|Posted by Webmaster on May 30, 2016 at 3:50 PM|
HOW DID WE GET HERE ?
Where is here? Here is on the brink of abruptly changing the core policy of how the UK has been governed for the past four decades.
In a few weeks time, the UK could be telling the EU – we want out. Never mind that being in the European Union has been the primary objective of every UK government since 1961 when Harold Macmillan first applied; never mind that since joining in 1973 the UK has signed treaty after treaty pledging its support for integration, for ever closer union.
Never mind all that, urge the Exiteers, we want out.
Here in Northern Ireland, while the polls shows a clear majority mindful of the real benefits for NI of being inside, not outside the EU, and in favour of staying, the two top people in authority – the First Minister and the Secretary of State - are actively campaigning to take the UK and NI out of the EU? If they succeed, will we see the re-introduction of a visible, physical border across the island?
The short answer as to why the referendum is happening is because David Cameron saw it as a means of putting manners on the eurosceptics in the Convservative Party, and seeing off the electoral threat from UKIP. Harold Wilson did exactly the same thing in 1975 to side line Tony Benn, Peter Shore and other eurosceptic malcontents among the Labour leadership.
Hold on, the Exiteers say, there is far more to it than that; the EU of today is nothing like the EEC we joined in 1973. We joined a free trade area, a common market, not an over-regulated, integrated Europe.
Not so; by late 1972 the EEC was formally committed to full economic and monetary union, and had set 1980 as the deadline for achieving it. Among the first acts of the UK as a member state was to endorse that target. It also backed the goal of the EEC transforming itself into a European Union.
Even so, say the Exiteers, that was then and now is now, and the EU has changed out of all recognition.
Not so: The EU has changed dramatically in terms of size, from the nine member states to the 28 today, but progress on integration has been slower than planned, and comparatively little has been achieved beyond what was already envisioned in 1973. And remember, all the steps forward since have been agreed in treaties endorsed by the United Kingdom.
To which the Exiteers reply:- ‘we have had enough of being dictated to by unelected bureaucrats in Brussels, and being trapped in a profoundly undemocratic organisation which is, anyway, a failure. We want to reclaim our sovereignty, to recover control of our frontiers, and start afresh. Rule Britannia.’
Wrong again: the ‘unelected bureaucrats in Brussels’ are the permanent civil service of the Commission. They have no power to dictate to anyone; they do draft EU laws, but have no part in their adoption or rejection. The 28 Commissioners who head the Commission are not bureaucrats, but political appointees, nominated by member state governments and appointed – for a five year term - by the member states acting together, and confirmed by the European Parliament.
The Commissioners have a role in proposing new legislation, and share with the Council and the Members of the European Parliament the power to legislate. In practice real power lies with the politicians – the national politicians that sit in the what used to be called the Council of Ministers (now renamed the Council of the European Union), and the directly elected members of the Parliament. It could be argued that the EU, where widespread consultation with a whole range of bodies is built into the admittedly complex legislating process, is a shade more democratic than either Westminster or the Dail, where the Government, once elected, can carry almost anything with its guaranteed majority in parliament.
Since the 1980s the powers and influence of the European Commission have diminished as the member state governments have asserted their control, particularly through the institutionalisation of the European Council, made up of heads of all the member state governments..
Is the EU falling apart?
Can a Union that has grown from six member states to 28, with others anxious to join, be dismissed as a failure? Even the euro, much maligned in the UK, is elsewhere deemed a success; it has been working for 17 years, is the currency of 19 EU countries. On the basis of its share of global foreign exchange reserves, and the number of countries pegging their currency to it, it can claim to be the second most important currency in the world.
The Exiteers who denounce the EU as a failure, at the same time expect us to believe their warnings that we are in danger of being forced into a European super-state by this same organisation which they claim is on the verge of collapse. There is no plan for a grand United States of Europe. The governments of Europe who have driven forward the integration movement have seen in it a means of protecting and preserving – both economically and politically - the nation states, not eliminating them.
But these arguments mean nothing to most Exiteers. Euroscepticism, for most, is a gut feeling, in part a hangover from the days of empire when half the world was British red. In part it comes from being an island race, in part from an exaggerated sense of national pride, arising from the experiences of the Second World War. For many it is simply distrust of something which is different, complicated and which they do not understand. The fact that Britain was a late comer, by 16 years, to the European integration party did not help.
