Opinions & Ideas

Author: John Bruton Page 2 of 63

WHAT DOES THE UK HOPE TO GAIN BY BREXIT?

The recent  interview of Lord David Frost with Anand Menon of the Think Tank “UK in a Changing Europe” gives some insight into what the current UK Government hope to achieve through Brexit. It is worth watching  on the think tank’s website.

In the interview, Lord Frost explains that, until Boris Johnson came to office, the EU side had felt that the UK had no alternative to a negotiated agreement and that the UK was thus in a weak negotiating position.

His role was to explain, in a speech he gave in Brussels in February 2020 with Boris Johnsons full approval, that the UK was willing to accept a “No Deal” outcome, and on that basis it did have  an alternative to a negotiated agreement with the EU.

 The UK, he said, was willing to bear the costs involved in leaving the EU Customs Union and Single market. But he admitted he did not yet know exactly what these losses and gains would be.

 For him, Brexit seems to be an act of faith.

He was pressed to give more information on the potential benefits of Brexit.

He hoped that, as a result of it, the UK might become a “magnet for investment”, and achieve higher productivity.

Pressed on how this might happen, he said the UK, while in the EU, had got used to having rules set for it by others, and did not think for itself, even in areas where the EU actually imposed no legal restraint on the UK doing things its own way . This argument may have some validity.

 In this sense, Brexit is an internal UK psychological project, designed to free up the way the UK thinks about itself , and about what it can do. If this is so, it suggests that UK political leadership is unable to change UK , without the aid of a self generated external shock, like Brexit. 

Brexit, although decided, continues radically to divide UK public opinion. A deeply divided society is not the best environment for the sort of psychological transformation the Brexiteers like Lord Frost have in mind.

Lord Frost said that, post Brexit, UK citizens would be 

“living in a country where every policy can be changed after an election”.

 This freedom is obviously important to him. But it is hardly consistent with wanting the UK to become a “magnet for investment”. In my experience in Ireland, the best way to attract investment is to have some key policies that attract investors, that do not change after every election (eg the corporate tax rate, or freedom of capital movements).  

As to concrete things that Brexit would enable the UK to do, Lord Frost offered the examples of

  • reform of its agricultural policy
  • changes on state aids to industry
  • changes in immigration policy
  • Freeports.

The direction of UK policy on agriculture is similar to that the EU is taking anyway.

 Freeports seem to divert trade from one place to another, rather than increase it.

It would appear that UK immigration policy is encouraging people from further away to come to the UK to replace immigrants from neighbouring EU countries, who are less welcome now. 

In fact it is hard to reconcile the UK government plans to combat climate change, with its post Brexit policies.

Replacing trade with nearby countries, like Ireland and France, with trade with distant countries, like Australia and New Zealand , is bound to increase the UK’s direct and indirect contribution to greenhouse gas emissions, through extra CO2 emissions from shipping and refrigeration.

Lord Frost is an able man, who presented his case in a friendly way, but I fear neither he, nor his Prime Minister, have even begun to join up their thinking on trade and climate change.

On the Ireland Protocol, Lord Frost seemed to blame the EU for an Agreement his Government had negotiated and his Parliament had approved. He even spoke about what he called EU “intervention in Northern Ireland”, as if this was not something his government had signed up to.  This sort of blame shifting is not to the credit of the UK, as a sovereign country. 

HUGE DIFFERENCES IN PRICES INSIDE THE EU SINGLE MARKET

The statistical service of the EU (Eurostat) has just published a comparison of consumer prices in all 27 countries of the EU. The survey was done last year.

 The most expensive country in the EU is Denmark, where prices are 41% above the average for the EU as a whole. 

The least expensive is Romania where prices are 45% below the EU average. 

This is a very wide gap between countries in an EU where is there is free movement of goods, people and capital, and a Single Market designed to promote competition, and cross border shopping(including via the internet)

The country with a price level that is nearest to the EU overall average is Italy. Spain’s prices are just 4% below the EU average, Portugal 11% and Greece 14% below.

 Apart from the weather, this explains why these countries are attractive locations for holidaymakers and retired people.

Prices are also much below the EU average in Bulgaria and Poland.

After Denmark, the next most expensive EU countries are Ireland and Luxembourg, where prices are 36%  above the average. Next is Sweden (+30%), and Finland (+26%). 

German price levels are only 8% above the EU average, which means that the cost of living there is much below the Scandinavian countries and Ireland. 

Of course, price levels do not tell the whole story. If wages are higher, the higher prices are more affordable. Indeed higher prices may reflect the cost of higher wages. 

WHY IS THE ROW ABOUT THE PROTOCOL SO HARD TO RESOLVE?

