Friday 21 October 2016

Brexit now gives us a chance for real debate on our own role in EU

Published 28/06/2016 | 02:30

This picture of an NHS surgical team who come from around the European Union has been shared thousands of times online in the wake of the Brexit referendum result. Photo: Junaid Masood/PA Wire
This picture of an NHS surgical team who come from around the European Union has been shared thousands of times online in the wake of the Brexit referendum result. Photo: Junaid Masood/PA Wire

Whenever you hear the 'national interest' being invoked - reach for the salt cellar. Many sectional, hypocritical and dubious things have down the generations being dubbed as being in the 'national interest'. Since early last Thursday morning we have heard politicians of many parties cite our EU membership as being in the 'national interest'.

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At first glance, this has better credentials for being 'in the national interest'. But the problem with it is the array of unexplored assumptions which surround that assertion.

Now that Brexit has landed with a dull thud upon us we have a chance to have a real debate about the value or otherwise of Ireland's EU membership. We should not let it slip by.

We joined the EU's forerunner the EEC for mainly economic reasons and we were no different than many other member state. It is beyond dispute that our membership has helped us play economic catch-up.

Ireland's GNP grew by 140pc between 1987 and 2000, compared with 40pc cumulative growth in the US and 30pc in the EU as a whole. In fact, from the late 1980s onwards we signed up for more EU integration on condition we would get significant grant aid to play catch-up.

We maximised our take from key EU social, regional and farm funds under the Common Agriculture Policy (Cap). In many ways our farmers seized upon the real potential for the very good reason that CAP was for a very long time the EU's only really fully developed policy.

But we cannot assume that contemporary Irish farmers might all be sold on the concept of the EU. Right now, prices in all key commodities are on the floor and many farmers see Brussels as a purveyor of troublesome bureaucracy.

Other sectors lagged behind and even the linkages between Dáil and Seanad and the EU institutions for decades remained very poor. In 1996 the academic Eunan O'Halpin characterised these relations as "a combination of ignorance and neglect".

Yet this period was among the glory years of 'Brussels billions' flowing into Ireland. Various surveys all through this period showed Irish people had a high approval rating for the EU.

But this approval was based on very low levels of knowledge or consideration. In 1995, for example, six out of 10 Irish people had "a low or very low" knowledge of the EU.

Anecdotally, as someone who began writing about EU affairs in 1989, this writer has rarely encountered people who take even a passing interest in the EU. Here I am alluding to people who otherwise have a keen interest in most other sectors of news and current affairs.

Nobody is suggesting that the ordinary citizen should somehow be crammed full with mind-numbing technocratic detail. But a big picture knowledge of what the European Union is and how it functions would be very worthwhile, given the globalised world in which we live, and the reach which the EU has for our daily lives.

We could also do with a full debate on why we should remain in the EU. The road has forked and our nearest neighbour, biggest trading partner, and nation with which our politics are most closely interlinked, wants out. When the bulk of politicians, representing a broad swathe of views across Ireland, tell us our best interests continue to be served by EU membership, we should ask why. Would we be better served by taking a similar route to Britain? Is the EU, currently afflicted by a number of difficulties and poor in leadership, our best option? Our strong approval of the EU would appear to continue. A survey taken in Ireland in the week before the United Kingdom vote showed that only one in three Irish people wanted a similar opportunity to vote on EU membership here.

And three out of four people said they would opt to remain with the EU. A regular run of such surveys to monitor the trend year on year would be very helpful. It is also true that the standard of EU monitoring and knowledge has improved. The work of organisations like the International Institute of European Affairs is invaluable and its website is a storehouse of user-friendly information.

A number of speed wobbles in recent years, notably the 2001 rejection of the referendum on the EU Treaty of Nice, and the 2008 rejection of the EU Treaty of Lisbon, taught all the politicians lessons on the need to fight hard for hearts and minds in all referendums.

In the upcoming debate on Britain's exit terms, and the new EU-UK relationship, there are huge issues at stake. We go into the process with a number of disadvantages.

Britain has the sole right to trigger the exit negotiations via this notorious Article 50 of the EU Treaty. Thereafter, the remaining 27 member states have a huge volume of power. Ireland will have to fight both smartly and hard.

Britain has already been complaining about a lack of experienced negotiators to face into the task ahead. If those complaints are legitimate, one would shudder for Ireland which has a fraction of Britain's resources.

There are disadvantages to Ireland's EU membership. We have already noted the level of regulation necessitated by efforts to create a border-free single market, and promote things like common environmental standards.

There are also fiscal constraints on our autonomy, and the ongoing conflict which sees us wedged between a reluctant Britain, and the rest of the EU, with whom we want to associate.

But our EU membership coincided with big increases in prosperity and gave us free movement of Irish people for study and work. The EU helped end the Border and opened windows to a bigger world. That will do me.

Pros and cons of EU membership

The Good

  • Huge increases in prosperity via increased tariff-free trade and EU grants which boosted infrastructure and other developments.
  • Free movement of Irish people allowing study and work from the top of Finland to Crete and from Portugal to Romania.
  • Direct ending of customs controls on the border with the North and €1.5bn in EU peace grants to help underpin the peace which ended identity controls.
  • A broadening of Ireland's cultural, economic and social horizons beyond that of Britain to a wider continental world of 28 nations.

The Bad

  • Loss of autonomy, notably power to fix interest rates to stimulate or cool down the economy.
  • Being torn between our biggest trading partner, Britain, whose people have always been reticent about Europe, and the EU.
  • A mass of regulations on day-to-day life and constraints on capital spending as part of one-size-fits-all policies.
  • Being tied to a large body of nations currently stricken by inability to tackle serious issues affecting people's lives.

The day in quotes

"It is clear now that Project Fear is over, there is not going to be an emergency budget, people's pensions are safe, the pound is stable, the markets are stable, I think that's all very good"

Tory MP Boris Johnson


"We must not lose time, neither for dealing in a suitable way with the question of the United Kingdom's exit, not for providing a new impetus for the EU"

French President Francois Hollande


"The negotiations must take place in a businesslike, good climate. Britain will remain a close partner, with which we are linked economically"

German Chancellor Angela Merkel


"The stakes have always been higher on this issue for Ireland than for any other EU member state. The closer the UK is to the EU, the better for all of us, and above all for Ireland"

Enda Kenny


"Britain is leaving the European Union, but we must not turn our back on Europe or the rest of the world. I believe we should hold fast to a vision of Britain that wants to be respected abroad, tolerant at home, engaged in the world and working with our international partners to advance the prosperity and security of our nation for generations to come"

British Prime Minister David Cameron


"The most important thing is that all of us, as leaders, work together to provide as much continuity, as much stability, as much certainty as possible"

US Secretary of State John Kerry


"We must not invoke Article 50 straight away because that puts a time limit of two years on negotiations, after which we could be thrown out with no deal at all. So before setting the clock ticking we need to negotiate a deal and put it to the British people, either in a referendum or through the Conservative manifesto at an election"

British Health Minister Jeremy Hunt


"I am concerned, very much, about the future of the EU itself and I think that it's a matter that all of the members of the EU must be concerned about together"

President Michael D Higgins


"It is not expected that the UK's decision will have any impact on fiscal space in the upcoming budget for 2017"

Enda Kenny


"Leave the EU - no more Polish vermin"

A card discovered by a young Polish boy on his way to school in Cambridge

Irish Independent

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