Sections of the media were and have remained openly hostile to EU membership. Others, particularly the BBC, took, and still take, a bemused and rather patronising approach to these foreigners with their rather complicated institutions, and odd ways.
At its core Euroscepticism is nationalism, that malign contagion that has caused war and conflict in Europe, and which, post 1945, prompted the drive for integration as the only way to contain it.
The current campaign has distinct overtones of nationalism. Gove, Lawson, Boris, have sounded like jingoistic Empire loyalists, demanding the reclamation of sovereignty and giving the impression that if only the UK could escape from the chains of Europe, it would again conquer the world, economically if not militarily.
What about Northern Ireland? There has long been a general consensus that NI has done reasonably well in terms of grant aid, and that being in the EC has helped economic recovery, through, for example, inward investment and the growth of tourism. Farmers have done well, and even though very hard hit at the moment, the weight of farm opinion would seem to be that current problems are more likely to be solved inside the EU, not outside.
The recent poll in the Belfast Telegraph showed strong public support for remaining in. How come then, that the biggest party, the DUP, which has put economic recovery at the top of its agenda, and has not been shy of stressing the benefits of NI’s position within the EU to potential foreign investors… how come it is now campaigning for Brexit?
Nationalism again may be the answer. The DUP began under Ian Paisley and amid a forest of Union Jacks, as an extreme nationalist party, British nationalist. Back in 1973 Paisley denounced the EEC as a Catholic conspiracy to overthrow the Glorious Revolution of 1688, undo the British reformation, and unite Ireland under Dublin and Rome. I doubt if the current First Minister shares those views, but euroscepticism remains in the party’s genes.
I can’t even guess at how the Secretary of State reconciles her responsibility to promote NI’s interest at Cabinet level, with her strong support for Brexit.
Ms Villiers has repeatedly assured us that Brexit will not mean the re-imposition of a physical, visible border in Ireland. She has not told us how we will manage that. Norway and Switzerland have close ties to the EU and long experience of sharing borders with EU states. But both still find it necessary to maintain custom posts and border checks with EU neighnours.
Ms Villiers’ fellow Exiteer former Chancellor of the Exchequer Nigel Lawson has said he thinks border controls will be necessary. A cross-party committee of the House of Commons has concluded that imposing controls at the Border would cause considerable disruption, and suggested as an alternative strengthening the borders between the island of Ireland and the British mainland. But even that outlandish idea, aimed mainly at controlling the flow of emigrants into the UK, would not solve the real problems that would arise with Brexit.
How, for instance, could cross-border shopping subject to the tight limits imposed for bringing goods in from outside the EU be regulated without checks at the border? What about the movement of farm animals back and forth? Could the heavy goods traffic by road continue uninterrupted by border checks? What about the increasing flow of overseas tourists coming to Northern Ireland via the Republic? At the very least it would seem a whole plethora of new arrangements would have to be worked out, not by cosy chats between London and Dublin, but between the UK and the EU, for the border would be an EU one, rather than an Irish one.
For more than two decades the island of Ireland, in a very real sense, has been undivided. The border disappeared in 1993 when the Single European Market made custom checks and custom posts redundant. We take it for granted that we travel freely all over the island with no compulsory stops, queues or formalities. Commercial traffic flows across what was the border with similar freedom. But little more than two decades ago you could see a queue of lorries a mile long awaiting clearance at Killeen
For the border to be reinstated in any form would be an enormous shock. Its practical impact on commerce, tourism, and many forms of cross-border activity can only be guessed at, but would certainly be negative. The damage to public morale of such a backward step could be enormous.
It would be wrong to claim that the EU played a major role in bringing peace, of a sort, to Northern Ireland, but it has helped in rebuilding both community relations and the economy through financial aid and, more importantly, by providing a context in which antagonistic Irish and British nationalisms could see themselves as part of one greater and shared identity – the European one.
The shock of a re-erected physical border could be even more damaging symbolically than the as yet unmeasured impact on trade, tourism, and numerous other areas of growing North-south cooperation. It would say, very loudly, we are going backwards, not forward.