Leaders all over the European Union may be scratching their heads wondering about the motives for Boris Johnson’s behaviour over a Protocol on Ireland, that he was happy with only six months ago.

He is now saying he will 

“do whatever it takes to protect the territorial integrity of the UK”

 from the Protocol. This is notwithstanding the fact that, in Article 1 of the Protocol, which he agreed in 2019, Boris Johnson himself accepted that 

“The Protocol respects the territorial integrity of the United Kingdom”.

 He is claiming, variously, that he did not understand the meaning of what he signed, or that he was coerced by time pressure into it. 

 Every one of the EU laws, which under the Protocol will continue to apply in Northern Ireland,  including the EU Customs Code of 2013,were made when the UK was a voting member of the EU.

 So there is no basis for claiming the UK did not understand what these laws meant. They were involved in making them! You will search for a long time in the British press for an acknowledgement of that.

What of the argument that the UK was under time pressure when it agreed the Protocol?

The problem was that a UK government, of which Boris Johnson was a member, triggered the Article 50 process before it had settled in its own mind the sort of Brexit it wanted. 

The EU would have been willing to extend the two year period, but Boris Johnson rejected that. So if the UK put itself under pressure, the problem was of its own making.

In fact, I believe the UK knew fully what it was doing at every stage, and was guided by short term domestic political considerations, and deliberately ignored everything else. This was its motivation, both when it signed up to the Protocol initially, and when it attempted to renege on it, a year or so later.

Boris Johnson’s motives were to keep the Conservative Party in power, and to keep Scotland in the Union .

He agreed to the Protocol, in the first case, because he wanted to “get Brexit done” and to use that achievement as his platform in the December 2019 General Election. The detail did not matter. This tactic worked magnificently for him, as we know. 

CONFRONTATION WITH EU PAYS DIVIDENDS FOR BRITISH P.M

Keeping up a confrontation with the EU continues to work for him up to the present time. It has helped him make gains in this year’s local and by elections. As long as UK relations with the EU are hostile, there will a big vote bonus for the Conservatives in Leave supporting regions.

Confrontation with the EU also helps with keeping Scotland in the Union. 

The row about the Protocol allows the EU to be portrayed as petty, bureaucratic, and obsessed with detail. Of course, this is precisely the detail that enables 27 different countries to have one set of rules. Doing business in Europe would be much more bureaucratic, if each of the 27 countries had its own separate set of rules, on all the any matters listed in the Protocol. 

The more onerous EU border controls are made to appear, the more are Scots made to fear the costs for Scotland of a customs border between it and England,  something that would follow from Scottish membership of a Customs Union with EU.

So the stance of Boris Johnson on the Protocol is power politics in a raw form, and  it is unlikely to change in the near term. 

EU RESPONSE……A COURT CASE BETTER THAN AN ECONOMIC WAR

What happens now?

The EU has already initiated legal proceedings against the UK. Unless the UK speedily agrees to implement the Protocol, this legal action will be intensified.

 There is a worry that the case might drag on for a long time.  But a long court case, which eventually yielded the right result, would be better than an Economic War.

How might the case develop?

The Withdrawal Treaty says that disputes may be referred to an Arbitration Panel of three independent persons. This Panel must announce its decision within 12 months of its appointment. 

The legal issues are fairly simple, so the decision might be quick.

There are provisions for a fine to be imposed on any party in breach of its obligations.

 It could be up to two years before a fine could actually be imposed. Boris Johnson might even want to drag the whole thing out until after a UK General Election. He might even like to get a second referendum on Scottish independence over with, while the case is still undecided.

USE OF ARTICLE 16 KICKS CAN DOWN THE ROAD 

Another possibility is that the UK might trigger article 16 of the Protocol. Article 16 allows for safeguard measures where there are

 “serious economic, societal or environmental difficulties , that are likely to persist”

 But such measures, and any EU counter measures, would have to be restricted in their scope and duration according to Article 16. Article 16 does not provide for amendments to the Protocol.  So using Article 16 would only kick the can down the road. It would solve nothing.

 Vice President Sefcovic of the European Commission has raised the possibility of trade sanctions against the UK for breach of the Protocol. 

Such sanctions would be designed to persuade the UK to come back into compliance with its Treaty obligations. The EU could impose tariffs or quotas on sectors of the UK economy which depend particularly on EU markets for exports

  Of course, the UK might then retaliate with tariffs and quotas of its own. While these UK sanctions could hit Irish agricultural exports, they would also disrupt the economy of Northern Ireland.  On balance, I think UK would seek other targets. But, in the end, everyone would lose…..a lot.

The best  immediate option for the EU is to concentrate on its court case.

I am confident the Panel would find that the UK is obliged to implement the Protocol as it signed it . It would find that the plain words in the Protocol means what they say. 

