.
“Now, Joe, I’m not a racialist, but…our own people first, Joe…”
The naval service has a right to feel proud for doing a professional job. But let’s be clear: we as a country then hand the refugees over to the Italians and make it their problem, literally sailing off into the sunset feeling good about ourselves having done what is essentially the easy bit.
The standard alphabet left response is that we should take in every refugee who presents themselves. But even the alphabet left, far more committed to staying on the populist side of every argument than socialist principles of humanitarianism, don’t make a whole lot of noise about it. Some rending of garments, and then it’s back to the more comfortable territory of demanding free stuff paid by people with twirly moustaches and top hats.
Viktor Orban, the Hungarian prime minister, called last week for the creation of an EU city in North Africa to house refugees. Orban has taken, at times, a populist line against refugees, including moving a referendum on the EU’s refugee resettlement policies which he will almost certainly win.
I’m not a fan of Orban, but I’ll tell you two things about him. One, he’s not the most right wing leader in Hungary. That would be the third largest party, Jobbik, an outfit that likes uniformed marches and casually talks about drawing up lists of Jews. Secondly, despite the nasty yahoos to his right, he remains popular in the country, with his Fidesz party regularly polling in the mid-40s. There aren’t many sitting European leaders who can claim that.
That’s not to defend him. But it does raise the awkward fact across Europe that whilst we may want to help the refugees, and we do, large and growing numbers of Europeans don’t want the refugees in Europe, at least not in current numbers. Moreover, in the UK, France, the Netherlands, Germany, Greece, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland and Hungary populist anti-immigrant parties are winning millions of voters.
Europe’s leaders are caught between a continent and a sea of human misery.
In that context, the Orban suggestion should be looked at. Not a Tony Abbott style offshore prison where people can be dumped and forgotten, but a far more ambitious project.
We should build a little piece of Europe in North Africa. Not a vast camp of tents, but a city where refugees can not only be safe but build a life. It’ll mean building schools and hospitals and roads and marketplaces, and deploying thousands of European soldiers and doctors and engineers and teachers. It won’t be cheap. It’ll probably need a bond for billions raised by the ECB, and be part of the customs union and the eurozone.
But picture the outcome. First, a place actually geared up to shelter the thousands fleeing. Secondly, a clear response from Europe: do not try to enter our continent illegally. You will be brought to the safe zone. You can leave anytime you want. But you can’t go to Europe without our consent.
Let me stress: this won’t end immigration, nor should it. Such a place would allow us to gradually process those who wish to live in Europe, but on our terms. The children there would be educated as European children, working towards becoming European citizens, learning European values, and studying in European universities. The eventual goal would be perhaps a new Beirut as it used to be, a bustling place of business and trade, a gateway between Europe and its neighbours, where businesspeople and students and even tourists legally travel to Europe and live in Europe but feel at ease going back and forth.
And those refugees who don’t want their children sitting with Christian or Muslim boys or girls? Or deny the Holocaust? Or insist on the burka? There’s the gate. Keep walking. You wouldn’t like Europe anyway. Sure it’s full of Jews and gays and strong women.
It’ll need to be run by someone with administrative experience, is pragmatic and middle of the road, a good European, and knows about divided communities. I can think of a chap who drinks in Fagans who might be up to the task. Or that posh English mate he used to knock around with.
A fantasy? Perhaps. But so was Brexit, ending apartheid, the Berlin wall falling, a black president in the White House, Trump. We live in times of breakneck change.
We keep demanding that “the EU” do something about refugees. There is no EU, only EU member states. Individually, EU states can’t solve the problem, and may destroy themselves politically trying, as Angela Merkel has discovered despite her enormous courage.
The Orban proposal is a European response to a European-wide problem. It deserves serious consideration.
Posted by Jason O on Sep 25, 2016 in European Union
, The Times Ireland Edition
Previously published in The Times Ireland edition.
Twitter lit up last week, as it is wont to do, over the news that Hungary and the Czech Republic have called for a European army. Sorry, when I say Twitter, I don’t mean the 80% of Twitter that knows what a Kardashian is, nor the 18% that knows what a Cardassian is, but the 0.2% that worries about stuff like European defence. And that’s being generous.
For the political nerd and certain dog-whistling newspapers of the hard right in Britain, a European Army is a cross between the Loch Ness monster, a yeti, and a credible explanation as to what the hell the TV series “Lost” was actually about. It’s elusive, fascinating, and guaranteed to stir up heated debate on all sides of the argument. It allows our now departing British friends to put on a quite spectacular display of political schizophrenia, going from “Vote Leave because the rest of Europe wants a European army” to “See! Now we have left we can’t veto that crowd creating a European army! We told you!”
