IT has become part of the choreography of all European Union reviews of stop-start meetings over Brexit that an EU spokesperson underlines that Europe has far bigger fish to fry than the John-Bull-and-camp-followers divorce.
This is certainly true, but it might also be an expression of the brinkmanship central to any negotiation of once-in-a-lifetime importance. This slapping-down of Britain’s most strident nationalists might tickle a gene buried deeply in many Irish psyches and it might reflect reality, but in the grander scheme of things, it may be unwise. It might be unwise,
too, that we almost exclusively consider Brexit, especially a hard Brexit, as a threat to our economy and the capacity a growing economy offers to continue the social development this society still so badly needs.
This perspective suggests that the EU is no more than a business project. As anyone who remembers how insular, how stunted, and deferential this post-colonial, theocratic
society was before we joined the common market, in 1973, will confirm, it is about much, much more. It might offend the Irish version of the old-style English nationalism that is
demanding Brexit to suggest that joining the EU was more important to Ireland than achieving independence, but it is a far easier case to argue than it is to dismiss. Even if one depended on the other, joining Europe was a liberating experience that unshackled potential in a way that had not happened before — and a hard Brexit, and the fragmentation it provokes, may limit the possibility of realising as yet undefined potential, not just for Ireland, but across Europe.
Brexit might seem, on this fringe of Europe, at least, the greatest threat to EU solidarity, but there are many others — and that threat is growing. The Catalan crisis, the Italian vote for greater regional autonomy, Hungary’s rejection of EU policies on immigration, Poland’s rejection of the human rights regarded as sacrosanct in most of Europe, Austria’s election of a hard-right government confirming that right-wing populism is, once again, the new normal in Europe, and the terrible difficulties still facing Greece all represent a real and present danger to the EU’s capacity to be a positive, independent force for good and human development.
The threats are not all internal. Neighbouring Russia is led by an autocrat with barely-concealed imperialist ambitions, who is stretching his muscles on Europe’s eastern borders. To the south, Turkey is led by a man who wants to establish something that looks pretty much like as close to a caliphate as is possible today.
There seem far more challenges than immediate solutions. One was hinted at yesterday, when London’s mayor, Sadiq Khan, suggested that a second Brexit referendum could be on the cards, if the House of Commons rejected the Brexit deal finally agreed between Britain and the 27 remaining EU member states. This may, at this point, smack of clutching at straws, but anyone prepared to try to reverse the disastrous prospect of Brexit and EU fragmentation must be encouraged. After all, Britain, as the Brexiteers never tire of telling us, saved Europe before, so why not again?
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