A finding from an independent Panel would be more influential, with British and Northern Irish public opinion, than any number of statements from EU leaders.

 This is why I believe the court case is the best course to follow.

 Let us not go back to the trade politics of the 1930’s!

BUT EXISTENTIAL ISSUES ARE AT STAKE

That said, if the court case does not lead to action by the UK to implement the agreed Protocol, either in its present form or as amended by agreement, a trade war between the EU and the UK will eventually take place, with sanctions and counter sanctions. This is inevitable because the EU can only continue to exist if Treaties are respected and acted upon. The EU itself is a Treaty based organisation. So this is literally an existential question for the EU. Without respect for Treaties, there is no EU.

Some historians believe it to be a fixed goal of British policy to maintain division and a balance of power in continental Europe. The very existence of a European Union is, in this analysis, a threat to British security. Some Brexiteers are not satisfied with taking the UK out of the EU. They will not say so publicly, but they would like the EU to break up. This is well understood in Paris and Berlin.

So the argument about the Protocol is about much more than Northern Ireland. It is about the  future of Europe, and this is not a struggle in which Ireland will remain on the sidelines.

WHAT CAN GOVERNMENT LEARN FROM THE COVID CRISIS?

As the Covid crisis begins, slowly and uncertainly, to unwind, it may be worth drawing lessons from it.  Such an exercise might tell us  how well our systems  are prepared for  future unexpected events.

It is in the nature of government, that big decisions often have to be taken quickly, with incomplete information. Comment from the media should take that into account.

 A lot has to be taken on trust.

 Even science based decisions leave a big margin for human judgement. The political process has to strike a balance, and be willing to change decisions when the evidence changes. But nothing will work unless there is active buy in by the general public.

 So, for example, the more a country’s disaster preparation plans have been publicly rehearsed and road tested, the more likely they are to work. 

Ireland has some special vulnerabilities. It has benefitted disproportionately from globalisation, and from speedier travel and communications across the globe.

 Being on an island is no longer the disadvantage it used to be.  But nor does it provide all the protection it used to. 

 In one year, we have suffered the largest global epidemic in a century, and its biggest ever cyber attack on an Irish state institution.

 These will not be one off events.

 There are many times more viruses on earth, than there are stars in the universe, and they are mutating constantly. 

 Cyber attacks may be crimes. But they are also a new form of undeclared inter state warfare.  By choice, Ireland has  no military allies, and no counter offensive cyber capacity, that might deter such attacks. 

Other threats are more predictable than pandemics and cyber attacks.

 The carbon price Ireland will have to pay will rise inexorably. 

 We have set ambitious climate change targets, but achieving them will mean setting aside money, that might otherwise be used for tax cuts or extra day to day spending, to replace climate damaging infrastructure and  energy sources with climate neutral ones. 

Increased use of renewable energy will place a strain on limited global supplies of lithium and cobalt.  Prices of scarce products will rise. So austerity in the use of energy may become obligatory. That will not necessarily be popular, unless the need for it is explained over and over again.

 Our government can borrow cheaply now.

 But when these loans have to be rolled over, interest rates may have risen. If the interest rate then exceeds the growth rate of our economy, we will be back in the mire of 2010.

 Ireland’s liabilities for pensions and health care will rise steadily anyway, as the population ages, and the working tax base shrinks. I read one economist who calculated that the existing Irish national debt would triple, if predictable pension liabilities were included in the calculation.

All these threats   –  pandemics, cyber attacks, climate and debt –    are unrelated, but more than one of them  could easily become acute at the same time, creating a perfect storm. 

What can we learn about preparedness for multiple crises from Covid experience? 

Plans on paper are not enough. The democracies which had the best pandemic plans on paper, the US and the UK, did poorly. 

Their plans did not survive contact with the enemy.

The democracies who felt threatened for other reasons….Taiwan, South Korea and Israel…. did best. Their plans were not just on paper, they had road tested them in military fashion. 

Only states have the necessary coercive powers to make a fully effective crisis response to most crises.

 But states must work together. Article 196 of the Lisbon Treaty gives the EU power to “support and complement” member states action on “natural and manmade disasters”.  These powers have not been tested. They should be. On cyber attacks, the EU should work closely with NATO, which has the specialist expertise.

The Covid crisis has led to an increased understanding of the vital role of government, at both EU and national level.

 It has also reminded us that government works in silos, some of which are not good at talking to one another.

 Crisis management plans must not be filed away, they must be rehearsed, and talked through, over and over again.

WHAT HAS HAPPENED TO IRISH CATHOLICISM?

Derek Scally is an Irish Times journalist, based in Germany for the last 20 years, and he has written “The Best Catholics in the World, The Irish, the Church and the end of a Special Relationship” which was published recently.