In other words, something for pretty much every voice inside the head of your average UKIP member.
From the Irish perspective, we get to do the usual “Down with war, up with peace” thing whilst ignoring the fact that if we hid any further behind NATO we’d all be living off the coast of San Diego. Not to worry: the last time we liberated a beach it was in Wexford for Steven Spielberg. The rest of Europe has never regarded us as one of the “we stand with you” nations. We’re more of a John Hurt in “The Field” operation, stealing ham from a sandwich and then protesting that we didn’t do anything. We don’t conquer other people, we don’t defend them. Nothing to do with us.
Which is fine, there’s something in the European army debate for everyone as long as you accept the fact that discussing “Lost” is more likely to lead to a satisfactory conclusion than a European army debate ever will.
The Hungarians and Czechs were responding to an initiative by Federica Mogherini, the EU’s High Representative (the title refers to her status, by the way, not any state of narcotic substance use) to begin work on EU military structures. Now, if talks and initiatives about European defence actually counted as military capability, Europe would have the equivalent of a Death Star hovering over the Kremlin. But they don’t. The reality is that all Europe really does is talk about defence and design new logos for yet more defence bodies to talk about defence. But if a couple of thousand tonnes of Russian steel came lumbering over the Finnish or Estonian border, those European defence initiatives wouldn’t count for squat.
Well, maybe that is slightly unfair. The European Defence Agency does quietly work away on those technical things that matter, like research into drones and trying to get Europe some sort of coordinated air transport capability. But the actual shooting at Russians as they fight their way through the streets of Talinn? That’s NATO or to be honest, the Americans we’re relying on, which, whilst watching The Big Giant Loud Blonde Head running for the White House should really make us take this whole defence thing much more seriously.
The primary reason we won’t see a European army anytime soon is because nobody is really willing to die for Estonia, other than maybe Estonians and their near neighbours. Create and fund (there’s the tricky bit) a standalone volunteer European army, made up not of Irish or German soldiers but European soldiers who just happen to be Irish or German, and that might be a different story, but that isn’t going to happen any day soon. We can’t even get Europeans to agree on taxing companies we all say we want to tax.
If you want to know why all this latest guff won’t lead to anything tangible, consider this:
There is currently in existence a detailed plan to create a European army.
It’s a very detailed plan which proposes the creation of a common European army, funded from a common budget. It lists out how many interceptor fighters should be in each squadron. It permits the European Defence Forces to recruit in the member states. It allows for conscription of males between certain ages. It bars member states from recruiting for national forces except in very limited circumstances, mostly to do with defending overseas territories.
It is so detailed, in fact, that it even has a section on the tax arrangements of military canteens and restaurants.
In short, it has all the things Sinn Fein, the Daily Mail and the alphabet left warned you about. As someone who supports a common European defence, I got giddy with excitement as I read it, and even more excited when I realised it had been agreed to by German, French, Italian, Dutch and Belgian ministers, who had even drafted a treaty to implement it.
I mean, a treaty! How more serious can you be?
Any day now, right?
The proposal was called the Pleven plan, and was announced in 1952, finally being rejected by the French National Assembly in 1954. Sixty two years ago.
European Army? Yeah, right.
England, 2023. Five years after Brexit.
The roaring and shouting after England and Wales left the EU was loud and colourful. A generation of politicians who had supported British membership found themselves demonised as Quislings and traitors, and quietly retired from public life, and every ministerial speech was peppered with Eurosceptic hyperbole as the new regime took office.
Over time, however, the EUphoria died away, as the government and the tabloids turned to the issue that had carried the Brexiteers over the line: Immigration.
The new government moved quickly to deliver on the issue. Tough new visa requirements were in place, and whilst existing legal residents were permitted to stay, they could not be joined by relatives, and so as many returned to their home countries they were not replaced. The teary-eyed right-wingers who had choked back stories of Commonwealth citizens (“our kith and kin”), every one of whom seemed to be related to a spitfire pilot, being put behind queues of stony faced Poles, suddenly and bizarrely seemed to go cool on Pakistani and Indian and African immigrants having easier access. The number of people legally entering the UK dropped significantly.
