Previously published in The Times Ireland Edition on June 27th 2016.
If there was one word to describe the European Union’s policy towards almost every crisis, it would be: reactive. From Greece to the migrant crisis to banking to the Ukraine, going all the way back to the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s, the EU just doesn’t do getting ahead of a problem.
That has to change, because we’re moving into endgame here. Brexit is like the political version of the zombie epidemic movie “28 Days Later”, watching a terrible unstoppable force overwhelm and transform something beautiful one took for granted. The problem now for Europe is that the populist infection is going to spread. From Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, to Marine Le Pen in France, or Denmark or Greece or Czechia (yes, that’s what the Czechs are calling themselves these days) or even Italy, the real chance of the EU going through regular bouts of terror as other referendums appear on the horizon just won’t wash. We can’t just carry on with bits falling off at regular intervals. We’re trying to run a continent here. It’s time to cut to the proverbial chase.
One of the problems of European referendums is that they’re mostly not designed to give clear answers, but often, instead, accidentally create new questions. When Ireland voted no to the Nice and Lisbon treaties, we chose between Option A or Not Option A. Even the British Brexit vote was a vote for the unknown. Will free movement still exist after the UK leaves? How much will the UK pay in the EU budget, if at all? What happens to the Finnish wife of an Irishman living in Kentish Town? Neither they nor we know, yet the British people had to vote on it.
Each country has a view as to what it wants. Some want out, some want a trade relationship only, and others wish to integrate further, primarily around the euro. We have to recognise that the European project must adapt to the realities of the people who live in it. If they, or significant numbers of them at least, say less Europe, then less Europe it must be. The old Brussels mantra of More Europe automatically being the solution to everything is not acceptable without popular support.
Let’s let every member state take a fresh look at what it wants. A choice between leaving entirely, the Norwegian arrangement of the European Economic Area, and possibly not being in the euro, or staying in the full union with a clear understanding that it will integrate further as needed.
It might need some tinkering, possibly on the question of free movement and also on the migrant issue, but the purpose of the exercise would be to leapfrog the conveyor belt of crisis that a series of exit votes would trigger.
Would it be high stakes? Yes. But better than random exit votes appearing all over the continent like unpredictable political landmines. Let’s set a date where each country goes back to its people, and by its own national means, whether its parliament or referendum, decides what sort of EU that countries wants to sign up for. Out, EEA, or union.
Of course, every country will want to have a broad idea what other countries are doing first. After all, if the Germans found they were left in an EU with just Greece and Italy they might have second thoughts. That’s why the end of the process would involve every country coming back with its selected option under that great Irish coalition negotiating maxim, nothing is agreed until everything is agreed.
There’s no question that this is high risk. We’d be playing Senior Hurling. But it’s still better than the standard EU operating procedure of hiding behind a very expensive, beautifully handmade sofa and hoping that our problems will think we’re not in and go away.
Some countries will almost certainly decide to leave, and others, including possibly ourselves, will choose to step back into the outer ring of European Economic Area membership. But across the continent, the issue will have been confronted, not left as unexploded ordinance just waiting to be detonated by some random event like some internal party row (I’m looking at you, Dave). Every country will have the chance to debate itself what it wants from Europe, and select from the appropriate option.
We can’t just keep drifting on, waiting for the next Nigel or Marine or Geert to take our continent to the brink. This union, with its warts and pointy elbows and Jean Claudes is worth fighting to save. Particularly for a small country like us. There has never been a Europe better for small countries than this Europe.
Ireland always gets upset when it sees the Germans or French making joint pronouncements, but there is nothing to stop us touring the smaller countries and building a coalition for our vision of Europe. It’s time for us to step up.
Populist euroscepticism is the brassy blonde with the short skirts and the cheap perfume next door, appealing not to your husband’s head but elsewhere. If she tries to seduce him, you have two choices.
You can fight to save your marriage and keep him, or you can throw him out on the road.
But you sure as hell can’t ignore his carry-on as if nothing is happening.