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.