British EU exit will focus Irish minds
The British debate on the merits of membership of the EU is more clear-eyed than our own, says John-Paul McCarthy
Published 20/07/2014 | 02:30
The former government press secretary Sean Duignan once wrote about the first time Albert Reynolds met John Major at a meeting of European finance ministers. Major asked Reynolds what he needed to know about the mechanics of these meetings. Reynolds supposedly responded: "That you're the bad guys - bad Europeans, bad partners, bad everything. The game here is for the rest of us to gang up against the anti-EC Brits."
Something of this exasperated, even superior tone could also be detected in John Bruton's recent attempt in the Guardian to convince the British that they had misjudged the new President of the EU Commission, and in some of the commentary about the Irish implications of a possible British exit from Europe.
There is an obvious set of comparisons behind this stance. On the one hand, we are invited to consider Britain's ragged European experience, an experience that includes the original French vetoes, Heath's surprising triumph with Pompidou, Labour's cosmetic renegotiation of Heath's deal, the chaotic 1975 referendum, Mrs Thatcher's remorseless pursuit of "my money", and Major's own slow political death, even after securing major opt-outs from the Maastricht negotiations.
On the other hand, then, we have Ireland's more superficially placid experience - at least pre-bailout. The high points of our more formally positive approach were probably Garret FitzGerald's personal triumphs in concluding the Lome Convention which opened relations between Europe and the Third World, and during his important contribution towards facilitating Spanish and Portuguese accession to the Community while Taoiseach.
Now, there is something to be said for these contrasts, but they do run the risk of masking other truths. It has become increasingly obvious over the last few years that, for all the white noise of the British argument with Brussels, they have actually developed a healthier relationship with the EU. The British debate is, in many ways, more clear-eyed than our own about the penalties associated with EU membership.
Think, here, of Mrs Thatcher's prescient critique in 1989 about the folly of constructing a currency union across a continent of states composed of widely diverging economic units. She warned President Mitterand repeatedly that once the Lilliputian economies surrendered control over interest rates, they would inevitably find themselves dominated by the continent's economic Gulliver, namely Germany. Our ordeal here since 2009 proved her point.
Some of the best writing on the inconsistencies and obscurities of that behemoth known as European law also happens to be British. The British Supreme Court judge, Jonathan Sumption, recently offered an important critique of the European approach to the problem of prisoner voting rights. And some of Tony Blair's speeches on the terrifying problems that arise when national criminal justice systems try to extradite radical clerics under EU law also still resonate.
The Irish debate about Europe has always rather lacked the candour and passion of the better parts of the British critique. Even though three Taoisigh (Lemass, Haughey and FitzGerald) indicated in various ways that they understood that Irish membership always entailed some kind of moral commitment to common defence, no Irish government has been willing to contribute properly to the defence of the union that gave us so much in the early days. The euphemism required to maintain this position has never been very healthy for us.
It has also been apparent for some time that we have not really been engaging fully with the Monnet project of "ever closer union" for its own sake, and that we have really been thinking about something else a lot of the time.
There is case to be made that an important part of our early European enthusiasm had more to do with John Hume's vision of an "agreed Ireland" than with the political vision of Monnet or Adenauer, per se. Hume basically saw the European confederal or federal model as a lever for breaking unionism.
And something of that seems to have shaped FitzGerald's thinking in particular. He once defined the European project as one "which can lead to a political union achieved by consent", a formulation that reads like something to be found either in de Valera's Document No. 2 or in the New Ireland Forum report that made the case for some kind of Irish unity.
If there is something in the belief that we have never really thought very deeply about European integration in its own terms, as distinct from analysing it as an instrument of purpose in Anglo-Irish affairs, then our current woes come in to focus a bit more.
The design flaw at the heart of monetary union should, by rights, have come from a small country like Ireland, rather than from Mrs Thatcher. But we have always seemed distracted from consideration of these fundamentals. An increasingly likely British exit in 2017 provides ample space for a wholly new analysis.