Monday 14 October 2019

EU 'one for all' ideal lost as Merkozy takes charge

It is time to identify a new voice in the debate on Europe, that of the Eurorealist, writes Jody Corcoran

Jody Corcoran

Jody Corcoran

Over the next three months, political discourse here will be dominated by the issue of Europe. The outcome will be fundamental to the future of the country. It is essential that we get it right.

Before the debate gets properly under way in the new year, it might be helpful to try to bring some clarity to, and urge caution on, the labels which are applied and the language used.

It might also be instructive to bear in mind that Europe faces an immediate crisis, but also, and separately, both medium and long-term ambitions. At the outset I should declare that I believe the future of Ireland to be within the European Union.

To date, the debate has been dominated by voices from polar opposites, those referred to as 'Europhiles' and 'Eurosceptics', that is, staunch advocates for and against the EU. It is time to identify a new label, what we might call 'Eurorealists'.

The vast majority of people here are Eurorealists. They believe that the country's future is within the EU, but not solely on the terms of others and handed down by the diktat of a few, which, most recently, seems to be the case.

A Eurorealist trusts neither a Europhile nor a Eurosceptic, which is as it should be: extremists are generally wrong on most things, or least ways, seldom fully right. A Eurorealist, therefore, believes that the EU must rediscover its founding ideal: that is, to paraphrase the French novelist, Alexandre Dumas, one for all and all for one.

In the current crisis, Europe has moved far from this ideal, perhaps by necessity, as the multi-layered nature of the crisis rapidly unfolds at different times and in various ways. The abandonment of the ideal is best illustrated by the emergence of what is being called 'Merkozy', the duopoly force that the German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the French President Nicolas Sarkozy have become. The duopoly needs to be reined in.

Merkozy have chosen to deal with the immediate crisis in a manner which has pushed many Eurorealists towards the swelling ranks of Eurosceptics, which is to be regretted. The immediate crisis facing Europe relates to the issue of sovereign debt, or rather, how to restore the confidence of the financial markets in European sovereign debt.

To date, the leaders of Europe have collectively failed to agree on how to do this. In fact, there are many Eurorealists who, with some justification, believe that Merkozy have set about the task in a hamfisted, not to mention self-serving, manner.

Merkel and Sarkozy have used the immediate crisis to prepare enforceable rules to do with fiscal governance in the future; which is not unlike trying to put out a raging blaze by ordering a fire extinguisher that may or not eventually arrive. By the time the future arrives, it may be too late.

In general, the new rules to do with fiscal governance are good, indeed overdue, but they are more relevant to the medium and long-term ambitions of the EU.

Specifically, however, the new rules have also placed a question mark over, for example, Ireland's entitlement to apply its own rate of tax on the many multinational corporations which have located here and upon which the country is largely dependent.

Undertakings to protect our corporate tax rate were previously given, most recently at the time of Lisbon II. Therefore, the reopening of this issue has also served to swell the ranks of Eurosceptics here.

In the medium term, a resolution will be found in the form of political fudge: different rates to be applied to various corporations, but even that may eventually undermine the benefit here.

The cart-before-horse approach adopted by Merkozy has not only failed to deal with the immediate crisis facing Europe but has also placed the EU itself under the most serious threat since its foundation.

This is because the approach, which last weekend gave rise to an intergovernmental agreement, has brought about, if not the exclusion, then the isolation of the UK in the immediate to medium term.

Twenty six of the 27 EU states tentatively signed up to the agreement reached, including all 17 members of the eurozone.

But as the details are drafted for the verdict of parliaments or people, several countries are already starting to think again, for various reasons, none more valid than the issue raised by Finland, which fears a dilution of the unanimous vote in favour of a qualified majority.

All or some of the other nine may eventually join the euro, but the point remains: the EU as an institution, in itself, has been undermined and may ultimately have been fatally damaged. In its place, the emerging new dispensation will amount to a two-tier Europe within which the influence and power of Germany and France will be pervasive, which may have been the intention of Merkozy all along.

This burgeoning hegemony has added to the level of

Euroscepticism here to the point that it is at risk of taking root unless and until the founding ideal of the EU is reasserted. The UK is an essential trading partner of Ireland. Its isolation is not good for this country. The UK, however, may come to regret its decision to stand apart.

In that regard, perhaps the most intriguing dilemma likely to face the UK will relate to an internal debate, that is, the growing clamour for independence for Scotland within the EU. In Scotland, there is a large degree of disillusionment with the brand of Euroscepticism as represented by the Conservative Party, of which Prime Minister David Cameron is leader.

Were the Scots to more closely align with the emerging new Europe, it could raise profound questions for the UK itself; were Northern Ireland to follow, it would raise even more profound questions here, particularly for the brand of hard left Euroscepticism as espoused by the likes of Sinn Fein. But these are issues for the medium and long term.

The more immediate crisis remains to be resolved, that is, the requirement to create a so-called "firewall" against contagion; to correct the flaws of the currency itself, and to develop plans for sustainable economic growth as a time when recession/depression threatens to take hold.

The most relevant Eurorealist voice in Ireland at the moment is that of the former minister for foreign affairs, Micheal Martin, whom many accuse of fostering a form of Euroscepticism when that is not the case. Last week, he said: "It is one of the greatest failings of Europe's leaders that they are encouraging the idea that to be pro-EU you must support their agenda or be seen as a Eurosceptic."

It is not difficult to imagine that the vast majority in Government inwardly support the broader analysis as offered by the Fianna Fail leader, although outwardly, it seems, they are intent to hold their counsel.

The Government, we are told, is busy forging alliances throughout Europe with those on the periphery of the eurozone, the immediate aim to correct the imbalance caused by the force of Merkozy.

It would also be useful if these new alliances helped bring about a form of sustainable debt restructuring here, or even debt forgiveness, a requirement that seems essential for the passage of a possible referendum in March.

The outcome of the negotiations will, therefore, be crucial to the issues immediately at hand, but also to the future direction of the country in the medium to long term, by which time, it is to be hoped, we can all truly declare ourselves to be Europhiles.

Sunday Independent

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