Friday 13 December 2019

The Euro Project is stalled after the 'two Englands' split up

Supporters of the 'Stronger In' Campaign react as results of the EU referendum are announced at a results party at the Royal Festival Hall in London early in the morning. Photo: Getty
Supporters of the 'Stronger In' Campaign react as results of the EU referendum are announced at a results party at the Royal Festival Hall in London early in the morning. Photo: Getty

The great industrial cities in the midlands and the north of England have collectively let out a resounding roar. Newcastle, Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds, Birmingham, Sunderland and a host of others are names that resonate in this country, mostly because of their football league clubs.

But over the past 24 hours what has been a seething rage and anger - among white, working-class voters - has erupted with unprecedented consequences. There were two clear-cut reasons why this section of the population said an overwhelming 'no' to the EU and all those who support it as an institution.

The first is many of them live in areas where unemployment, under-employment and a surfeit of low-paid, insecure work has become the norm. The other factor is that hundreds of thousands of these citizens feel their situation has been made worse by what they perceive as too many immigrants living in their communities.

Working class disaffection has propelled the UK into a Brexit. Photo: AFP/ Getty
Working class disaffection has propelled the UK into a Brexit. Photo: AFP/ Getty

There is a widespread conviction that 'foreigners' are taking many of 'their' jobs, while also forcing down wages. They complain about an excess of non-English-speaking children in their local schools while recently-arrived families add to waiting lists for a doctor and other NHS medical services.

In middle-class metropolitan London there is little actual experience of such concerns. But the divide opened up by the Brexit vote is yet further proof of the deep chasm which now exists between the capital and the rest of England.

Even the most cursory visitor would find it impossible not to be aware of the vitality, energy and affluence of modern-day London.

In sharp contrast, the sense of alienation in the sprawling housing estates dotted across cities north of Watford Junction is equally obvious. This story of two Englands was the dominant theme in this referendum - Northern Ireland and Scotland are clearly separate cases and, for a variety of reasons, both unsurprisingly returned a vote in favour of the EU.

The domino effect of the overall poll was almost immediate - David Cameron's emotion-charged statement on the steps of 10 Downing Street announcing his decision to resign is right up there with the big moments of high political drama in recent decades.

We in Ireland will miss him. He was a centrist, a middle-ground conservative with a political philosophy instinctively geared towards the quest for consensus. This was particularly manifest in his actions and statements in relation to Northern Ireland. He has yet to receive full credit for his low-key and reasonable approach, which allowed the peace process to gain its own momentum. But now it seems the Tory party will move to the political right - and already there is a whiff of Thatcher-style intolerance in the air. How this will play out in Anglo-Irish relations has to be a cause for concern.

Meanwhile, the British Labour party is careering towards disaster, with a lame duck leadership whose problems are steadily getting worse. Millions of its supporters rejected what was admittedly a half-hearted call from Jeremy Corbyn to support the 'Remain' vote. His comment that he would give the EU "only seven out of 10" certainly did not help matters.

Yet is now clear that if Labour had been able to hustle more of its supporters over the line the Brexit vote would have lost.

A general election is a distinct possibility in 2017, with a new Conservative Prime Minister determined to achieve a personal mandate. The party will also be anxious to take full advantage of the current malaise in Labour ranks.

For Ireland, only time will tell what will be the full effect of Britain's departure from the cloak of Brussels, although there is some consolation that the exit negotiations will probably be slow and drawn-out. Within the EU inner sanctum, there have already been noises the UK should not receive any special deals on matters such as free trade, as a benign approach might only encourage other potential leavers.

However, realpolitik may apply at the end of the day, and if there is an 'understanding' between London and Brussels on trade and tariffs it can only help us. The positive on the Northern Ireland front is that power-sharing has bedded down reasonably well, but much will depend on who will be the new British Prime Minister - and what will be the tone and texture of his or her government.

All in all, it's been a foreboding 24 hours for the ideals of those who tried to forge a new Europe from the ashes of World War II. Theirs was a kind of simplistic dream - the vague concept that, in the future, it would be all for one and one for all. They knew, of course, it could never be as easy as that - nation states will always look out for their own interests. But they felt the journey, whatever about the destination, was worth it. Now, that is all completely up in the air.

Will the Dutch or the Danes be next to say goodbye? One way or another, what was dubbed 'the Euro Project' all those years ago is worryingly stalled at a most confusing crossroads.

Irish Independent

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