Dennis Kennedy Address to the The Irish Association; St Patrick’s Day, Belfast. 2015 .
Current Euro-scepticism in the UK feeds on groundless assertions – that the UK joined only a common market in 1973, that European law is imposed by unelected bureaucrats in Brussels, and that an all-powerful United States of Europe is just around the corner. This paper explodes these myths and argues that an exit from the EU could seriously damage the UK, by undermining the fragile peace in Northern Ireland, and leading to Scotland opting for independence.
I am old enough to remember German bombs falling on this city, to have lived through a catastrophic European war that cost millions of lives, brought near total devastation to cities, towns and villages and offered appalling examples of man’s bestiality to man. WW2 was not the result of one mad man’s deranged dream of a thousand year Reich. It was the latest and most ghastly episode in more than century of recurring conflict between the nation states of Europe.
Yet within five years of the German surrender in 1945, a nucleus of the former combatants was proposing an unprecedented coming together in a union, a community which would involve a sharing of sovereignty with recent deadly enemies. This was going far beyond any alliance, or league; it meant entering into a set of legal commitments, within a framework of supranational institutions, which were intended to defuse that most dangerous of explosive devices, the nation state.
And despite crises, deadlocks, disputes over the decades since then, the enterprise is still afloat, and by many criteria, has flourished. Its growth in terms of member states has been phenomenal, and there are still those in a queue to join. Overall, despite the severe economic crisis from which we are now emerging, it has brought great benefits to its citizens and member states. It has been, and still is, the most original and most exciting experiment in multi-national governance the world has seen.
And yet we are today in a member state the government of which deems it necessary to ask its citizens in a referendum if they would not rather jump ship, and abandon the whole project. In a country where the most rapidly growing political party is one which has as its main, maybe only, policy, to quit the EU. How come that after 40 years of membership, steadily supported by a large majority in successive parliaments, by the three major political parties, by the business community, by the trade unions, the UK’s future within the EU is now in question?
Several historic factors have played a part:
- Within the two main parties who have been in power for this whole period, there is, and always has been, an anti-EU, or anti-European faction, and party leaderships have regularly trimmed their public support for Europe to take account of these troublesome minorities, rather than confront them;
- The UK came late to the European party. The British stayed aloof from the European project at its inception. Invited to join the new ECSC in 1951, they said, thanks, but we’re not interested. They were still not interested when talks began on forming the EEC, and they stayed away from the negotiations that led to the Treaty of Rome in 1957. But within four years they had a complete change of mind, and in 1961 Macmillan’s Government formally applied for membership of the EEC, as did Ireland. But in January 1963. De Gaulle vetoed the British application. He did so again in 1967 after a Labour government had renewed the British application. It was not until after De Gaulle’s departure that, in 1970, negotiations on the UK application began. That little bit of history shows just how committed to EEC membership the UK was— Government, Opposition, business, trades unions.
- Even two very rude and public rebuffs from De Gaulle had not deterred them. But it meant that when the negotiations began in 1970, it was Britain negotiating with an entity that had already existed for almost twenty years—the EEC, or in short, Europe. It was a tough negotiation, lasting two years, and reported in great detail to the British people (particularly via the rapidly growing medium of TV.) and always in the context of confrontation between Britain and Europe. That attitude, and even that language, has characterised British attitudes towards the EU ever since.
- Media coverage of European affairs in the UK has ranged from the benignly patronising to the openly hostile. Whether driven by the personal views of wealthy owners or a desire to pander to gut feelings of the masses the media have helped ensure that the great British public has never really bought into the European project. Lingering memories of the days of Empire and Commonwealth, an insular distrust of foreigners, a clinging to the idea of the special relationship with the USA, are part of the background.
The result is that a great many people in the UK, from the Prime Minister down, have a seriously distorted view of what the EU is, and of the UK’s involvement in it. I want to make three points;
First, it is argued that when the UK joined in 1973 it was joining a common market and nothing more. Nothing could be further from the truth. The objective of ‘an ever closer union among the peoples of Europe’ is there in the opening sentence of the 1957 Treaty of Rome. The common market – this has never been the name of the EEC or the EU – is mentioned in the Treaty as the means of promoting economic development, not as an end in itself. That end was, and is, ‘the ever closer union’, and that was what the UK signed up to in 1972. And not just that. The UK, along with Ireland and Denmark, was a full participant in the Paris summit of October 1972, and subscribed to a great deal more. That conference formally endorsed the target of full economic and monetary union by 1980. and for the transformation of ‘the whole complex of the relations of Member States into a European Union’ by the same date. Since 1973 British Governments, both Tory and Labour have endorsed decisions to enlarge the Community, to reform its procedures, and to expand its areas of competence – most notably in the completion of the single market. The only exceptions have been the optouts from the single currency and the Schengen Agreement on passport-free travel, and they were both UK opt outs; that is the UK endorsed these moves by the rest of the Union, but excluded itself.