The tabloids, robbed of the EU pinata to mercilessly beat, but knowing that immigration was still the story that stirred the loins, turned their attention to the government. the new line was that the government was full of mealy-mouthed liberals letting people sneakily in. That and the EU was actively conspiring to flood England with immigrants through Ireland, Scotland and Calais, of course.
The government, like all populist governments, was as concerned about how to be seen to be doing something as actually doing something. The truth was that the immigration controls were not delivering the rewards the tabloids had promised. Housing was not cheaper, as fewer immigrants had only freed up the very lowest in housing quality, which in turn had forced landlords to improve the quality but raise rents to pay for it. The vast numbers of manual workers needed to fund large scale building of houses didn’t exist, resulting in builders struggling to find the skilled labourers to do the job. The Irish workers that they could source, due to a common deal with Ireland, expected top dollar, and all that contributed to higher costs and thus higher prices. The NHS and other public services were struggling under staff shortages as it emerged that many of the hard-pressed English white working class didn’t actually have the skills to fill the jobs. But the government was too scared to issue too many working visas to fill those jobs, as the tabloids, bereft of the EU to blame, had now doubled down on ANY immigrant “depriving” Brits of a job. Politically, it was better to leave those jobs empty.
With the labour shortage feeding into wage rises, inflation, public service waiting lists and rental rises, the Government decided to go fully for immigrants as the problem.
The launch of the Immigration Police was a huge media managed affair. The logo of the new force, a union flag in the shape of a shield, was emblazoned on the fleet of shiny new vehicles and officers unveiled by Prime Minister Johnson. The helmeted, combat trousered police, who vaguely resembled the baddies from “Blake’s Seven” but with huge union flags on their shoulders, grinned at the prime minister’s jokes about them “scaring the hell out of him”.
As with everything in post-Thatcher Britain, the Immigration Police was a private for-profit tendered service, the contract held by a huge security company with a very mixed record.
Within months of commencing operations, the IP was the new source of fury for the right-wing tabloids. The fact that a significant number of IP officers were themselves illegal immigrants who had gotten through the cut-price vetting process resulted in the resignation of the Home Secretary, and the tender holder announcing that it could no longer fulfill the contract under such arduous “red tape”. The subsequent taking of the company to court by the Home Office resulted in even more embarrassing revelations including the fact that some immigrant IP officers from some countries seemed to be using their very considerable IP powers to pursue vendettas against people from other tribal areas or religious groups.
The Government was forced to introduce emergency legislation to nationalise the whole IP organisation, making it a state agency. This, as it always seems to do, then sent costs through the roof as the new IP management, made up of Home Office staff, were more than happy to spend millions on vetting.
Three years after its initial launch the IP had been “purged” of illegal immigrants. It was also running hugely over-budget, requiring cuts elsewhere to feed its huge fiscal maw, and led by a very media savvy chief executive who fended off any attempt to trim the rapidly expanding budget with tales of hordes of terrorists and illegal workers sweeping towards virginal England. The IP’s media budget was very substantial.
Aside from its internal chaos, the daily operations of the IP became problematic. Although initially popular, with black cab drivers beeping their horns at speeding IP vehicles, sirens flashing, off to defend England, the reality of the organisation’s nebulous task began to take the shine off rapidly. The new Home Secretary, of Asian extraction and from the hard-right of the party, was adamant that the IP must be visibly active which led to huge poster campaigns asking the public to cooperate. One stand-up comedian likened the posters to the “Be Pure! Be Vigilant! Behave!” posters of the 200oAD comic character Thomas De Torquemada. The IP also started setting up random street checkpoints, which began to jar even with the most right-wing of blazer-wearing golf club Mosleys. Camera footage of IP officers singling out dark-skinned pedestrians alone caused a row, and in one case a riot where a number of black and East Asian youths proceeded to beat up the aggressive IP officers. This resulted in the local police having to intervene.
Indeed, relations between the IP and the regular police were strained at best. In London, where the Metropolitan Police had made a serious effort to diversify its membership, the jarring approach of the IP did not go down well. The commissioner complained that the IP was stirring up racial tension in areas where painstaking work by community police officers had finally started to show results. One incident in particular, where two Metropolitan Police officers challenged an overly aggressive IP checkpoint resulted in the IP officer in charge demanding that one of the officers, who was black, prove his legal status in the country and then attempted to arrest him. The situation, again all over the web, was only contained when the Met officers called in an armed SO19 unit and arrested the entire IP patrol to loud cheering and applause from local youths of mixed races.
