Thursday 21 February 2019

Gene Kerrigan: 'Deep breath, everyone, this is going to hurt'

Tempting as it may be, we can't blame all the chaos on mad Brexiteers. The EU 'centrists' did their bit, writes Gene Kerrigan

There are times when I almost feel sorry for Simon Coveney, Michel Barnier, Donald Tusk and the other EU officials who have to spend time with the UK's "Brexiteers".

The leaders of the Brexit camp are so exotically stupid they make even our less-than-impressive politicians seem likeable.

Coveney and his mates have repeatedly shown themselves to be severely under-talented, ideologically cruel politicians. Their policies have hurt many people. They'll maintain those policies, in the belief that they must implement the dictates of the all-powerful, all-knowing and never-wrong free market.

Yet, put any EU politician in a room with one of the more colourful Brexiteers - David Davis, for instance - and your shared humanity will inevitably cause you to sympathise with the almost-normal EU representative.

After the British people voted in 2016 to ditch the EU, David Davis found himself in an enviable position when the new Prime Minister, Theresa May, appointed him Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union.

For a red-blooded English Brexiteer, this was his Trafalgar, it was his Agincourt, it was his 1999 Manchester United in added-time against Bayern Munich.

This should have been Davis's "fight them on the beaches" moment, with a pause for a "band of brothers" speech. Instead, he more often than not just didn't turn up to the negotiations.

There's a published minute of an EU discussion in which Michel Barnier noted that time was passing and "the United Kingdom had not yet really engaged in the negotiations or spelled out its positions".

David turned up only for the start and the end of each session, the minute said. And these were talks that needed the principals.

There's the famous photograph from the opening session of the negotiations. The EU officials came to the table equipped with stacks of preparatory documents, while Davis and his mates didn't have as much as a Post-It note between them.

Months passed, with no progress.

Jean-Claude Juncker, the minutes said, "expressed his concern about the question of the stability and accountability of the UK negotiator and his apparent lack of involvement". May and her Cabinet knew about this, and did nothing.

It's one thing to angrily demand Brexit, it's something else to go through the laborious process of disengaging from a complex arrangement.

Eventually, Davis found a reason to resign.

Now, after dicking about for months, and with just weeks before they have to leave, the Brexit Buccaneers are simpering about the possibility of extra time.

And Davis is a relatively normal Brexiteer. There's Dominic Raab (didn't notice the UK is an island). And Andrew Bridgen: ("as an Englishman, I understand I'm entitled to an Irish passport").

There must be a laboratory somewhere where the likes of Jacob Rees-Mogg are grown from seed.

Boris Johnson lost a journalism job for inventing a quote, and was fired from the Conservative Cabinet for lying. Referred to Africans as "pickaninnies" and to gays as "bumboys". Yet, as late as last Friday he was hinting that if he was asked really nicely, he might consider becoming prime minister.

How could such folk, plus the floppy Michael Gove and the hollow Nigel Farage, all wealthy, card-carrying members of the UK elite, attract the support of normal British people?

Well, there's long been a strong radical streak within the UK. But there's also a very deep sense of deference to "toffs". And the more off-the-wall the toff the deeper the deference.

(We have a version of that, ourselves. Many of our loudest nationalists nick the style and content of their UK betters. Scratch a certain kind of Paddy and you'll find a certain kind of Nigel.)

Brexit is fuelled by a number of things - including racism and fantasies of empire. But there are real-world causes for the rejection of the European project.

In recent decades, the western democracies have been governed by a layer of professional politicians who share a narrow range of policies. Their opponents call them neoliberals; they call themselves "centrists".

These policies are broadly shared across the mainstream political parties. Which means there's choice, but little change, even as one party replaces another in government. Elections are mostly about which mix of goodies each side puts on offer. These politicians are predominantly economic conservatives and social liberals. Coveney and his cabinet-mates cling with semi-religious ferocity to "market forces", even when they know - as in the housing crisis - that market forces have failed.

While the economic conservatism runs deep, the social liberalism can be strategic. In matters of marriage equality and abortion, for instance, the likes of Leo Varadkar and Simon Harris previously held strongly conservative politics. They quickly adjusted to accord with the socially liberal beliefs necessary to assume leadership positions.

Yes, the EU brought us much in the way of progress. It helped modernise our infrastructure, for instance. And, without pressure from the EU, few Irish politicians would have dared move on LGBT issues. It might still be fashionable - as it was - to sneer at gay people in the streets, and occasionally beat them to death.

Crucial to centrist politics is the dogma of fiscal rectitude. Centrist strategists have used EU treaties to stitch conservative economic positions into the fabric of EU law. This acts much like the Eighth Amendment to our own Constitution, in 1983, to perpetually impose one view on a controversial issue. Often, national governments are told - whatever they judge the best policy to be - that such moves are illegal under this treaty or that.

The centrists have been impregnable and smug. They paid no attention to many who were damaged by centrist policies. They made a mess of the euro. They insisted on "light-touch regulation". And when their policies led to the 2008 collapse of the banks they were merciless.

Massive private debt, and consequent austerity, were imposed on the public. When our Minister for Finance, Brian Lenihan, sought to spread the burden to bondholders he was told that if he didn't do as he was told they'd set off "an economic bomb" in Dublin.

Although EU officials, bankers and politicians had connived in creating the Greek crisis, the people were mercilessly crushed with the effects of the debt.

The EU elites admit a "democratic deficit", but it's much worse than that. The dominant politics aren't just insufficiently democratic, they are anti-democratic. When we voted the "wrong way" on the Nice and Lisbon Treaties we were told to vote again, until we gave the right answer.

The EU is predominantly a trading bloc. Leaving it is an immensely complicated process that leaves you as stitched-up as ever, if the politics ruling us remain the same.

But the resentments are real, based on real injustices. Instead of focusing on the injustices, the lack of democracy, British people were vulnerable to the pressure of a racist, empire-loving press that fed on anti-immigrant feelings. They bought into Brexit.

Going ahead with Brexit is madness, stopping is probably worse. Hard or soft, deal or no deal, a lot of people are about to get hurt - and we're part of that.

Meanwhile, the same resentments, and the same smug centrism damaged countless Americans and enlarged the base for a Trump victory.

Shelley, he never gets old: Look on ye're Works, ye Mighty, and despair.

Sunday Independent

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