Second it is alleged that the EU is profoundly undemocratic, that power lies in the hands of ‘unelected bureaucrats’. Bunkum. I would argue that the EU is much more democratic in its decision making than either the Mother of Parliaments at Westminster, or Dail Eireann. The Commissioners may not be elected, but they are all nominated by elected national governments and appointed by those governments acting together, and confirmed by the elected Members of the European Parliament. The Commission does not impose European law on Member states; it proposes legislation and drafts it, but the process of making law in the EU involves the elected European Parliament, the parliaments of the Member states, the governments of the Member States, the Economic and Social Committee, the Committee of the Regions, various expert and professional groups, and conciliation mechanisms to resolve differences between all these agents. There is a truly remarkable degree of consultation and negotiation, and of opportunity for input into the process from outside the key institutions. In the House of Commons, or the Dail, on the other hand, the Government has a built in majority which allows it to pass whatever legislation it wants, and in the end, to overrule whatever critical views may emanate from the Opposition, or from parliamentary committees or lobbyists.
Third; It is asserted that the EU is designed to be, and is moving towards, a, United States of Europe, a super-state within which the nation states will be submerged. This is far from the case. Some early advocates of European union were indeed self-declared federalists who spoke of a United States of Europe, but it was the nation states, most notably France and Germany, who were the prime movers in promoting European integration, and it is now clear that they were not turkeys planning their own Christmas. Research into member state archives has given a new perspective, neatly captured in the title of a book published in 1992 – The European Rescue of the Nation State, by Professor Alan S. Milward. A crude summary of this argument is that the preservation of the nation-state in the greatly altered world circumstances of the 1950s was as much a priority in the minds of the negotiators of the Treaty of Rome, as was economic integration. They were certainly not envisaging a European super state with themselves as subsidiary players. Hence, I think the choice of the phrase ‘an ever closer union among the peoples of Europe’ in the very first line of the Treaty of Rome. Mr Cameron does not like the ‘ever closer union’. He said this less than a year ago : I know the British people want no part of it, (they) want to avoid deeper integration.” What is wrong with it? It was, and had to be, an undefined goal, for diverse sovereign states moving towards a new entity which would be a combination of customs union, economic and monetary union and political alliance, with the multiple objectives of preventing conflict, maximising economic growth and regional and social equality, while exercising an influence on world affairs commensurate with the combined strengths of its members.
This is not federalism as we know it. There is no precedent for the peaceful creation of a federated state out of independent sovereign states. The USA was born from 16 British colonies, Germany arose from princely states sharing language and culture. The states of the EU are diverse culturally and linguistically, with a long history of conflict with each other, and have powerful senses of the national; the drive for an ever closer union is a unique experiment in dealing with a problem requiring a unique answer.
News that the nation-state has its future secured within the EU may bring comfort to Mr Cameron, but it is not good news for the rest of us. When I insist that the EU and the whole European project is uplifting, exciting, inspiring and thoroughly deserving of support, I cannot claim that it is perfect, or that it has not been plagued with crises, set-backs and problems, or that it is not now facing major difficulties. If you think back over some of these crises, you may wonder how it has survived at all—De Gaulle’s boycott of its main institutions in the 1960s, two great oil crises in the 1970s, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Empire in the 1980s and 90s (good things in themselves, but involving the EU in a radical enlargement just when it needed a period of stability and internal strengthening through institutional reform) and most recently its boldest step, the launching of the Euro in 2002 was followed almost immediately by the worst economic storm to hit the world and Europe for decades.
Despite all that, new members have been absorbed, some measure of reform has been achieved, there has been some recognition by the member states that the rules for running a union of six, nine or twelve members, simply cannot work for a union of 28. So the European ship is still afloat, roughly on course, but at reduced speed and with a small but significant element among the crew thinking of baling out.
