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We're the Brits and We Don't Care

“Can the Great British public be made to care passionately about the EU referendum?” asks The Spectator above a recent column by Hugo Rifkind. Not really, Rifkind answers, and he seems rather happy about this.

Here and now ... I do not see the looming spark which will ignite the dry tinder of the Great British public into giving a toss. Which I think is something that people who are passionate about this argument, on either side, do not quite see. They think it will be fiery. Apocalyptic. Four Horsemen, Eurogog and Euromagog, and a beast crawling out of the sea with a € or a £ on its forehead, depending. They see the fight coming for which they have been preparing almost for ever, and they think everybody else will care.

Curiously another article offering pretty much the same sentiment – or perhaps lack of sentiment ‑ on Europe appeared in the British press at almost exactly the same time. In a Financial Times column (republished in The Irish Times on October 13th), Janan Ganesh argues that the jibe “perfidious Albion”, often applied by other nations (and in particular France) to the British should really be accepted as a compliment.

Nothing has brought out Britain’s talent for half-measures like the European project. We were absent at the creation, then we joined, then we voted on whether to leave, then we conceived the single market, then we dodged the single currency, then we pushed the EU’s borders to the east and complained about the consequences, and now we are trying to revise the terms of our membership before voting again on whether to leave.

“This,” writes Ganesh, “is perfidy, and it works.” If Britain votes to leave, he continues, it will not really leave since it will be able to hammer together some kind of association deal. And if it votes to stay it will remain semi-detached, “never becom[ing] a truly European nation” (you can say that again) and simply defending its interests, which  in Ganesh’s view seem to be identical to those of the City of London. For if the euro zone integrates into something resembling a state for the sake of its own survival, “Britain would have but one purpose  ... to prevent laws applicable to all members being decided by the currency bloc, especially those affecting our financial services sector”.

Reading between the lines, one suspects that Ganesh would on balance prefer Britain to stay in than to go, but he has a clear and very unromantic notion of what staying in is likely to involve: “a vote to stay is a vote for decades of loveless, defensive diplomacy on Europe’s sidelines”.

So, it seems, for some of Britain’s leading commentators (in the Conservative-leaning press at least) it doesn’t really matter too much one way or the other. While Ganesh focuses on the economic, financial and administrative arrangements that might best suit Britain, Rifkind unambiguously echoes his view that the country will never become – can never become – “a truly European nation” since it has in fact no “vision” or feeling for Europe in its gut.

We are not that sort of European. Some of us are, obviously, and you’ll perhaps find a handful of Europhile jet-setting city types whose pockets jingle with euros and Swiss francs, and who cannot quite get their heads around the fact that most people’s pockets don’t. Such an identity, even so, does not map neatly on to EU membership, as evidenced by Lord Lawson cheerleading the [Eurosceptic] Conservatives for Britain group on the BBC’s Today programme the other week from his house in France. Whether we stay or go, we are who we are.

So, they are who they are and they’ll be staying that way. Good for them, but it is surely not indecent to ask where this might leave the rest of us – if indeed we have any say in the matter. Janan Ganesh’s dry summary of Britain’s involvement with the European project (fourth paragraph above) is accurate enough. But the same set of “facts”, which to him represent an on the whole rather satisfactory state of affairs, to others can represent a wound or a betrayal. Michel Rocard, a grand old man of the French left, former prime minister, Socialist Party general secretary and MEP, wrote an article in Le Monde last year reminding the English (whom we should now perhaps be prepared to distinguish politically from other Britons like the Scots and possibly the Welsh) that while Churchill was enthusiastic after the Second World War about European union, even a “United States of Europe”, he didn’t see Britain being a member of it. “What part of this did you not understand?” Rocard asked.

But you wanted to do business, and that is all you thought of. Once the president of the republic [de Gaulle] was gone, in you came. Never again afterwards – not once – did you allow the slightest step forward towards a little more integration, a little more space where decisions could really be taken communally. The Community is engaged in trading, which suits you, because it calls itself economic, but as regards the heart of the economy, taxation, company law, the representation of social forces, you demand, indeed insist, that decisions can only be taken on a basis of unanimity. What you wanted was paralysis. Lots of neighbours remark on our initial successes and are envious. They’d like to come in. You support every enlargement – us too it must be said; we hadn’t figured out yet what you were up to: all of this diluted the Community. You would never allow the least deepening. Europe remains hampered and poorly directed, an economic giant and a political dwarf.

It seems to be the consensus in Ireland that a Brexit would be very bad economically for Ireland, though some commentators, like Patrick Smyth in The Irish Times, have suggested that just as important is the fact that Britain has been, is and will continue to be, bad for Europe and that Ireland could in time adjust to any temporary economic or trading damage caused by a British departure.

Of course not everyone here believes that Britain is bad for Europe or that British positions on key questions are to be deprecated. Only this month our European Affairs minister, Dara Murphy, said that it was important that Britain produce written proposals on the “reforms” it wanted, adding that Ireland would be “particularly supportive of British requests in the sphere of competitiveness and economic governance”. In the decade or so after we joined the EEC, Ireland most frequently found itself primarily aligned with France rather than Britain on most questions. Whatever else Haughey and FitzGerald may have disagreed on, they seemed to share this orientation. Part of it of course came from a desire to boost Irish farm incomes through the Common Agricultural Policy, of which France was a strong supporter. But it was also rooted in a strategic vision which saw European involvement as a mechanism through which Ireland might emerge from the shadow of a dominant single relationship ‑ an often difficult and embittering one ‑ with the neighbouring island into a broader engagement with the several individual nations of Europe and with their economic and political common expression in “the institutions” in Brussels and Strasbourg.

Certainly there was a sense of a drift away from this strategy during the period of dominance of the Ahern/McCreevy/Harney axis, as Ireland increasingly aligned itself with our neighbour’s neoliberal and “money first” perspectives, without there having been any real debate on the subject here. I think I have a shrewd idea what David Cameron and the British Tories want in the sphere of competitiveness (hands off, low wages and as little worker or consumer protection as possible) or European economic governance (piss off, we can do that ourselves). I’m not sure though if that is what is best for Europe or for Ireland, and I’m not sure why Dara Murphy seems to think it is.

20/10/2015