His perspective on the subject is shown in the dedication of the book to his parents, “with thanks for their belief”. 

 Aged 44, he says he is “a member of the last generation to have a full Irish Catholic childhood”.

 He served as an altar boy at Mass in his North Dublin parish, but now admits to having a “shaky grasp on Roman Catholicism”.

This is an honest book and painful reading, all the more so because the author is not fundamentally unsympathetic to Irish Catholicism. He sees that it had given meaning and purpose, to the lives of successive generations of Irish people.

He conducted hundreds of interviews with members of Church, from Cardinal Sean Brady, to the head of the Sisters of Mercy, to the people still active in his own old parish in Edenmore. He draws them out  on their understanding of the events that influenced the decline in practice and faith among Irish Catholics over the past 60 years . He also interviewed victims of clerical sex abuse, inmates in mother and baby homes, and women who lived out their lives in places like the Magdalen laundries. 

Inevitably the picture is selective. The focus is on those who suffered, or were treated unjustly in church settings. 

There is no counter factual in the sense  that the book does not explore what might have happened if these church run institutions had never existed, and people were left to their fate. 

There are no international comparisons either. The book deals with early twentieth century Irish Catholicism, as if it was something completely unique for its time. Many of the abuses and cruelties the book identifies were found in other cultures too. 

 It is hard for a reader to quantify how uniquely “Irish”, or “Catholic”, the problems were. My own view is that none of the abuses cited are unique either the Catholicism or to Ireland.

The author accepts that priests and nuns have taken the blame, not only for the failings of some among them, but also for the failings of wider Irish society. 

 Ireland was much poorer financially when some of the abuses occurred. But lack of money is never an excuse for turning a blind eye to rape or cruelty.

 Class distinctions abounded, and “respectability” was at a premium. This encouraged silence about embarrassing things. It allowed “knowing,” but simultaneously not “really knowing”, that certain things were going on. In a sense, people decided not to “know” things that they had persuaded themselves they could do nothing about.

 In this, the church reflected the evasions of Irish society, just as much as the other way around. But it is human nature that, when failings are finally exposed, the anger is often directed at others, or at the system, rather than channelled into an examination of one’s own assumptions.  

 It is true that Irish society was shaped by strict, and sometimes unforgiving, notions of sexual morality, which were inculcated by the Catholic Church. But such notions were not a particularly Irish, or even Catholic, thing. Victorian morality, and Victorian hypocrisy, was to be found on our neighbouring island, and further afield too. It just survived a decade or so longer in Ireland.

It was Irish families, not Irish priests or nuns, who banished unmarried daughters, when they became pregnant.   

It was cash strapped Irish governments which, in the early years of the state, were content to allow  religious orders to take on the responsibility for running reformatories, and  other institutions to shelter people, whose families  who could not, or sometimes would not, look after them. 

This book is impressionistic rather than scientific. The author allows the interviewees to tell their story. It does not provide a roadmap to redemption for the Irish church, or for Irish society, but it contains some hints.

 Although the author thanks his parents for their belief, he admits that religion was never discussed in his home when he was growing up,” let alone personal faith”. That job was left to the school. 

So it is no wonder that, when the scandals came along, people could stop going to Mass and feel good about it, without thinking what they might be losing. The role played by religious practice in providing guard rails within which one could live a good and sane life had never been discussed, or even put into words, and was thus too easily cast aside.

 As Bishop Paul Tighe told the author, the church discouraged people from asking questions. 

“We became a lazy church, and we are reaping that legacy now” he said.

The author, who lives in Germany, might usefully have studied the Catholic Church there over the last century. That might show whether there are lessons Irish Catholicism could learn, or could have learned. Equally he might have established if the Irish case is really as exceptional, as his provocative book title implies. 

While this book will annoy some people, it may be a spur to the necessary heartfelt and rigorous discussion about the role of faith in our society, a discussion Irish people have been postponing for a long time.

It should also prompt us to ask whether this generation of Irish families, like the previous ones, is also capable of turning a blind eye to family responsibilities. The example comes to mind of elderly relatives and neighbours left unvisited in nursing homes. Now the running of these homes is no longer delegated to nuns, but to for profit corporations!

THE PRESIDENT’S TAKE ON THE EUROPEAN UNION

The President of Ireland, Michael D Higgins has recently published a collection of his speeches entitled  “Reclaiming the European Street, Speeches on Europe and the European Union 2016-20” . The publisher is the Lilliput Press      

Drawing on a lifetime of reading in sociology, philosophy and history, President Higgins makes his case for European unity and for Ireland’s participation in it. 

 As might be expected of a man of the Left, he is critical of capitalism, and sees  state or collective action, whether at national or EU level, as capable of playing a bigger role in helping  the people of Europe to flourish and achieve their potential. 

