The EU, Ireland and Brexit

Jurgen Klopp the manager of Liverpool FC, when asked about his opinion of Brexit, said that the European Union was “the best idea we have had to date”. It is difficult to disagree with him. Born in the aftermath of World War 2 and out of a desire to see an end to wars between European countries it began life as the European Coal and Steel Community. The founders believed that closer cooperation in trade between the European countries could produce a future of peace and prosperity for all the nations involved. Over the decades that followed, through greater cooperation and the pooling of sovereignty, the Coal and Steel Community evolved into, first, the European Economic Community (E.E.C), then the European Community (EC) before finally becoming the European Union (E.U). Through this process of ever closer union, the single market and customs union were created and some nations entered into the single currency project that created the Euro. 

The benefits have been clear and obvious. First, there has been an unprecedented era of peace between European nations. This can not be overstated enough. From 1870 to 1940 Germany had invaded France three times. Such a prospect is unthinkable today. In 1940 the vast majority of continental Europe was under the control of a fascist dictator whether it was Hitler, Mussolini or Franco. Again this seems impossible today. 

Another major benefit has been the free movement of people. Being able to travel across the length and breadth of the continent without needing a visa, or, being delayed at passport control, or, in many countries not to have to change currency, has enhanced the lives of millions of Europeans. I remember having to change currency and get things called “travellers cheques” to visit Spain and I remember the hassle of trying to get a visa to live in Budapest, Hungary for a year. Anything that simplifies’s life and makes life easier is usually a good thing. Being able to move freely and experience everything that Europe has to offer has been a wonderful freedom for many Europeans. 

All members of the European Union are richer and more prosperous than when they joined. Ireland is unrecognisable. During this period Ireland went from being a small, and relatively poor agricultural economy with a GDP well below (around 80%) the EU average, to become Europe’s answer to Silicon Valley and a relatively wealthy modern economy with a GDP well above (around 120%) of the EU average. 

Growing up in Ireland in the 1980’s and 1990’s we lived through the transformation. We could see the signs, alongside the road works signs, reminding us that the EU was helping to fund our fledging motorway network. Many people who attended the Regional Technical Colleges (RTC’s- now IT’s) received grants from the European Social Fund. The Celtic Tiger economy began and Ireland experienced unprecedented economic growth. While Ireland’s success was not solely down to EU membership, it certainly was an important factor and Irish people recognised this by topping poll after poll of Europeans who were most happy to be members of the EU. 

Despite this, I have to admit that I don’t like the way the EU has developed. I can understand why the UK has voted for Brexit. I am not going to argue that Ireland should leave the EU. Absolutely not. It would seem to me to be an act of economic sabotage for Ireland to leave. Nor do I have any truck whatsoever with the racists in Britain who want to restrict the freedom of movement. Nor do I have sympathy with the “Little Englander’s” who hark back to the days of empire. But I do understand that there are many issues with European Union membership. I do understand a desire for citizens to reclaim sovereignty. I do worry about the drive towards a European superstate, which the current push for a European army suggests is alive and well among the EU elite. As someone living outside of Ireland at the moment, I do see the economic possibilities available to the UK once they are outside the European Union trade system. 

When nation-states joined the European project they were aware that pooling sovereignty would obviously see a loss of some of their sovereignty. Most people were ok with that- certainly, in Ireland, the vast majority of people wholeheartedly welcomed the gradual moves towards ever closer union. We voted accordingly in all the referendums that our constitution stipulated that we had to have when changes to the EU were taking place. But then something happened. The EU wanted to move the union even closer and they proposed an EU Constitution. There was no mass movement of people looking for an EU constitution. This idea came from the top of the EU. The people didn’t want it. The French and the Dutch voted “NO”. Polls were showing that the best in class Europeans, the Irish, were also likely to reject the proposal. The EU constitution was dead. 

At least it was in its originally proposed form. However, the leaders of the EU continued to push for ever closer union. They proposed the Nice Treaty. Ireland rejected this treaty. The first European treaty that the Irish people had voted against. However, this decision was not respected. It was argued that the people were confused about the issues. It was decided to put it to the people again. This time with all the major political parties, business and trade unions arguing of economic chaos for Ireland if the treaty was rejected a second time ensured that the Nice Treaty was passed. 

A couple of years later the very same scenario played out over a new treaty called the Lisbon Treaty. Once again Ireland rejected this treaty. Once again it was put to the people a second time. And once again this European treaty passed. Unlike the EU Constitution Ireland was the only country to hold a referendum on both of these treaties. It wasn’t required of any other nation. But the passing of the Nice and Lisbon treaties gave affect to the provisions of the EU constitution that had been rejected by the people who got a chance to vote for it. 