The Home Secretary was furious. The commissioner backed her men, and when the Home Secretary threatened to fire the commissioner, the commissioner revealed that she had a special investigation unit looking into penetration by the far-right of the IP. She revealed taped footage from an undercover officer of IP officers, who were revealed to be members of various white supremacist organisations, joking and laughing at how they were paid “by one Paki to fit up other niggers and Pakis”.
The Home Secretary was gone by teatime.
Another source of problems for the new Home Secretary was how to verify someone was legally resident in the UK. His officials excitedly dusted off an old file: a National Identity Card. Not surprisingly, he balked at the idea, but the issue was unavoidable. In order to avoid charges of racial profiling, IP checkpoints were now stopping and demanding identification from every person, regardless of age, colour or gender. Many people were now carrying their passports with them everywhere, and the grumbling was beginning. In time honoured fashion, The Daily Mail and The Daily Express, having demanded a “get tough crackdown” on immigration, now did a u-turn and started banging on daily about the IP being a version of the Gestapo harassing ordinary Brits going about their business.
The Home Secretary stared blankly at his officials. Polls showed that middle England was vehemently against having to carry “papers”. Is this what we fought a war for? On the other hand, without some form of verified state backed ID, his officials said, there was no way for the IP to check on-the-spot. Unless, we created a national biometric database, one junior official mused. Then we wouldn’t have to carry ID, just be scanned. Of course, we’d have to scan the entire population.
The Home Secretary died in the ambulance on the way to hospital. The coroner said it was a massive heart attack.
The huge camp near Dover (christened Camp Boris by the media) was also the problem of the new Home Secretary. Since Brexit, the EU had decided that illegal immigration into the UK was not its concern, and so turned a blind eye to migrants making their way across the channel. France had announced that the UK could do its own border control in Dover, and closed its facilities in Calais, the infamous “jungle”. French, Belgian and Dutch police and coastguards were told that preventing “outflows” were not a priority, to the extent that many boat owners on the continent were taking a few quid for carrying illegals to the edge of the UK’s territorial waters and letting their passengers take their chance in a rubber dinghy. All to huge protests from the British ambassador to the EU who was embarrassingly filmed being kept back by security personnel as he tried to lobby ministers attending an EU council meeting.
Huge resources were being deployed along beaches in the south east to capture illegals, and send them to the camp, which now had over 9,000 residents. The decision as to who should run the camp had turned into one of the finest games of bureaucratic pass-the-parcel in years. The Prison Service had said that they were a criminal rehabilitation service, and weren’t suited. The NHS said they weren’t a prison service. The local police said they would have to take “Bobbies off the beat”, and the chief of staff of the army had threatened to publicly resign if the army were told to run the camp. So, it had ended up with the Immigration Police, whose CEO had happily accepted the task then submitted a huge budget supplement request which took the IP’s annual funding clear of the Metropolitan Police’s £3.7 billion.
With scandals within the IP, the ongoing battle to secure the coast (most of the Royal Navy, including the UK’s two new aircraft carriers, were on coastal patrol), the growing unhappiness with the overt and hostile street presence of IP officers demanding “papers” on street corners, the outbreak of riots in Camp Boris was not welcomed by the Government. The IP officers, even with riot gear, struggled to maintain order in two days of rioting. On the third day a large group of young Syrian refugees charged the perimeter, panicking a member of one of the IP armed response units. Without authorisation he emptied his full clip into the crowd, killing nine refugees and wounding another four. Three children were killed in the stampede from the fence. The image went worldwide, and resulted in massive demonstrations against UK embassies.
The Home Secretary, who had only authorised the creation of armed units of the IP three months earlier, in response to stories of some refugees being armed with knives, handed in his resignation to the Prime Minister later that day. The PM was harangued in the house, and in a fit of pique that was typical but would come to haunt him, announced that he would be his own home secretary.
He arrived down to the camp bearing his name just as another riot was getting into its own. Outside the camp, hundreds of young and middle-aged white men, members of the self-appointed United Kingdom Defence Force gathered with baseball bats and crowbars, telling the gathered media they were there to back up the IP and “back Boris”. Another crowd, larger than the UKDF, were made up of anti-fascist protesters who roared abuse at the first crowd.
When the PM arrived, the UKDF cheered and chanted his name, prompting him to wave just as another surge broke through the IP line and charged towards the main gates. The UKDF surged forward before breaking into a Braveheart-style run at the main gate of the camp. The two groups met. The UKDF, unlike the refugees, were armed with a variety of weapons and ploughed into the refugees.