Nothing to worry about then? I think there is. When Pope Francis addressed the European Parliament last year he spoke of ‘an institution marked by weariness and aging, as ‘elderly’, ‘aloof’ and regarded by its people with ‘mistrust and even, at times, suspicion’, of an institution that laid down ‘insensitive’ if not ‘downright harmful’ rules for individuals while itself displaying lifestyles characterized by selfishness and opulence’, I immediately assumed he was speaking of the institution of which he is Chief Executive, the Roman Catholic Church— and I think he may well have been, in part, sending a message to his less liberal colleagues in the College of Cardinals, but even if he was, he certainly had the EU in his sights.
He himself may predate the EEC’s birth by 21 years, and his institution may claim to be at least 2,000 years older than the EU, but age is still a problem for us. The generations that had personal experience, or memory of World War 2 and its immediate aftermath, had no doubt why European integration was vital. It was the only way to prevent recurrent war among European nation states, particularly between France and Germany, the only way to reconstruct a devastated continent. (The threat to western Europeans of being swallowed by Stalin’s Soviet empire was also a factor driving them together, but the prime answer to that was NATO and the American umbrella. The primary concern of the EU was to prevent war among European states.)
Now my generation is the last to have personal experience of those imperatives. The Soviet empire has (almost) disappeared, Europeans are, by world standards, well fed and prosperous, Franco-German relations are excellent. There are new threats. But they are not, at least not yet, the sort of imperatives that drove European integration in earlier days.
The worst threat is the internal one of the steady and obvious decline in popular support for the EU, mirrored in referendums, opinion polls, in very poor voter turn outs in European Parliament elections, and in ever declining media coverage of many aspects of European affairs. Hopes were pinned in 1979 on the first direct elections to the EP, and there was a reasonably good turnout of 61%. At the most recent election it was below 43%.
In the 1980s the Commission, the Parliament and the Member states put some faith in an anthem, a flag, sponsorship of sporting events such as a round-Europe yacht race, and in cuff-links, wrist watches, bracelets, badges, balloons and what not, all emblazoned with the Blue Flag with the golden stars—all meant to help citizens identify with the EEC, actually to feel they were citizens of Europe. It did not work, but did prove useful to the opponents of integration who could claim that flags, anthems, titles and trinkets were emblems of statehood, confirming fesrs that a Unite States of Europe was round the corner.
One thing which I think has damaged the European project—the delicate balance between the institutions, particularly between the supra-national Commission and the member state governments has been upset. There has, for decades now, been a steady downgrading of the Commission’s role. The European Commission is not just the civil service of the EU, it is a key institution, the originator of policy, the unique, real European heart of the EU. But it has been weakened by the Member States in various ways. The institutionalising of regular summit meetings of heads of government in the 1980s downgraded the role of the Commission as the originator of policy, and of the Council of Ministers as the regular interlocutor between member state and Commission.
Member states have weakened the Commission in other ways. The post of a Commissioner is a very special one, combining the work of a departmental head with that of an original thinker, while being part of a team tasked with both defending an d progressing the work of the Union. The post requires exceptionally able men and women. Member states have too often made appointments more related to domestic politics than to ability. Member states have blocked planned reforms to reduce the Commission to a manageable size by insisting that each member-state must retain the right to nominate one Commissioner. We even have the ridiculous situation where the European Commission cannot actively campaign in national referendums seeking popular approval of European matters already endorsed by national parliaments.
Prime Ministers and Taoiseachs attend EU summits two or three times a year. Every time they do, Mr Cameron and Mr Kenny hold press briefings to assure their respective nations that they are going with one supreme objective – to defend the national interests of Britain/Ireland. Why so defensive? The point of summits is to plan and push ahead the work of European integration. Do our prime ministers always expect British and or Irish interests will be under attack? This negative approach to EU affairs, always on the look out for infringements of national sovereignty, is not confined to these islands but can be detected in many member states. Is there no awareness that the best interests of any member state are, and must be, also the best interests of the Union?
Let me explain what I mean. Membership of the EU is by far any member state’s greatest single national commitment. It affects multiple aspects of the state’s policy areas. The success of the Union should be top priority to the member state. Our two Prime Ministers should be heading off to summits assuring us that their top priority is to defend and promote the interests of the Union, because in so doing they will be acting in their country’s best interests.
