Ireland, Brexit and the Future of the European Union
Micheál Martin TD, Leader of Fianna Fáil
Institute of International and European Affairs
Dublin, 7th December 2016
No one can doubt that we are experiencing a decisive moment in modern history. At the tail-end of the deepest economic shock since the end of the Second World War many of the core social and political foundations of nation states and the international community are under strain. You don’t need to be a historian to see dark parallels between recent developments and some of the most catastrophic decades of the last century.
It will soon be six months since a slim majority in the United Kingdom voted to leave an organisation founded on the core principle of European nations working together to deliver peace and prosperity. This was not a generous and optimistic vote. It was not a vote founded on inspiring people with a positive vision. It emerged from an ugly, negative and, as admitted in a spate of recent books, dishonest campaign. And it was also destructive – pulling down an edifice with no credible plans on what to do next.
The Leave vote was an explicit step backwards towards a time of greater competition and a narrow, exclusive definition of national sovereignty. It took a country once committed to the cause of building multilateral obligations down a unilateralist road.
I believe it will be seen as one of the most self-damaging referendum results ever produced in a democracy. Damaging to Britain. Damaging to its neighbours. Damaging to the cause of free societies.
In spite of the shambles of the British government’s policy since June I have no doubt that Brexit means that the United Kingdom will cease to be a member of the European Union. Within this, the UK will exit on terms which are damaging to trade, limit freedom of movement and involve ongoing volatility. We can be certain that there will continue to be uncertainty and that this will do not good for anyone.
The threat to this island is profound and our ability to respond is at present highly limited. There is consensus on the fact that Brexit will be economically damaging, socially divisive and politically challenging.
Mr Barnier yesterday suggested a timescale of 18 months to reach an agreement in order for ratification within the Treaty-defined limit. This is a reasonable assessment and it confirms once again that we have absolutely no time to lose.
But we must first avoid the trap of seeing the response to Brexit as an issue to be dealt with on its own. This completely misses the wider context for the vote and the challenges which we have to meet. All too often we, and other countries, take a narrow approach in the face of major issues. We seek ways of addressing specific concerns but miss the wider context.
At this moment of time we simply have to accept that this is not business as usual, we need a new scale, urgency and ambition to our work if we are to achieve the core objectives of securing prosperity, peace and even democracy itself.
It would not be right to talk at length about managing Brexit but to ignore everything else that is going on. I want to address what I see as the four major challenges facing us at the moment.
- Limiting the impact of Brexit on this state
- Limiting the impact of Brexit on Northern Ireland
- Securing the future of the European Union and
- Defeating destructive populism.
Brexit and Ireland
It is important to start with some basic principles. I and my party are absolutely clear on where we stand – we believe that rule-bound, independently-enforceable cooperation between nation states is the only means of securing high-living standards, peaceful relations and the ability to respond to the many challenges of globalisation. No other approach has ever come close in the scale of progress delivered for all sections of society.
For us, the European Union has lost none of the urgency which propelled its founders to sign the Treaty of Rome 57 years ago. It is a slow moving and imperfect entity, but its achievements are profound.
A Europe of competing nation states offers us nothing but a return to a cycle of destructive competition. For smaller nations it would be devastating. Because we oppose a race to the bottom and because we want a place at the table to influence our opportunities and international affairs we are absolutely committed to continued full, active and constructive membership of the European Union.
We believe that the worst periods of destruction in modern history have been defined by weak international organisations and a belief in projecting strength rather than seeking cooperation.
We also believe that trade is an essential part of delivering high standards of living. In Ireland, a turn away from supporting access to overseas markets would set us back nearly 6o years.
I believe that a strong and secure majority of Irish people believe that Ireland must remain a committed and positive member of the EU. However this relationship is likely to change significantly both because of the impact of Brexit and the wider need for reform of the Union.
The recent fiscal and economic statement by the Chancellor of the Exchequer confirmed the near uniform view that Brexit will damage the UK’s economy. Longer term projections, using a range of scenarios from a ‘softish Brexit’ to a ‘WTO Brexit’ show a permanent average loss of 1.8% to 3.2% of national income. Before incorporating the results of negotiations and the payment of a divorce settlement, Chancellor Hammond has predicted a major negative fiscal impact over the next five years.