The PM’s bodyguards shoved him into his car, screaming at the driver to get them out of there, all live on TV as a huge fight broke out around them. The IP commander, totally overwhelmed, ordered the use of rubber bullets and water cannon, all aimed at securing the main gate. Some of the baton rounds hit UKDF members, who, seeing the IP firing at them, were overcome with the fury that can only come from experiencing treachery, and attacked the IP vehicles.
The news of the surge at the gate of the camp swept through the camp, encouraging thousands more to rush the entrance, overwhelming the IP officers at the door.
On his way back to Downing street, the PM gave the order for the army to be sent in with more baton rounds.
By evening, order had been restored, but half of the residents of the camp had fled. 39 people were dead, a mixture of refugees, children, IP officers and UKDF members.
In Munich that night a far-right group held a rally, holding aloft images of the British prime minister as they sieg heiled in support.
Watching this on TV, the PM had the good grace to vomit.
Europe. The near future.
The Russian invasion of Europe has been defeated.
An EU safezone holds millions of refugees in North Africa.
In Brussels, a woman directs the continent.
To some she is a saviour.
To others a tyrant.
To one man, a target.
You can download a PDF of “Fulcum” below. Enjoy!
Posted by Jason O on Aug 29, 2016 in European Union
, The Times Ireland Edition
Previously published in The Times Ireland Edition.
The first time I ever saw a picture of a burqini, being worn by Nigella Lawson on a beach, my reaction was to wonder why I’d never heard of it before. It’s a fabulous, logical invention, especially if you’re someone like me who follow’s Billy Connolly’s observation that Scottish people in the sun start out first as blue, then white, red, then white again. The sun and I are not friends, and I can see how a person would want something like this. There’s also the fact that there’s nothing particularly Muslim about wanting to preserve one’s modesty on the beach. There’s nothing European about having to show off all the goods either, just that you have the right to if you feel you’ve got goods worth showing. For what it’s worth, a male burqini, if such a thing exists, would transform me from badly shaved bear to strange bearded whale. Either way my modesty would almost certainly be protected by averted eyes and the odd queasy stomach.
The decision by various French mayors to ban the burqini is just plain wrong and to me shockingly un-French. In short, it has been targeted because it is being worn by one particular religious group, not for any practical reason. Wearing a burqini does not affect the enjoyment of the beach by others, nor is it any less hygienic (a particularly dodgy claim) than wearing a wetsuit. This is simple straight bigotry targeted at one religion in the hijacked name of liberalism.
The veil, on the other hand, is different. It goes against a core value of European culture about face to face interaction, and is a direct challenge to that culture. In short, those who wish to wear the burqa in Europe must ask themselves does their desire to wear it trump their desire to be part of European society, because that is the choice. Indeed, perhaps it is time that Europe go even further on the veil. There are, no doubt, women in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere who do not wish to wear the burqa, and women in Europe who do. Would it not make more sense for both our societies and for those women themselves to live in a society that mirrors their values? I for one would have no problem swapping liberated Saudi women for their European shuffling letterbox peering counterparts.
All this raises a broader question of European values in themselves, and what values must a person subscribe to be part of European society. In Germany, France and Austria it is a criminal offence to deny the Holocaust occurred. In the past, I’ve believed that such an offence is an infringement on the freedom of speech, despite the absolutely loathsome concept of the offence in itself. But today, I’m not so sure. Would it be possible to draft a charter of civic European values that we all aspire towards, and more importantly, being opposed to them becomes a crime in itself and also grounds for denial of refugee status? Now, it’s true that going from west to east Europe gets more conservative, and you won’t get the same rights for gays in Poland that you will in Ireland, but even within that spectrum you have a set of values that are broadly transferable. No EU member state jails gays or mistreats Jews, and those are values that are a beacon of progress in other parts of the world.
But it also raises the question of whether, for example, we really want people coming to live in Europe who support the burqa? Or see Jews as less than equal, or deny the Holocaust, or regard homosexuals or women as inferior? It’s true, there are many native born Europeans who would have problems with some of those values, but so what? This isn’t an anti-Muslim charter but an anti-extremist one. But more importantly, let it be the litmus test for asylum seeking in Europe. These are the values you have to subscribe to, and if you question them, keep walking.
