EU needs to return to founding principles if it is to survive

“The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new”

Samuel Beckett’s disdainful line from the play Murphy hardly rings true today and if the sun does not shine as it should on a Saturday morning in June then the cricket-playing Irishman who lived in Paris and wrote in French, could be wrong on two out of three fronts. We are, like it or not, trying to find our feet in an entirely new, less comfortable and far more uncertain world this morning.

Britain’s narrow decision — 51.8% against 48.2% — to quit the European Union after more than four decades, and only then after a considerable struggle to win acceptance, is a seismic, disappointing, challenging, dangerous and unexpected rejection of the European project. It is, tragically, all of those things on myriad levels. German chancellor Angela Merkel was succinct: “There is no point beating about the bush. Today represents a break in Europe’s history, a break in the process of European integration.”

The vote and managing its consequences will dominate Ireland’s political agenda for the foreseeable future. We will have to build a new, unanticipated structure, one that recognises a changed reality imposed on us rather than imagine an ideal, potentially uplifting one. Managing and responding to Brexit will drain the energy and resources from many pressing projects but the vote makes that unavoidable.

The game-changing vote is another slap in the face, yet another wake-up call for asleep-at-the-wheel establishment politics and the stagnating political processes that have failed so many ordinary, hard-working honest people in so many countries around the world. It may be an over-simplification to say that, in the end, the vote was a battle between the “haves” — Remain — and the “have nots” — Leave — but not by much. When the flag waving and cheering celebrating Britain’s “independence day” fade away the realisation that the justifiable anger felt by those whose lives no longer reflect a prosperous, supportive and secure Europe can manifest itself in profound political change should be the take-home lesson. This applies at European and national levels — and it is a lesson that history, especially recent European history, recalls in the most dramatic and horrifying ways.

This vote will encourage extremists, unhinged populists and demagogues all around the world. It may be the first major alarm directed at the let-them-eat-cake European Union and its Praetorian guard, pointing out that it has abandoned far too many of its founding ambitions and reached far beyond its legitimacy. Tragically, it may be the last warning too because there can hardly be a government in the remaining 27 member states that could dare ask its citizens to vote on EU membership with any degree of confidence. An eviscerated Greece, shamefully humiliated by its ECB overlords, would enthusiastically jump ship — and who could blame them? Ireland’s “Leave” campaigners, despite all of the great advances enjoyed by this society because of EU support or intervention, need only point to the utterly immoral debt imposed on this tiny country by a haughty ECB to protect German, Dutch and French interests to prevail. As that crisis played out, and no matter how our Government is forced to try to spin it, the rights of EU citizens were the very least of the ECB’s concerns. That was, and remains, an utterly shameful episode where an EU institution flayed European citizens to protect reckless gamblers posing as bankers.

Ms Merkel was not the only one to react succinctly. EU leaders have said they expect Britain to act to quit the union “as soon as possible, however painful that process may be” and that there will be “no renegotiation”. The presidents of the European council, commission and parliament — Donald Tusk, Jean-Claude Juncker and Martin Schulz — and Mark Rutte, the prime minister of the Netherlands, said any delay to Britain’s exit would “unnecessarily prolong uncertainty”. “This is an unprecedented situation, but we are united in our response,” they said. So much for the soft landing promised by the “Leave” camp. If this is the tone adopted for the divorce negotiations they will hardly be amicable but what alternative do those who still believe in the European project have? They cannot make it easy for Britain and encourage other secessionists without risking the solidarity, or what remains of it, the union depends on.

But what of Britain today? Could England, by asserting its independence, have done more than any other force in modern history to bring the United Kingdom to an end? A federation that survived two world wars, many, many colonial wars, a collapse of empire, a civil war and a Scottish independence vote now seems, like a British MEP, obsolete. Scotland wants another independence referendum and how that can be denied is hard to imagine. Sinn Féin has already called for a vote on Irish unity. We may have to cope with a new economic and trading landscape but if a hard border is reimposed on this island, and in the context of the world’s immigration crisis it is hard to imagine how it cannot be, that might re-energise the evil forces who terrorised all communities on this island for decades. Like it or not that would sour a relationship that has deepened and prospered since the Good Friday peace agreement. A new hard border would be the best fillip for terrorists since Margaret Thatcher’s bellicose and blinkered intransigence. This consequence, albeit unintended, would cast a shadow over what is an essential relationship between neighbours who wish to remain loyal friends.

The coming weeks and months will be alive with speculation but only time can tell how this plays out. Nevertheless one thing is certain unless the EU returns to founding principles and does a lot more to protect all Europeans from the dangerous excesses of capitalism — like the TTIP, indifference to climate change and transnational corporations who pay little or no taxes anywhere — then the game is really up for what should be, and continue to be, one of the great, positive forces in our in lives. National politicians face this challenge too and the fact that David Cameron’s government did not recognise it or engage with it more effectively means our world is about to change utterly.

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