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UK the fifth pillar of the EU temple

Bryan MacDonald is a journalist, writer, broadcaster and teacher. He wrote for Irish Independent and Daily Mail. He has also frequently appeared on RTE and Newstalk in Ireland as well as RT.

Published time: August 07, 2014 13:33
Reuters / Russell Boyce

The European Union's aversion to democracy and reckless expansion is threatening its future and the UK’s unstable status within it is in danger of bringing the whole project crashing down.

I used to be a European. Of course, I am still technically a European citizen by virtue of carrying an Irish passport, but what I mean goes deeper than that. I used to feel European in my heart, so much so that my enthusiasm for the political and social project made me perceive myself as European first and Irish second. That is no longer the case and hasn't been for almost a decade.

All through the 1990s, my teenage years, I was fascinated by the opportunities the EU presented. You could work in Spain for a few months, study in France for half a year or hang around in Germany to your heart’s content – if your wallet was big enough.

It cut both ways, of course. In my small Irish town, we would meet Swedish and French students in summer, over to study English, and temporary romantic attachments were formed and promises to visit Gothenburg or Lyon one day were made. I am sure the girls are not unduly concerned, but I never made it to either place.

A European future seemed the only viable vision and most of my peers presumed that the future would involve a federal EU of which Ireland would play a proud part. There was much talk of a new currency in the coming years, initially called the ECU, then later the Euro – it seemed amazing to imagine going all the way to Greece and not having to change banknotes. Normal people did not think of the potential economic ramifications. They do now as the flawed Euro helps to crush the economy and consign much of a generation of youth to the heartbreaking waste of talent that is long-term unemployment.

Pinpointing the exact moment of my conversion from Euro-acolyte to Euro-dissenter is easy. In 2001, the Nice Treaty was signed, ostensibly to allow for the eastward expansion to 25 states from the existing 15. What happened next was an exercise in the debasement of democracy.

Many in Ireland had concerns that a mass influx of migrant workers from the much-poorer accession states would follow their accession, but our politicians assured us that this was fantasy.

“It is a deliberate misrepresentation to suggest that tens of thousands will suddenly descend en masse on Ireland… I estimate that fewer than 2,000 will choose our distant shores each year,” said Proinsias De Rossa, a former Dublin minister who was then an MEP in Brussels.

AFP Photo / Daniel Mihailescu

“About 7,000 (migrants from the new prospective members)… received work permits last year. There is no basis whatever for expecting a huge upsurge in these numbers,” reassured Brian Cowen, who would later become Taoiseach (Prime-Minister).

From 2003-2008, 884,561 social insurance numbers were registered to foreign nationals in Ireland and 464,012 of those were still active by the end of 2008, meaning that almost all of that total were long-term immigrants. The vast majority of these newcomers were from the new EU states who joined in 2003. That year, the population of Ireland was 3.98 million but by 2008, in just five years, it had risen to 4.42 million. This is a 9 percent rise in half a decade. In relative terms, it is the equivalent of the USA gaining 28.5 million people in that short space of time.

However, if the Irish people were angry, it was not at the newcomers. Thankfully, anti-foreigner sentiment remains extremely low in Ireland and we have been lucky enough to avoid most of the ugly far right politics, which has infested the continent in recent years. The outrage in Ireland is directed solely at our political class who had hoodwinked us to serve the needs of their masters in Brussels.

Passing the Nice Treaty was no cakewalk. While the other 14 (then) EU members ratified it via their parliaments, our constitution meant that it had to go to referendum. To the shock of the Irish authorities and their counterparts in Brussels, almost 54 percent voted ‘NO’ in June of 2001.

Then the guilt trip began, numerous European heavyweights began turning up in Dublin and urging a re-run. Even the late Vaclav Havel paid a visit and emphasized that we risked derailing the accession of his Czech Republic and other aspirant ex-communist states. The pressure worked and in October 2002, the Irish people relented and passed the constitutional amendment by about 60-40.

We got a second taste of EU democracy in 2008 when the Lisbon treaty was rejected and Brussels clubbed together and demanded another poll be held. It was eventually approved in October 2009. One month later, a French soccer player, Thierry Henry, admitted to illegally handling the ball to set up a goal which denied us progress to the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. Unfortunately, European soccer was not like European politics and our national team did not get a chance to try again in a replay.

Taste of EU democracy

We in Ireland had gotten a sour taste of the EU’s attitude to democracy and dissent and a country that had previously been hugely supportive of the European project is now rather less enthusiastic. No mainstream political party has openly called for withdrawal from the union yet, but Sinn Fein, who are perceived to be Euro-skeptic, currently sit on around 25 percent in opinion polls - in the 2011 general election they achieved just under ten percent.