Immigration is a good thing, and I can see both the hijab and the burqini become part of European culture in a way that doesn’t threaten our core freedoms. I would not be surprised to see either feature on the walkways of Paris or Milano in the future, and we have nothing to fear. But the veil is different, and it has no place in a society that regards the genders as equal.
Women who are forced by husbands or families to wear the veil must be helped, and their oppressors (for that is what they are) must be confronted by our laws. Forcing a woman to wear a veil is an act of oppression. As for the women who choose to wear it by their own choice, that is their right, as it is to find a society more in tune with their values, because Europe is not that place.
Previously published in The Times Ireland Edition on 8th August 2016.
It seems that it has become one of the latest causes of the Permanently Indignant Left to call for a referendum on TTIP. TTIP? That’s that trade thing, right? Yes, and that’s your first test. Tell me what TTIP means. I ask, by the way, having guessed myself, gotten it wrong, and having to look it up. TTIP is the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, the vast trade deal currently being negotiated between the EU and the US. Depending on whom you listen to, it’ll either boost trade and jobs on both sides of the Atlantic, or it’s a secret plot to hand over vast power to giant corporations who can then go about privatizing everything.
I’ll admit, I knew next to nothing about TTIP, and so went off and found both pro and anti TTIP information, and the more one reads the more you realise how complicated modern international relationships are. Indeed TTIP shows how modern society is a vast collection of moving parts and TTIP and the EU and WTO are an attempt to put some sort of order on them.
Which leads to a bigger question. Are voters actually capable of making a rational decision about these issues?
I’ll be honest: if I were to vote in a referendum on TTIP, I would have to do a few hours study before I knew even vaguely myself whether I thought it’s a good or bad thing. Will other voters do that? Many will, but I suspect most won’t. They’ll be influenced by the opinions of public figures they trust, or, and this is where it gets worrying, by vague nuggets of information they half hear.
What would a TTIP referendum look like, in any EU country? Nearly half the voters would allege its all part of some conspiracy, with everything from the Lizards of Davos to The Rothschilds lobbed in for good measure. Some voters would vote against anything because the government proposed it. In Ireland, some councillor would almost certainly demand local people vote against it unless St. Jude’s gets a new roof for its changing rooms.
I’ve no doubt there are smart people who know TTIP inside out who have serious issues with it. Good. Let them fight it out with other smart people who support it because the rest of us really haven’t a clue.
The truth is that asking the public to vote on TTIP is like asking the public to decide over new techniques in brain surgery. These issues are becoming too technical for the public (myself included) to give anything other than a vague opinion, often based on hearsay information directly contradictory to reality. I’d wager that a large proportion of people who want to stop TTIP can’t tell you what it stands for. If anything, we’ll be voting for who is on what side. So let’s just cut out the middleman and let them decide in parliament.
Is this elitist? Yes. We’re now living in an elitist world. Elite surgeons operate on our loved ones. Elite engineers design and run the nuclear power plants than stop our grannies freezing to death in the winter. Elite chemists design the medicines that cure diseases that killed our ancestors. So why wouldn’t we expect to have elite leaders to run our countries and negotiate our laws and treaties? The alternative is ending up with presidential candidates asking why nuclear weapons can’t be used more often.
But what about us, the voters? Who aren’t experts in nuclear proliferation or labour mobility or life expectancy management? What’s our role? Are we just not intelligent enough to play a role anymore?
Here’s the truth: we don’t need to be experts. But we do need to be able to ask the right questions of experts. We need elite legislatures and voters who know that yes, we do need legislators who know more than we do.
That means we need to take voter education as seriously we require drivers know how to drive.
The programme for government talks of setting up an Electoral Commission to run elections independently. I’d argue that its remit should also include the aggressive year-round education of voters, additionally funded perhaps by a small tax on election posters? Not just on the hows of the political system, but actual facts about our society that voters should know before voting. Is it wrong to educate voters that the government jet and TDs salaries and pensions are a tiny part of the budget? Or that most Irish people get more from the state than they pay in? Or that the rich actually pay the most tax? It’s time for the state to ram political, fiscal and economic reality down the throats of voters, for their own good. Informed voters are as important to a society as qualified surgeons.
We’ve see the alternative in the US, which on the verge of electing a fool as president, on the backs of voters whose ignorance (“Obama is a Muslim born in Kenya!”) is bordering on a belief in a political version of witchcraft.
Democracy isn’t a guarantee of good government, but the last line of defence against tyranny. But in order for it to work, voters have to be able to tell when they’re actually under attack.
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.