Monday 24 October 2016

Brexit and the curse of nationalism

Published 29/05/2016 | 02:30

Front National leader Marine Le Pen Photo: AP Photo/Jacques Brinon
Front National leader Marine Le Pen Photo: AP Photo/Jacques Brinon

Voters in the UK will go to the polls on June 23 to vote in a referendum to either remain in, or leave, the European Union. The Group of Seven leaders has ranked Brexit from the EU alongside geopolitical conflicts, terrorism and refugee flows as a potential shock of a "non-economic origin".

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The G7 statement last week followed comments from the International Monetary Fund that there were no economic positives to the UK leaving the EU; the Bank of England has said the UK economy would slow sharply, and possibly even enter a brief recession; and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development has also warned that UK voters risked paying a 'Brexit tax' equivalent to a month's salary by 2020 if they leave the EU.

Notwithstanding these stark warnings, the latest online poll has Remain and Leave tied on 41pc, with 13pc undecided and 4pc saying they would not vote in the EU referendum - although other polls have found increasing support for Remain, most hearteningly among Conservatives and older voters. It is clear the result will be close and the outcome crucial in that a vote to leave would represent the EU's biggest setback in its 60-year history.

In that eventuality, Brexit will see the rest of Europe either close ranks or disintegrate, but Europe's history since World War II tells us that politicians on the continent will fight to the last breath to keep Europe together.

In this country, the referendum has been described as the most important event in a generation for Irish business. The UK accounts for over 16pc of all exports from Ireland and is our single biggest and most important trading partner, especially for indigenous food and drink companies. Opinion in Ireland is divided on the impact Brexit would have on the economy. Some have argued that the UK leaving would have consequences for Irish trade, but not as much as in the past; while others have said having such a large, dynamic economy leave the EU would constitute a huge blow for this country.

This newspaper is of the view that, on the whole, the UK outside the EU would cause damage to the Irish economy - and while that shock will be significant in the short term, going much beyond that is ultimately speculation at this stage. However, there is evidence that the huge uncertainty surrounding the outcome of this referendum, not only in the UK but across Europe, has already taken a heavy toll economically as well as politically.

The poor quality of debate on a topic as complex as EU membership also carries the risk that this vote will be decided not on the basis of the best available information and analysis, but on gut feeling and short-term mood swings - which is no way to decide upon fundamental issues of democracy and sovereignty for years to come.

In the 15 months following the UK's referendum, voters in the eurozone's four largest countries will head to the polls for a number of ballots that could change Europe's political landscape quite significantly.

Spain will hold a re-run general election after last December's inconclusive vote, with the result still uncertain; in October, Italians will be asked to approve or reject major constitutional reform, which has turned into a referendum on Prime Minister Matteo Renzi's government; next spring, all eyes will be on the National Front leader, Marine Le Pen - who is widely expected to make it to the second round of the French presidential election; and, just a few months after that, Germans will also head to the polls to elect the new Bundestag with the right-wing Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) party in the ascendancy.

In the view of this newspaper, Europe is the only alternative to the centuries-old curse of European civilisation: nationalism. As Francois Mitterrand put it in his farewell speech to the European Parliament in 1995: "Le nationalisme: c'est la guerre."

Sunday Independent

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