A nominally nationalist left-wing party, in the mold of South Africa’s ANC, Sinn Fein’s key policy objective is to achieve the separation of Northern Ireland from the United Kingdom and its unification with the Irish Republic. Their former military wing, the Provisional IRA, fought for 28 years against the British state until 1997, when they sensibly decided to pursue a democratic route to their goal.

They say politics can make strange bedfellows and rightwing UK euro-skeptic politicians and their former hated enemies in the Irish Republican movement are about as odd as it gets. Given that, in 1984, the IRA tried to kill Margaret Thatcher and her cabinet in the Brighton hotel bombing, Sinn Fein and her former UK Conservative Party should be polar opposites, but in their attitudes to Brussels they are strikingly similar.

Both parties call for massive reform of EU institutions and more sovereignty for individual member states. Ironically, it is now the Tories who might just give Sinn Fein want they want.

David Cameron has given an open assurance that if his party is returned to government in the next UK election – due next year – that he will hold an ‘in or out’ referendum in 2017, following a period of renegotiation on his country’s position in the EU. If the prime minister gets what he wants from Brussels, he will campaign for a ‘Yes’ vote and, if not, it is assumed he will advocate that the UK ends its 41-year membership of the European project. There is, of course, the very real possibility that even if Mr Cameron achieves his desired reforms that the British people may still decide to opt-out.

I am not convinced that the EU will cave in to UK demands for a couple of reasons. Firstly, there is the danger of setting a precedent which would allow any of the now 28 members to threaten to derail the juggernaut at any time unless their concerns are dealt with. In a turbulent continent, this could obviously be used for electoral gain in various states and constant negotiation would render practically all Brussels’ institutions limp.

Reuters / Neil Hall

The second potential hurdle is that a number of influential eurocrats and national leaders would be quite happy to see London leave. British resistance curtails their dreams of ‘ever closer union’ and a prospective future federal Europe. A prevailing feeling is that a core group, centered around Germany, would be delighted to shed troublesome members and race full steam ahead into a sort of United States of Europe, headed by Berlin.

Some, trapped in the eurozone would see this as an opportunity to finally fix the broken currency by surrendering their sovereignty to the German economic umbrella - in the hope that such a measure would halt the currency union's crisis which has already raged for five years now.

Many in London would not be perturbed by that outcome and it is known that the city’s Mayor, Boris Johnson, believes that Mr Cameron’s strategy will not guarantee success and that the UK may have to consider pulling out – the so-called ‘Brexit’ strategy. This week, his economic adviser, Gerard Lyons, concluded in a report that an exit from the EU would be better for Britain than staying in an unreformed union.

The nightmare

At 17-years-old and just out of high school, I would have predicted that by now I would be happily living in a federal Europe with democracy at its heart. At 34, I realize that Brussels has no interest in such trivial concerns like free will and is even less worried about the youth of the continent that they have flung on the scrapheap to preserve their dementedly unworkable Euro currency.

On the streets of Athens, Madrid and, to a lesser extent, Dublin, the EU dream has turned into a vivid nightmare from which escape seems impossible as austerity measures rain down on the populace. Policies that would not be needed if we could just devalue our currencies to compete with German fiscal might. Instead, the periphery is attempting slow internal devaluations that produce misery on an industrial scale.

Meanwhile, as current member states flounder, mired in unsustainable debt and trapped in a Euro that is strangling most of them - but notably, not Germany, which is doing fine - the eurocrats are more keen on expanding their borders than fixing the existing mess within them.

This year, Brussels has ignited a civil war in Ukraine, at the cost of over a thousand lives (and counting), by offering a path to future membership to that divided country - a proposal that is as realistic as Angela Merkel walking on the Moon as things stand.

Furthermore, they have now followed the US lead and implemented sanctions on Russia which are entirely NATO driven. Ireland is not a member of NATO and those sanctions are not popular in our country, but we have to tag along to keep Brussels happy. Meanwhile, Switzerland, out of the EU's control but still in EFTA, must surely be laughing heartily at our weakness. Ireland, long a friend of Palestine, has also been forced to toe the EU line on Gaza – despite it being toxic to the vast majority of voters.

Dangling the carrot of EU membership to an impoverished nation of 46 million while the status of the third biggest economy in the club is insecure would be reckless at best, but is actually just downright stupid.

In the eponymous movie, Forrest Gump famously said that "stupid is as stupid does" - Brussels does as Brussels does and what it has done is ruin the European dream in a disastrous Eastern over-reach.

I used to be a European in my heart, I would now like to become a former EU citizen. I hope the UK leaves the EU in 2017 and that Ireland follows our largest trade partner and closest neighbor out the door.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.