The ESRI has taken UK projections and completed a substantial work in modelling the impact on the 26-county economy. The results are depressingly similar – in fact slightly worse on average. A ‘hard Brexit’ would, they believe cut nearly 4% from national income, 3.6% from wages and employment levels would fall by 2% if no significant intervention is made. Work published on Monday did suggest that mitigation could come from companies relocating here- though this benefit is highly speculative while the damage is, at least in part, already underway.
We face a profound choice. Dow we stand by and let this slow-motion car crash hit us or do we act.
I believe that this is a moment comparable to Lemass’ decision to open our economy to the world. He saw the threat of continued underperformance and accepted that a major departure was required.
I believe we have to do everything possible to protect economic integration on this island. We have to seek special status for trade within this island and then develop a range of bilateral measures to protect the ability of people here to live, work and have full entitlements wherever they choose to live.
We also have to have a new clarity about what structure we are aiming for in our economy and how we will seek to deliver the level and quality of employment we need.
As a continuing member of the EU, Ireland has a right to expect a substantial demonstration of solidarity from the other post-Brexit members. We are faced with a profound threat because of the actions of another state on which we had no influence. We are showing solidarity with the European Union and it must show us the same. In addition, and far more practically, the EU cannot afford to let members suffer for remaining true to the Union.
This means first of all a willingness to find ways of reflecting the special needs of this island in the final Brexit agreement. The repeated comments of Mr Barnier that he sees the impact of the Border as a priority in the negotiations are a welcome first step. Turning this general commitment into specific action requires us to be to the fore in making proposals.
In order for us to have any credible impact on the outcome we have to step-up the time and resources we invest in our diplomatic activity. We do not have enough diplomats in place to ensure that every government is fully up to date in what Ireland is seeking and to lobby for their support. Equally, the relevant Brexit coordination structures within government do not have enough full-time personnel for the scale of what’s involved.
Nothing is more important to our long-term future at this moment and Brexit needs emergency-levels of staffing and resources.
What has not yet been put on the table is the fact that whatever deal is agreed there are certain negative impacts of Brexit which will be unavoidable. Many businesses and communities are already suffering from the dramatic fall in Sterling’s value and the likely long-term volatility of the exchange rate undermines their current business model.
We have to be able to help them to mitigate the immediate impact and we have to be able to help them to diversify their markets. State aid rules as they have traditionally been applied serve an important purpose in underpinning fair competition between member states. However I don’t see how we can properly help those most impacted by Brexit within these rules.
I believe the EU should accept the principle that it must lead in mitigating the impact of Brexit on member states. As part of this it should allow direct aid particularly to help companies through a period of transformation and to diversify their products and markets.
On a more national level Brexit makes the case for being much more aggressive in pursuing the knowledge-economy policies which have worked so well in the last decade and a half. Investment in research and innovation has directly led to the creation of high-value, secure employment in sectors which remained vibrant during the recession. Progress in de-commoditising our trade has been swift and must now go much further.
I believe that what was a very successful focus for research support has become too directive and the loss of research talent from our universities must be reversed or permanent damage will be done. If there’s one thing we should have learned from the failures of the past and the sustained success of previous research policy it is that if we enable our best people they will exceed all expectations. We need to get back to that spirit.
And we also need to diversify through growing the importance and export-focus of small and medium sized enterprise. If we want to keep pace with innovation and the natural cycles of success and decline which impact on businesses and industries, then a more dynamic and innovative SME sector is not an option it is an urgent necessity.
In terms of our East-West relations we have to find new ways of maintaining them. There has been an undeniable drift in the quality of these relations in the last six years. In some ways the Strand 3 structures of the Good Friday Agreement have allowed a formal interaction replace what should be a more organic approach.
It has been worrying to hear the arguments concerning the architecture of the Agreement advanced by the British government in the High Court in Belfast and now in the Supreme Court in London. The emphasis has been on dismissing the relevance of EU-related provisions and an insistence on the right of the UK government to act unilaterally. This week the Supreme Court has been told that the British government believes it has the prerogative to unilaterally withdraw from international treaties even where commitment to those treaties is enshrined in statutory law.