 For similar reasons he is against what he calls “austerity”, but does not address what is to be done if the interest rate at which a state can borrow becomes unaffordable, which is where Ireland found itself in 2010.

 No politician chooses austerity for its own sake! But sometimes it is necessary to preserve a country’s freedom of action.

AN INTELLECTUAL JOURNEY

 Michael D Higgins was not always enthusiastic about European integration.

 In their introduction to this collection of speeches, his editors, Joachim Fischer and Fergal Lenehan , point out that he campaigned against the Single European Act of 1987, and  also campaigned against the Maastricht Treaty of 1992. 

These two Treaties provided the legal basis for the EU’s biggest achievements, namely the creation of Single Market, and the establishment of the Economic and Monetary Union and the Euro. They also enhanced the role of the democratically elected European Parliament.

 It would have been interesting if the editors of this collection could have elaborated upon President Higgins’ intellectual journey on European integration, from the sceptical positions he adopted in 1987 and 1992, to the more favourable ones he adopts today. President Higgins journey is one many left leaning politicians have followed and it would have been interesting to tease this out.

In an attempt to understand the evolution of his thinking, I reread some of the speeches he made in the Senate and Dail in the 1980’s on moves to closer EU integration. 

 One major concern he had then was the effect of the new EU Treaties on Irish neutrality. He opposed confining Irish neutrality merely to military matters. He believed Ireland should be politically as well as militarily neutral. Such a position is not sustainable nowadays. The EU is now adopting common positions on geopolitical issues, on a daily basis. As an EU member, Ireland is not politically neutral. States are now so interdependent, that complete political neutrality is almost impossible. The recent cyber attack shows how we need common defences that work.

 Michael D Higgins was also sceptical about the EU Single Market, and feared it would lead to job losses. These fears have not been realised. The contrary proved to be the case. Employment here is much higher than it as in 1992 when the Single Market was inaugurated.

ALTIERO SPINELLI

A clue to the influences that led Michael D Higgins, over the past 20 years, to a more favourable view of European integration may be found in the careers of the people he quotes in the speeches in this book.

The most frequently cited is Altiero Spinelli, author of the European Parliament’s 1984 Spinelli Report, which was the precursor of the Single European Act of 1987. 

Spinelli had been a member of the Communist resistance to Italian Fascism and was imprisoned on the island of Ventotene. There he co wrote the Ventotene Manifesto.

 This Manifesto is mentioned dozens of times in this book.

 Learning from the lesson of the World War, then in progress, the Ventotene Manifesto called in 1941 for a wholly new Europe. It sought 

 “the definitive abolition of the division of Europe into national sovereign states”

 because it was

 “impossible to maintain a balance of power between European states”.

It argued for a revolution, with a goal of the emancipation of the working classes. But, interestingly, it added that  

“the working classes must not be left at the mercy of the economic power  of monopolistic trade unions”. 

This may have been a reference to the corporatist trade unions set up under Fascism, but it could be seen as a general argument against the closed shop.

After the War, Spinelli pursued the goal of European Unity, and supported the unsuccessful attempt to set up a European Defence community in 1954. 

From 1970 to 1976, he was a member of the European Commission, and came to Dublin in 1972 when Ireland was debating whether to join the then European Common Market. On that occasion he met Michael D Higgins, and sought to persuade the Irish Labour Party that support for European Unity should not be left to “conservative” parties. 

Spinelli did not achieve his goal at first attempt, as Labour opposed Ireland joining the Common Market at that time.  But Spinelli left a lasting impression on Michael D Higgins, which is evidenced by the contents of Michael D Higgins speeches over 40 years later.

WHAT ECONOMIC ROLE FOR THE STATE?

Another Italian intellectual influence, acknowledged by the author, is the economist Mariana Mazzucato.

 She argues for an “Entrepreneurial State”, claiming that many important technological advances originate in decisions by the public sector, and that economic development cannot be left to the private sector. I agree with this. Indeed free markets themselves can only exist if a state in there to make and enforce rules. 

But when the state itself gets involved directly in managing businesses, it can be slow to adapt to new realities, because of political pressures, including  from monopolistic trade unions, of the kind identified in the Ventotene Manifesto. 

Looking to the future, President Higgins says 

 “EU Institutions must be adequate and sufficient to enable the restoration and protection of social cohesion”. 

This asks too much of the EU.

 The EU is only allowed to spend 1% of EU GDP, and there is no sign that limit will be raised soon. So restoring social cohesion must primarily be the responsibility of member states, which spend 40% of GDP or more, and have the power to levy taxes, in a way that the EU cannot do. 

It is interesting to note that, on the eve of the pandemic, the Economic and Social Research Institute found that income inequality in Ireland was at its lowest level for many years, and 16% below the level it was in 1987. It is notable that this report got little or no coverage in the Irish media.

