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Braced for Brexit

A quarrelsome group on the Left, Right and Centre in Britain takes on the pan-European establishment

Back in the 1960s I once stood on the plinth of Nelson’s column in Trafalgar Square, London, between Landseer’s lions, at a Connolly Association rally against anti-Catholic discrimination by the Northern Ireland Stormont regime. Lots of people were waving tricolours.

Forty years later I spoke again in the same spot, at an anti-EU rally organised by the Democracy Movement, one of Britain’s EU-critical bodies, before a sea of little Union Jacks. I smiled to myself. Here were the English discovering the drawbacks of being ruled by foreigners, by people they did not elect, and how EU laws had come to have primacy over those of their own Parliament. They were reacting against losing their democracy and national independence.

British Euroscepticism is largely English nationalism. The political psychology of the governing élites in England and Ireland is very different, not least in their attitudes to the EU. The lack of self-confidence of the Irish élite is shown by their continual anxiety to be seen as ‘good Europeans”’. Hence for example Enda Kenny’s boast that our recent modest economic improvement has “restored our reputation in Europe”. I was at the EU summit in Gothenburg, Sweden, a few days after Irish voters rejected the EU’s Treaty of Nice in 2001. The then Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, was virtually beating his breast there as he explained apologetically to the international media how Irish voters were mistaken, but they would have a chance to change their minds in a second referendum – which of course duly happened.

By contrast England’s governing élite has the psychology of a ruling power. For centuries they backed the second strongest powers of Europe against the strongest, thereby preventing any one power dominating the continent.

When the EU came along after World War II they joined it in the hope of either prising France and Germany apart or else of being co-opted by the Franco-Germans as an equal partner to run ‘Europe’ as a triumvirate.

Both hopes have proved illusory.
Hence English disillusion with the EU. They never shared the Euro-federalist visions of the continentals – something that former Commission President Jacques Delors expressed when he said in 1993: “We’re not here to make a single market – that doesn’t interest me – but to make a political union”.

Prime Minister Cameron wants to stick with the EU. But most of his party and large swathes of British public opinion see the EU as a low-growth economic area mired in recession, with a dysfunctional currency and high unemployment. They want to regain their freedom of action, especially over trade, by leaving. They want to develop trade and investment links with the five continents and the far-flung English-speaking world.

The obvious power imbalance between the two sides would make it extraordinary if the “Leave” people were to prevail over the “Remain-Ins” in the Brexit referendum. On the one side are the British Government, the American Government, the German and 25 other EU Governments, Wall Street, the CBI, the TUC, the British Labour Party, the Brussels Commission, the European Movement, most EU-based High Finance and Transnational Corporations, plus in Ireland all the parties in the Oireachtas. On the other side is a diverse and sometimes quarrelsome range of groups and individuals on the Left, Right and Centre of British affairs, united only by their desire to get back their right to make their own laws, control their own borders and that their Government should decide independently its relations with other countries.

It would be unrealistic though to think that a “Remain-in” vote in June will decisively settle the matter. It is likely merely to delay the inevitable divorce, for the interests of the continentals and the island Britons are just too fundamentally opposed.

And what of the Celtic fringe? Contrary to the received wisdom there could well be a substantial “Leave” vote in those areas too. If the UK as a whole votes to leave, will Scotland want to break away from the rest of the UK in order to remain in the EU, abolish sterling and adopt the euro – that being a requirement for all newly acceding States to the EU? It is very doubtful.

The Irish media have not yet picked up on one big downside for Irish people of the deal David Cameron concluded in Brussels before he launched his referendum. This is the implication of the EU agreement that if the UK votes to remain, new immigrants to the UK are liable to have lower social benefits for some years than those already there. It will be impossible under EU law to differentiate between Irish immigrants on the one hand and non-Irish ones on the other. This means that new Irish immigrants to Britain or the North must face cuts in social bene ts too if the “Remain” side wins. This proposal will not affect Irish people already settled in the UK, but solidarity with their fellow countrymen and women should still cause lots of them to vote Leave.

If a booming British economy, freed of EU regulation, becomes the Singapore of Europe outside the EU, which is perfectly possible, it can only benefit Ireland economically.

Lurid scenarios are being painted of the consequences of Britain leaving the EU while Ireland remains in it. If Brexit happens some uncertainty is inevitable for a year or two, but it will not be the end of the world. Free trade will continue between Ireland and the UK under all realistic “Leave” scenarios, so there will be no customs posts on the North-South border within Ireland, no passport controls or anything like that. Such claims are simply scaremongering, part of “Project Fear”.

What of Northern Ireland in the event of Brexit? Over the past decade the UK has paid over £150 billion to the EU budget – far more than it has got back. It sends £350 million to Brussels every week. This is some ten times the Northern Ireland schools budget. EU subsidies to the North in the form of Regional Grants, Structural Funds, Farm Payments and money for local “Peace Process” activities are, in fact, UK taxpayers’ money being recycled through Brussels. The local EU projects which Northerners think Brussels is funding are really being paid for by UK taxpayers. Voting Leave would in principle make possible increases, not reductions, in all such funding.

The long-established Anglo-Irish common travel area, which goes back to 1923, is a matter exclusively for the two Governments and is not an EU matter. Irish people will continue to move freely between the two islands and across the North-South border inside Ireland as they have always done, whether Brexit happens or not.

Anthony Coughlan

Anthony Coughlan is Associate Professor Emeritus of Social Policy at Trinity College Dublin