The implications of this doctrine for solemn agreements with this country are serious. When we signed the British-Irish Agreement we removed any capacity for the government or indeed Oireachtas to act unilaterally. We changed our constitution and gave joint institutions powers in our jurisdiction.
As I will mention, there are many other areas of concern relating to Northern Ireland, but at a basic level we need explicit assurance from the government of the United Kingdom that this fundamental agreement rests on more than ministerial indulgence.
On a cultural level, the seamlessness of movement back and forth across the Irish Sea has benefitted us both and must be maintained once the protection of EU law is removed.
The building of respect and understanding between us was facilitated by the fact that our leaders met regularly at EU meetings and worked to a shared agenda. Until 2011, for decades a new Prime Minister received the Taoiseach as one of his first official visitors.
Our relationship can’t be taken for granted. We should review the working of the East-West relationship and consider a more systematic approach to contacts between Dublin and London post-Brexit.
Brexit and Northern Ireland
The decision of a clear majority in Northern Ireland to vote Remain is not something which can be lightly dismissed. Unfortunately there has been effectively no acknowledgement of this, or of the Scottish Remain vote, in statements from ministers in London. As the Supreme Court has heard this week, it is Downing Street’s position that these votes have zero relevance to deciding core Brexit policy.
Secretary of State David Davis made a lengthy statement to the House of Commons in September in which he made only one passing reference to Northern Ireland. Last month another lengthy statement referenced Northern Ireland only insofar as to reject the idea that Northern Ireland has any distinct rights to challenge or delay London’s approach.
While most senior government members have said that Northern Ireland is a priority, this has not been reflected in any specific policy statement or in the make-up of key committees.
Yet Northern Ireland is the region which is most exposed to post-Brexit impacts. Incredibly there has been only one independent review of Brexit’s potential impact on Northern Ireland. It is stark in its findings. There is currently no positive scenario for the economic impact of Brexit and many which are extremely negative. The closest to a neutral scenario is one where Northern Ireland has access to the Customs Union while also using regulatory freedom to squeeze costs of employment.
There are, of course, also important implications of the Brexit process for the post-Good Friday situation.
Fianna Fáil has two starting points in relation to Northern Ireland’s position post-Brexit.
First, the will of the people of Northern Ireland must be reflected in the final outcome. Imposing the full impact of hard Brexit on Northern Ireland is unacceptable.
Second, Dublin must promote and support special status for Northern Ireland in whatever way possible consistent with our remaining full and active members of the European Union.
Lost in the economic arguments is a simple fact about protecting the rights of citizenship. Following Brexit, Northern Ireland residents will retain their full right to EU citizenship through their right to hold Irish citizenship either jointly or as a sole citizenship.
This right to Irish citizenship is established by birth, family or ongoing residence. It is recognized in a binding international treaty between Ireland and the UK and it is reflected in EU law. This will continue to those born well after Brexit takes effect.
What this means is that post-2019 Northern Ireland will contain the largest concentration anywhere of EU citizens living outside of the boundaries of the EU. It is an absolute obligation on the EU to reflect this unique reality with a special status for Northern Ireland – and it is also an absolute obligation on the UK to reflect this unique reality in seeking a special status for Northern Ireland.
My party will never support proposals which reduce access for Northern Ireland residents to the basic rights of EU citizenship. In the context of a vote in the Dáil or elsewhere, this is a fundamental position for us.
And to be clear, we will also oppose any proposal to force people in Northern Ireland to choose between full Irish citizenship – including EU citizenship and UK citizenship. This would mark an unacceptable move away from the core principle of coexistence and respect which has underpinned the incomplete but still dramatic progress of recent years. The ‘not-quite’ British passports issued to residents of Hong Kong in the past will not be replicated for Irish passports.
There are certainly enormously complex hurdles to be overcome, but Northern Ireland accounts for only 3% of the population and 2% of the GDP of the UK. A special status for Northern Ireland would not undermine the core negotiating objectives of either London or Brussels.
It is also important for us to acknowledge that the position of the UK government does impact on the solemn agreements which underpin institutions and relations within this island and with our neighbours.