GREEN AUSTERITY.

The President is right when he condemns the 

“uncritical pursuit of ever accelerating growth without consideration of the consequences”.

That must change if we are to meet the challenge of climate change.

 Lower economic growth will mean less tax revenue and less money to spend. Green living will mean more austere living, and a more limited range of choices.

 It is to be hoped that we will take responsibility for this ourselves as a people, and avoid blaming it on external agencies like the EU.

 The issues raised  in this book are important, and  they reflect a serious and engaged mind.

WHAT IS EU POLICY ON CHINA?

Some scholars have warned about the likelihood of rivalry, leading to conflict, between a rising power, China, and the incumbent super power, the United States.

Alarm about this may be premature.

The table in the file posted here shows that US military spending equals the combined military spending of China, India, Russia, Saudi Arabia, France, Germany, the UK, Japan and South Korea.

This puts the rivalry of China and the US in proportion. It is not, at this stage, a competition between equals.

That said, Chinese military spending is rising more quickly albeit from a much smaller base.

Over the past thirty years the Chinese economy has also grown more quickly and its GDP already equals that of the US.

The US has already banned the export of certain technologies to China if these could have a military application. It is a small step from this to actively trying curb China’s natural economic growth. China could be expected to resent this deeply, if the US were to adopt such a stance.

China is thinking in a long perspective. Its goal is to have a “world class military” by 2049, the centenary of the Communist takeover of China. This is worrying for Taiwan in particular. Although the US recognizes Taiwan is legally Chinese, it backs its retaining its independence.

China’s population is beginning to age. The number of births in China in 2020 was 18% less than in 2019. The Chinese population of working age is beginning to decline.

By 2049, China may face a really hard choice between maintaining high levels of spending and supporting its large elderly population. In the west, where the elderly can vote, it would be able to influence such a choice in favour of elder support by voting for a party that prioritized spending on pensions over spending on the military. But China is a one party state so that option is not there.

Even so, the ageing of the Chinese population will tend to move China in a more peaceful direction.

I think Europe should make a clear distinction between its opposition to specific Chinese policies, both internally and in relations with its neighbours, and its acceptance of China’s right to become more prosperous in a peaceful and sustainable way.

WHY BREXIT AFFECTS IRELAND

Lecture given to a webinar organised by the University of East Anglia in Norwich on Tuesday 11 May 2021 at 6.30pm;

Ireland is more affected by what happens in the UK than is any other country. 

This is due to the facts that

  •  Ireland is host to the UK’s only land border with another state
  • Geographically, Ireland’s easiest route to the Eurasian land mass is through UK territory
  • Politically, Ireland has been intertwined with the UK for most of the last millennium, including to this day under the mutual  Treaty obligations we and the UK share under the Belfast Agreement of 1998.

So it is important for citizens on my state to understand what is going on in the UK, and why it is going on.

While most people in the world were surprised by the UK decision to leave the European Union, Irish people were shocked.  

THE EU IS A HABIT OF MIND, MORE THAN IT IS A LEGAL STRUCTURE

 But before going into that, let me say a word about that the EU is, and what it is not. 

 EU is not a state, and is not about to become one.

 It is, instead, a habit of consultation and common action between states, underpinned by legal and institutional arrangements. These arrangements are evolving in response to needs as they arise. More than it is a legal structure, the EU is a habit of mind. That is what a political institution is, a habit of thinking together.

 Ireland will remain within that institution, with some influence on its evolution. 

The UK will not, which is unfortunate. I say this is unfortunate because the security of much of Ireland’s infrastructure is dependent on links through the UK and its territorial waters.

 The sea is no longer the barrier to hostile forces, that it was in 1939, in 1804, or 1745.

 Increased Global interdependence has brought increased vulnerability. 

Close and well structured relations with ones near neighbours across the sea, is important to the security of any island state, including Britain and  Ireland.

 A DECISION TAKEN WITHOUT A PLAN

Irish people were, as I said, shocked by the UK decision to leave the EU in 2016. 

This was partly because it seemed the decision was taken without any regard to the effect it might have in either part of Ireland, and on the peace of the island.  

But the shock was  all the greater, because the decision seemed to have been taken, without a clearly articulated plan, for the new relationship that the UK would have with the EU, or, for that matter, with Ireland.

 Given our own experience with referenda, this struck us as reckless.

Taking an irrevocable decision on principle, without first negotiating what it might mean in practice, is like a pilot taking off without a flight path.

 Incidentally, this is also why I have reservations about the drafting, of the provisions in the Belfast Agreement of 1998, for calling a referendum on Irish unity. It could simply put the cart before the horse.