I remember hearing a lot of Irish politicians and media commentators saying how Irish Commissioners, MEP’s, officials and Ministers “punched above their weight” when it came to fighting for Ireland’s interests. This was shown to be manifestly untrue when the financial crisis happened in 2008. With the very survival of the Euro in question, the head of the ECB argued that “a bomb” would go off in Dublin if Ireland didn’t take on the debts of private banks that were about to go bust. The Irish people were saddled with a €64 Billion debt. A small nation of 4 million people was made to shoulder the burden of the vast majority of European bank debt. 

The European Union seems to be a bureaucratic mess. There are five Presidents in the European Union structure. Five. Can you name them? Any of them? The Commissions work takes place behind closed doors. I can’t remember any time where two Commissioners debated in public the direction that the EU should take. The Commission releases a statement of agreement. I’m sure that anyone who has ever served on a board would agree that the agreed minutes are often very different from the substance of the meeting. Despite the existence of the EU Parliament, there is a well documented democratic deficit problem with the EU. It seems that the European Union leaders who want to move towards a “United States of Europe” are out of touch with the peoples of the European Union who value their nation-states. The next major step towards closer union is the creation of an EU army. This was something the Irish people were assured could not happen during the debates on the Nice and Lisbon Treaties. 

My distrust of the EU is triggered when I hear Irish people and European officials assuring everyone that the EU has Irelands back. The number one thing that the Irish people don’t want to happen due to Brexit is the reintroduction of a hard border on the island of Ireland. The British government have said they will not put a hard border in place. I fear that in the event of a no-deal Brexit that it will be the EU that insists on a border in Ireland. They need to protect the integrity of the single market and customs union. Ireland will be expected to take one for the greater good. I really hope my suspicions are unfounded but I feel that despite the statements of solidarity Ireland will be the one to suffer. 

Brexit was a bad idea. It is very sad to see the state of British politics. No government. No opposition. Words like uncertainty, distrust and mess spring to mind whenever I hear Brexit being mentioned. We genuinely have no idea how this will play out. It plausible that it could lead to the destruction of the United Kingdom. A United Ireland within my lifetime has never looked more realistic and could be the easiest solution to the chaos Brexit has caused. Of course, that possibility would lead to a whole other bunch of problems. One thing that’s universally predicted is that Brexit will be disastrous for the British economy. 

But will it? In the short term economic decline looks pretty certain but what about five, ten or fifteen years from now? When the American Colonies sought independence from Great Britain one of the strongest Loyalist arguments against independence was the damage that it would do to the economy. Likewise, when Irish nationalists wanted Home Rule the Unionist argued that it would be disastrous for the economy. Although the economies of both countries suffered while they tried to establish their independent states I don’t think the Americans or the Irish would wish to go back under the old empire. If Brexit is about freedom and independence then in the medium to long term they won’t want to back into the EU. 

It feels that there is a desire within the EU to make sure whatever deal is done over Brexit is not too favourable to the UK lest it encourages other states to leave and seek a similar deal. If the UK could “have their cake and eat it” then it could lead to the break up of the EU. I’m sure the mess created by Brexit has already scared many people from other countries form looking for an exit. 

But in five years time will it really be logical that Norway, Switzerland or Canada have more favourable trading deals with the EU than the UK. If it was beneficial for citizens of both trading blocks then why would the EU and the UK not do a very favourable deal? In the meantime, the UK will have had the freedom to negotiate deals with the US, Canada, India, China, Brazil, Japan and the rest of the world. Business only looks to the future. How can we do a deal to make money going forward? While Brexit seems to be the all-consuming topic in the UK, Ireland and to a lesser extent Europe, the rest of the world barely notices or cares. Certainly, there is very little coverage of Brexit on mainstream TV over here in the States. The only time it is really mentioned is if something dramatic happens in parliament. I could see the US and the Uk doing a deal quite quickly. One can argue whether any deal would be good for the UK but nevertheless, they could do a deal that may undercut or undermine current EU US deals. 

On the whole, the EU has had a very positive impact on the people under its jurisdiction. It has brought peace and a degree of prosperity for the majority of the citizens of its member states. However, the EU continues to push towards the creation of a federal Union or a United Staes of Europe and this does not reflect the desire of the population living under the EU banner. Despite the fears that Brexit will destroy the UK economy, it is also possible that after a difficult transition that the UK does, in fact, prosper outside of the EU. Ireland, on the other hand, could very easily be the collateral damage, or the sacrificial lamb, as this game of brinkmanship plays out. Imagine the nightmare scenario- a border on the island of Ireland, built by the Irish government at the EU’s insistence, and guarded by the newly created EU army. 


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