The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland’s formal submission to the High Court in Belfast in the Agnew & Others case is disturbing in its tone and implications. It reveals an attitude to the role of the Northern Ireland Assembly which is a serious concern and confirms a number of potential absurdities post-Brexit.
The legal submission sought to effectively define as irrelevant EU-related provisions of the Northern Ireland Act and Good Friday Agreement. In a phrase which is found throughout the submission, it accepted that ongoing membership was “assumed” but insisted that this did not “require” membership.
In the submission, and again this week in the Supreme Court, the NIO argued not just that legislative consent is not required but more particularly that the Northern Ireland Assembly has fewer rights in this regard than the Scottish or Welsh assemblies.
The submission states at length that the devolution of certain legislative authority is a mere convention which can be ignored at will.
Let no one be in any doubt, a principle of no obligatory consultation and no legislative consent is not consistent with the spirit or intent of agreements.
In a development which has not received enough attention, the NIO has acknowledged that EU law will continue to have a role in Northern Ireland post-Brexit. In the Agnew submission it stated “it is accepted that the legislative and executive competence of the Assembly and Ministers is limited by the requirement to act [in] compatibility with EU law.”
In also accepts that coordination of relations with the EU is included in paragraph 3 (iii) of Strand Two on the working of the North/South Ministerial Council.
Take these elements together and the legal situation, according the British government, is that Northern Ireland will, post-Brexit, have institutions which ‘assume but do not require’ membership of the EU, which are required to act in compatibility with EU law and are tasked with coordinating with Dublin on relations with the EU.
And so returning to the basic point about the UK’s duties to honour agreements, these provisions cannot legitimately be changed without our consent and cross-party consent in Northern Ireland. It could of course take its new unilateral doctrine to the next level and say that it can change these provisions without agreement. What would this say about mutual respect and honouring the spirit of the peace process?
If you link the points I have made concerning the continued EU citizenship of Northern Ireland residents, the Northern Ireland vote for Remain, the legal status of the European Union in the peace settlement and the disproportionate impact of Brexit on Northern Ireland something becomes very clear: The UK has an obligation to seek and the EU is obliged to support a generous special status for Northern Ireland post-Brexit.
The Irish government of course carries both obligations and further must respect the vote of its citizens in the 1998 referendum by protecting the agreements which now form part of our constitution.
As a final related point – the application of the European Convention on Human Rights in Northern Ireland cannot be unilaterally removed by London without abrogating existing agreements.
The Convention pre-dates the EU and is a Council of Europe initiative which seeks to define the values of democracy and human rights in Europe. Quite apart from the fact that the UK is obliged to maintain the Convention’s force in Northern Ireland, stepping away from the Convention would involve the UK taking a position it would share only with increasingly authoritarian governments.
Addressing the impact of Brexit on Northern Ireland has not been helped by the continued partisan tactics of key political actors. Our most consistently anti-EU party, Sinn Fein, is running around claiming to support it. It is even demanding the retention of an EU citizenship that it campaigned against.
Unfortunately the Assembly failed to take action to seek to vindicate the rights of the Remain majority. Its response has yet again failed to match the scale of the threat posed to the people of Northern Ireland.
Independent research has detailed a steady decline over the last nine years in the faith of the people of Northern Ireland in the commitment of politicians to focus on issues which matter for the community as a whole. Brexit is an opportunity for Northern institutions and parties to demonstrate that they can come together to tackle collective threats. Let us all hope that it does not become another missed opportunity.
Securing the Future of the European Union
I have no doubt that the strong will of the Irish people is for us to remain a member of the European Union. Our future and the future of the Union are intertwined. This reinforces the need for us to be more active in shaping the Union.
Its achievements are sustained and unequalled, but today it faces existential threats. We cannot be neutral in this. We cannot sit back and wait for others to come forward proposals and we must not support a drift defined by limited discussions and a narrow agenda.
The European Union can only have a long-term future if it continues to be a credible vehicle of hope for countries who want to secure high standards of living and the protection of basic democratic European values. There is a very real danger that this hope will be lost unless there is a further round of significant reform.
The handling of the economic crisis showed an organisation slow to act and with insufficient ability to help regions and countries at critical moments. After all of the changes of policy and the implementation of the Fiscal Treaty, the Union has still not addressed the failings exposed in the period 2008-12. It is a disconcerting fact that without the use by Mario Draghi of the three words “whatever it takes” key elements of the Union may have collapsed.