 The UK voters agreed to “take back control” from the EU in 2016, but without an agreed project for using the control they were taking back. Even now, five years after the decision, the plan is not yet visible.

WAS ENGLAND EVER COMFORTABLE IN THE EU?

It was the more elderly section of the UK electorate that were strongest in their support for leaving the EU. This was surprising because these were electors, who were old enough to have had had a vote in 1975 referendum, when they decided the UK decided should remain in the EU. 

Perhaps the UK was never comfortable being associated with continental Europe, even in 1975. 

Churchill favoured a United States of Europe, but with Britain staying aside from it.

Churchill’s successor as Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, wanted free trade with Europe, but initially, he wanted no part of a Customs Union and no political Union. 

He did not believe the Common Market, when it was launched in 1957 by six countries without Britain, would work. But it did work.

 Meanwhile the UK lost its Empire, its links with the Commonwealth were weakening, and the Suez debacle of 1956 had reminded it that its alliance with the US was not based on equality. 

 So, in 1961, Macmillan changed his mind, and made what he called  at the time the “grim choice” to join the Common Market, only to have the application vetoed by de Gaulle. 

 De Gaulle felt that Britain was too close the US, and was not wholehearted in its commitment to Europe.  He was not wrong on the latter point.

Eventually, another Conservative Prime Minister, Edward Heath, did succeed in persuading France to allow the UK to join the European Communities.

It is important to recall what the British people were told in the 1970’s about what joining the Common Market would mean.

 Many Brexit supporters have recently claimed that the UK only ever wanted to join a common market, without any political strings, and that they were misled by their leaders. This is simply not so.

Edward Heath, who had fought in the Second World War himself, told the House of Commons, in April 1975, that the European Communities 

“were founded for a political purpose, the political purpose was to absorb the new Germany into the structure of the European family”. 

So the political goal was not hidden, and the British people formally accepted continued EU membership on that basis, in their 1975 Referendum.

Gradually, the UK had come around to the view that it should not stand aside from the growing common endeavour of the Common Market/European Union. As the newly appointed Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher put it in a speech in Luxembourg in October 1979;

“Britain could not turn away from a voluntary association designed to express the principles of Western Democracy……Nor (she said) could any enterprise properly lay claim the proud name of Europe, that did not include Britain….. “

She continued

“  It took the British the whole of the 1950’s to realize these simple truths. It took the Six (Six Common Market members) the whole of the 1960’s to respond”

These words of Mrs Thatcher suggest that at last, in 1979, Britain was comfortable as a member of the EU.

WHAT CHANGED BRITAIN’S ATTITUDE TO THE EU?

What happened to undo the lessons the UK had, according to Mrs Thatcher, learned in the 1950s?

On the surface, four issues led UK public opinion to turn away from the EU.  

+ the rows about the UK’s financial contribution from 1979 onwards, 

+ the ejection of the £ from the European Monetary System, 

+ immigration, through the interaction of  the free movement provisions of the EU Treaties, and the EU’s enlargement to include the poorer countries of post Communist Europe and

 + the upsurge in identity politics, in the wake of the financial crash of 2008.

I think there also were deeper reasons than these.

 The memory of the First and Second World Wars had faded. The importance of maintaining a structure of peace and interdependence in Europe  slowly diminished in the public mind in Britain. Communism was no longer a threat.

 Indeed there is some evidence for the suggestion that long periods of peace encourage peoples to indulge in separatism. 

One can perhaps see this even within the UK itself. UK solidarity was greatest during the World Wars and diminished after they were over.  All states are synthetic and imperfect creations, and  are subject to change.

THE IMPORTANCE OF SELF IMAGE

England’s self image played a part in its increasing discomfort with the EU. 

 Britain sees itself a 

“a fortress built by nature for herself”, as  “ a scepter’d isle”, surrounded by seas controlled by Britain.

The religious divisions of the sixteenth century underlined this sense of separateness.

 Roman jurisdiction over the King’s marriage was rejected.

 This religious dimension was reinforced by the fact that Britain’s main continental rivals, over three centuries up to 1900, were Catholic powers, Spain and France, and Britain was emphatically Protestant. Legally it still is.

From the 1760’s to mid 20th century, Britain had the world’s biggest Empire.

 And Let us not forget that that Empire stood with Britain in 1940, when France had been defeated, America was neutral, and Russia was still on the sidelines.

 For this valid historical reason, the Commonwealth still has an emotional appeal in Britain, out of all proportion to its present political or economic importance.

The Monarchy has also given Britain a sense of self confidence, and an emotional bond, that makes compromise with European neighbours, including with Ireland, seem a little less necessary.

These factors were as much in play in 1975, when the British people decided to stay in the Common Market, as they were in 2016, when they decided to leave it. So the different decisions remain puzzling, to outsiders like me.