It was not so when Ireland led the charge to maintain an unwieldy Commission of 28 members by insisting on its own right to nominate one. It was certainly not thinking of the interests of the Union when, in 1985 or 6, it insisted upon recognition of Irish as an official language of the Union. A sensible compromise had been agreed in 1973 that, because the Irish language version of the Irish constitution was the ultimate legal authority, it would be advisable to have official Irish language versions of the Treaties and other key documents, but not make it an official language. In 1985, to satisfy its own fantasies, the Irish Government insisted on Irish becoming an official language, inflicting it on a Union that was already severely overburdened with language costs and despite the fact that there was no justification for such a move. An Irish Minister later proudly announced that the move had created 300 jobs for Irish speakers. Dublin has also maintained its beggar my neighbour approach to its low level of Corporation tax.
The British Government has stubbornly resisted reform measures that would have improved the efficiency of the Union, in particular has set its face against extension of EU competence over areas of taxation. Corporation tax does not have to be at the same level in every part of the EU, but any variations should be part of an overall EU programme. A main problem with the EU just now is the weakness of the Commission, not its strength. How many of you can name the President of the Commission? Finally, the most immediate problem for us in both parts of this island is the looming probability of a referendum on the UK’s EU membership.
A UK exit could have profound consequences here for the island and for the so called peace process inside NI. For two decades now we have enjoyed, in many ways, an un-partitioned island. The physical border has disappeared, and for most of us not trading, or smuggling, across it, there is no border at all. The knowledge that we all in this island are European citizens, with guaranteed rights throughout the EU, is an unmeasurable factor in promoting community relations and reducing tension. With Northern Ireland outside the EU and the Republic in, I doubt the current artificial and fragile arrangements could survive.
How would the promise in the Belfast Agreement to ‘recognise the birth right of all the people of Northern Ireland to identify themselves and be accepted as Irish or British, or both, as they may so choose, and accordingly confirm that their right to hold both British and Irish citizenship’ be honoured if the UK, including NI, was outside the EU, while the Republic was inside? How would freedom of movement across the Border be guaranteed when one of the UK’s main motivations for leaving the EU would be to control migration? There would have to be a physical border, with passport checks and queuing lorries. Restrictions on travel, on movement between the Republic and GB, or even possibly between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK could be introduced.
How would the nationalist community inside NI respond to such a situation? Would those now seemingly comfortable enough within the UK remain so? How would the more nationalistic respond to the prospect of Irish unity becoming even more distant, and to the reimposition of a visible controlled border between North and South?
I wrote an article in the Irish Times some months ago suggesting that if the UK voted to leave the EU, Northern Unionists should consider a deal with Dublin, putting on their side of the table an offer to join a federal Ireland, inside the EU, with all sorts of guarantees attached, and a radically reformed Ireland with a new constitution, a new flag, a new anthem, no nonsense about Irish being the first official language, and new names for the main railway stations.
I wrote the article to try to alert people North and South, unionist and nationalist, to the profound implications of a UK vote to leave the EU, and in particular to the threat that would pose to any hope of stability in Northern Ireland. I wrote it also in the probably forlorn hope that it might encourage the southern state and people to face up to what they might have to bring to the table in such an event, and in the equally forlorn hope that unionists might contemplate just how peripheral they, as an embarrassing and unwanted minority, have become to the rest of the UK, and whether or not there might be an alternative path?
But enough dire predictions and gloomy thoughts. I began by saying how exciting and inspiring the drive to European integration is, and I finish by saying I still think so despite the difficulties it now faces. Edmund Burke once described Europe as a commonwealth, virtually one great state sharing religion, laws and manners. ‘From this resemblance in the whole form and fashion of life, no citizen of Europe could be altogether an exile in any part of it. When a man travelled or resided (away) from his own country, he never felt himself quite abroad.’ I think of that quotation every time I travel to another EU country. I counted up the other day that I have been in 24 of the 28, and I must say that, as a citizen of the EU, I never feel ‘quite abroad’. You may have noticed that Burke uses the past tense in that quotation. He was writing in 1795, and contemplating the chaos and destruction that was then spreading across Europe, while remembering the Europe he had known before the cataclysm that was the French Revolution. Historians tend to regard the French Revolution as the spawning ground of the modern nation state; European integration will not abolish the nation state, but I believe it is our best hope of defusing that most dangerous explosive device.