A core part of the Euro crisis and its economic impact was the failure to create a genuine monetary union. Even the architect of the policy, Jacques Delors, has admitted that there were serious flaws in the structure of the Eurozone. In spite of many change, including a new treaty, these flaws have not been fully addressed.
The banking union is incomplete. Its main provisions cover only a small percentage of the banking market and exclude banks which have a regional systemic importance. As we saw in 2008, relatively small banks can set off a very wide crisis.
The European Central Bank continues to work with one hand behind its back. It has been helpful only due to strong leadership and a willingness to go to the very edges of what can be legally justified under its mandate. It needs certainty that it can act at will not just in terms of an inflation target, but also a wider economic mandate.
I believe we need to revisit the overall architecture of European fiscal policy. As my party said when campaigning for the Fiscal Treaty even though in opposition, it is only part of the solution. The exercise of control of fiscal policy is legitimate, but the absence of any positive fiscal stabilisers is a potentially fatal flaw.
Put another way, there are controls to try and stop countries getting into trouble through spending and borrowing too much. However there is almost nothing to help countries which get into trouble.
Beyond anything else, the absence of funding to help countries get through crises is a flaw unique to the Euro in the history of monetary unions. In the United States, for example, most states have balanced budget requirements in their constitutions. When they get into trouble the adjustments are severe, but they are mitigated by large-scale automated transfers from other states through federal entitlement programmes. They tend not to acknowledge it, but this is an exercise in everyday solidarity which was to the core in that countries incredible development following the 1930s.
In Germany, solidarity transfers between Lander have been central to rising prosperity in previously lesser-developed regions such as Bavaria.
The European Union can scold and exhort but it cannot help significantly. It can launch grand-sounding initiatives on youth unemployment, but the economic impact of the funding is close to zero.
Part of the negative impact of anti-EU rhetoric in the UK over the last thirty years is that it made discussions more risk-averse and the budget became a zero-sum game.
At less than 1% of European income, the EU’s budget is marginal to shaping the economic future of Europe. The goal of making Europe a dynamic, knowledge intensive economy is absolutely right, but the programmes for delivering this are too small to make a significant difference.
It is also important to remember that when monetary union was proposed a core principle was that states had to be helped in order to avoid the benefits getting concentrated in the powerful economies. Cohesion through investment was as important as control of spending.
Every member state must be able to see a credible route forward to develop and to protect progress on living standards. Unless we change policies this core principle may be lost.
I welcome the recent shift of the Commission on how it interprets fiscal rules and the end of the policy of promoting avoidable austerity by encouraging countries to run fiscal policies which damage the shared economy.
Within the Eurozone we should consider some increased form of permanent funding for the budget, with the proceeds specifically directed at supporting innovation and helping countries and regions faced with immediate crises. The best form that this could take would be through some small but dedicated taxation instrument. This would break the incentive to constantly short change budget negotiations.
And the Union must also show that it understands its own limits. The attempts to radically expand existing Commission competences in certain areas is worse than a distraction, it demonstrates a highly partial agenda.
Tax harmonisation, both direct proposals for this and attempts to use existing competition law to achieve has nothing to do with securing growth and prosperity within the Union. It is a highly partial agenda which is economically irrelevant to the real challenges facing the Union.
No study has been produced showing that existing or potential proposals will raise the Union’s growth level, but as recently as this week it has been shown that this agenda poses a serious threat to some smaller economies, including Ireland.
Equally the Commission’s targeting of certain multinationals is both unfair and an enormous waste of time. There is no difference between current cases and the decade-long insistence by the Commission on the now discredited claim that Microsoft had secured a permanent monopoly in the web browser sector.
These cases regularly target non-European companies which are headquartered outside of larger member states and they involve both rhetoric and policies which present Europe as a cold house for world-leading innovation.
Long-term, this strategy will not be central to convincing the public that the Commission is on its side but may do substantial damage to faith in its understanding of the modern economy and ability to deliver a more innovative and stronger Union.
Fundamentally, the Union must return to the spirit of solidarity which defined its creation and growth. The current habit of promoting every negotiation as a fight and every decision as a victory over someone else has undermined the ability to maximise the effectiveness of a Union with a constrained but still vital role.
During the process of negotiations on Brexit we must be a constructive participant in the wider debate on the future of Europe. Realistically no major amending Treaty is likely in at least the next five years. What can be achieved though is a move away from current damaging behaviour and the adoption of a more ambitious and credible agenda.
The past successes of the European Union may well be subjecting it to what Tocqueville called “the revolution of rising expectations”. But the threat is deep and requires urgent action.
Defeating Destructive Populism
And of course central to this work must be fighting back against the wave of destructive populism evident in recent years.
The combined impacts of greater social and economic globalisation, the lingering damage of the great recession, institutional complacency and the aggression of anti-democratic forces are a challenge to everyone.
Populism is a term widely used but there is no single understanding amongst the public of what it means. At one level there is clearly nothing wrong with political movements giving voice to popular discontent. At moments of great uncertainty or even fear, disconnection from traditional politics and anger about issues is common and probably inevitable.
However the populism of today is more about cynical and sometimes sinister forces exploiting and actively encouraging division and conflict. In Europe, settled, democratic states with high living standards have seen the politics of fear deployed and unfortunately often successfully.
The main tactic has been to scapegoat anyone outside of the core national groups – to present them as threatening national identity and welfare. For any given problem they can tell you who to blame – and it always involves a claimed conspiracy against people like you.
This populism also encourages even successful groups to see themselves as victims – with people who disagree dismissed as venal elites.
Movements and parties which take this approach are found in most political cultures, but at times of crisis they can move into the mainstream. When you examine them you find consistent characteristics.
Firstly they are all exploiting migration and refugees.
As I have said in the Dáil recently, demonising outsiders has been the road to hell for societies for many centuries, but especially in the last century. The challenges of mixing cultures, integrating new groups and protecting the living conditions of all cannot be wished away. In fact, dismissing them is a sure way of increasing fear of others.
However, the vast majority of the fears of outsiders have no basis in reality. The promotion of these fears is a political tactic by those who want to exploit the fear rather than actually address a legitimate issue.
Time after time statistics show that the fear of immigrants is highest in places where there are the fewest immigrants.
The one consistent point about the issue of immigration and refugees is that there are people who are ready to promote fear as a political tactic.
The question is how do we deal with this?
The first thing is that we must not legitimize their rhetoric and distortions by bringing them into mainstream politics. In every country, when mainstream parties pander to the populists the only thing which happens is that the populists are empowered. If there are unreasonable economic and social pressures from immigration then deal with them – but don’t set off a radicalising spiral which can only end with cruel actions.
Democratic parties can never win and should not compete in a race to the bottom.
If we are to face-down the populist tide we also need to work harder to understand what is going on and to promote a greater public understanding.
For example, terrorism is not a new phenomenon. As we know it was invented in the late nineteenth century and was defined by the French as ‘the propaganda of the act’. Its very purpose is to inspire targeted societies to divide and to discard their values.
One hundred years ago thousands of Irish soldiers were dying in a war directly sparked by an act of terrorism.
Radical Islamic terrorists want Europe to stop being Europe. They want us to become repressive, divided and radicalised. In response we must recommit ourselves to the values of inclusive democracy.
The next trait which the populists share is a rapid anti-Europeanism. To them all problems can be blamed on the European Union. To the extreme right, the EU is a left-wing conspiracy. To the extreme left it is a right-wing conspiracy.
Fundamentally it is about a return to a Europe of competing nations. One where each is free to set its own rules and where each takes a narrow view of self-interest.
A rules-based, strong, multi-national European organisation is not an idea forced on Europeans by the elite. It emerged from the fact that a Europe of competing nation states led to repeated and escalating conflict. For smaller countries and peripheral regions it also led to a spiral of poverty.
The generation which created the European Union understood the need for a new approach – and in many cases, such as ours, they were people who had led national liberation movements.
We have to oppose the creeping and cynical Euroscepticism which is such a powerful tool in the hands of the populists. And the most effective way of doing this is to be far more active in promoting reforms which can improve the Union.
The final consistent trait of the populist movements is that they are either close to increasingly authoritarian regimes or they are active apologists for them. The most serious issue is of course the rising aggression of Vladimir Putin’s government.
It is superficial nonsense to say that pointing this out is a return to a ‘Cold War mentality’. It’s a simple statement of fact that Russia is today seeking to destabilise European politics. The evidence is clear to anyone willing to pay attention and has nothing to do with conspiracy theories.
As for the propaganda dimension, this may be worse than it was before the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Russia Today is a primary platform for anti-EU political parties, especially from the extremes. The ‘fake news’ phenomenon’ directly undermines fact-based democratic debate.
And these parties work assertively to promote a line of ignoring the fact that Russia under Putin has developed a habit of invading and partitioning neighbouring countries if they attempt to assert their independence. Unfortunately, if you look at the record of parliaments throughout Europe, including our own, you find politicians actively promoting Russian propaganda directed against democratic Ukrainian forces.
While Russian aggression is an existential threat for many Ukrainians and millions of Syrians, I don’t believe that it is for us. However, we and the rest of Europe must understand that for its own reasons Russia has decided that encouraging extreme political forces in Europe is in its interests.
We have to understand this and confront it when it arises.
And we have to understand that we have our own breed of populists.
The shrill anti-EU rhetoric is present here. So too, is the conspiracy theory of an elite working to oppress ordinary people. In the European Parliament we have MEPs who vote consistently against resolutions which support the idea that Europe should support democratic forces elsewhere.
We have parties which promote policies such as ignoring private business, nationalising large tracts of industry and the state immediately spending up to €25 billion more. They also insist that only ‘fat cats’ will have to pay and include the world’s only far-left parties which oppose property tax.
Sunday’s result in Austria is worth noting. The vote for the Freedom Party was incredibly high – especially for a well-off country with low unemployment and major growth since it joined the EU.
Alexander Van Der Bellen won because he fought back. He increased his vote through a campaign which refused to cede patriotism to the populists. He used the national flag and the slogan “People who love their homeland don’t divide it”. He was 100% true to a generous and open vision of liberal democracy and he showed that the centre can win.
Europe and the spirit of multilateral obligations is no anti-national – in fact it is the exact opposite. We must always make this point and show how our sovereignty is enhanced not undermined through this work.
In this country we need to insist that the republican spirit of 1798 and 1916 was absolutely based on the idea of an international community not on inward looking nationalism.
We should also point to our republican constitution and what it says of the internationalist values of the generation which built this state.
In 1937 adopting a constitution which explicitly says that Ireland is a state which honours international law, and doing so in a free democratic referendum, was a remarkable action by the Irish people.
At this deeply challenging moment in European and world history I keep going back to the powerful contributions of Eamon de Valera to the League of Nations.
He was a figure known throughout the world as a leader of a movement to create a nation state and he used this status to stand up for important values. He decried the weakness of international cooperation and rules-based organisations.
In 1932 he told the League’s Assembly “if the League is to prosper, or even survive, it must retain the support and confidence of the public.” He called for it to reform its work in light of the needs and views of the public and made a remarkably correct prediction:
“Friends and enemies of the League alike feel that the testing time has come; and they are watching to see if that test will reveal a weakness pre-saging ultimate dissolution or a strength that will be the assurance of a renewal”
How striking is that statement when you replace the words ‘the League’ with ‘the Union’.
Unfortunately de Valera and others were not listened then or in 1936 he spoke against international aggression and asked “Will it be said, when the array of tombs which stretch from end to end of Europe have been multiplied, that there had been plenty of time.., but that the statesmen waited too long and the soldiers took control?”
We are not on the edge of a major conflict, but we are involved in a struggle for the future of close cooperation between European nations and the values which we should share.
Brexit is a dramatic moment bringing to its head a series of challenges. It is not just another crisis, it is the defining crisis of this generation.
To get through it we must show ambition and urgency. We must recognise the scale of the challenge. Protecting peace and prosperity on this island has to be our absolute priority and central to this is recognising the unique needs of both jurisdictions.
But we must also work in the wider context. We must play a part in reforming the European Union and we cannot stand back from playing our role in fighting the destructive populism which threatens the very basis of democratic societies.
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