UNTRAMMELLED SOVEREIGNTY……THE GOAL OF UK NEGOTIATORS

Turning to the more recent negotiation, the organising principle of Brexit, from a UK perspective, seems to be to have been the restoration of untrammelled sovereignty to the Westminster Parliament, and to it only. 

For the UK, Sovereignty apparently must reside in one place, and ONLY in one place. 

 Even the minutest issue, such as the health standards for plants, or the safety and content of food, must be decided in Westminster only, and not in common with Brussels.

 This concern with indivisible sovereignty is the only reason  the UK has declined to have a Plant and Veterinary standards agreement  with the EU, and is thus the reason we have problems with supplies to garden centres and Supermarkets in NI, through the outworking of the agreed Irish Protocol.

 Sovereignty is everything, and trumps everything.

But, in this thinking, if sovereignty cannot be delegated upwards, to an international treaty based organisation like the EU, it is  also difficult to conceive of it being delegated downwards,  internally to nations within the UK itself. 

SOVEREIGNTY AND DEVOLUTION…….UNEASY BEDFELLOWS

Gordon Brown, former Prime Minister, claimed in a Guardian article last year, that it would soon be

” impossible to hold together a UK of nations and regions in the straitjacket of a centralised state.”

 His main criticism was that the UK government was taking decisions, like setting the terms for Brexit, without ,properly and formally, taking into account the views of the devolved parliaments in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast.

 Two of these had clearly stated that they wanted to stay in the EU Single Market, but the Westminster government ignored them. It was guided instead by the opinion of English MPs.

 The contradictions here are profound and enduring. 

In a speech in which she spoke of the 

“precious union” 

of the four nations, that the then PM, Theresa May, also announced that the UK would leave both Customs Union and Single Market( something to which the people of  2 of the 4 nations were opposed).

 Later she felt free to go outside the long settled Barnett formula for dividing up finance between the devolved administrations, so she could give an extra £1 billion to Northern Ireland, in return for the support of the DUP for her minority government in Westminster. 

She only showed the devolved administrations the text of her Article 50 letter, initiating UK withdrawal from the EU, on the day she sent it to Brussels.

The European Union operates according to a written rule book, the Lisbon Treaty, which is a sort of constitution, which is interpreted by a single Court system.

 In effect the UK Union has only one rule….”Westminster decides.”

 The durability of this arrangement will be tested in future.

THE BREXIT TEST FOR EUROPE

The EU will also be tested in coming years too.

 Many advocates of Brexit in the UK saw it as loosening the unity of the EU. This has not happened. In fact the fiscal integration of the EU has deepened since the UK left,

 Even though there have been policy failures, as on vaccination, the unity of the EU has not weakened. Indeed some the supposedly anti EU parties, in Italy and France, have actually modified their positions in a more favourable direction. This is not what the Daily Telegraph expected.

 But let us wait and see. 

“IN POLITICS, BEING DECEIVED IS NO EXCUSE”

Who won in the Brexit Trade negotiation?

 The fact that there is any agreement at all, after all the brinkmanship and bad blood, is a tribute to all involved.

 It is in the nature of a divorce, like Brexit, that both sides actually lose.

First let us look at the British side.

 For them, the goal was “sovereignty”. 

 While traditionally sovereignty has been seen as the unfettered power of the British Parliament to legislate, Boris Johnson interpreted it as taking back control into the hands of British Ministers, rather than Parliament as such.

 From a British point of view, the Agreement goes some way towards meeting this goal. British Ministers have ”taken back control”, at least on paper,  of many issues, at least as far as the island of Britain is concerned.   But not as far as Northern Ireland is concerned! 

This is because UK voters, in 2016, simply forgot about Northern Ireland and ignored the problems of the UK land border there with the EU. There were reassured there would be no problem, but as the Polish philosopher, Leszek Kolokowski said;

“In politics, being deceived is no excuse”

 Future EU rules, in which neither the UK, nor the people of Northern Ireland, nor their elected representatives,  will have a direct or indirect  say, will continue to apply in Northern Ireland under the Protocol the UK Parliament  agreed with the EU, in its haste to leave. 

 In sum, Boris Johnson and the UK Parliament traded more UK sovereignty over the island of Britain, for LESS UK sovereignty over Northern Ireland. 

 In future, the more British rules diverge from EU rules, the more will Northern Ireland diverge from the rest of the United Kingdom. And more divergence is the declared goal of the current UK government.

 This creates a political mine field.

 The implications for NI unionists could be quite destabilising if the UK government , in order to justify Brexit,  decides to  diverge  radically from the EU, on trade and regulatory matters. 

MORE DIVERGENCE IS THE “WHOLE POINT” OF BREXIT

In a letter to EU leaders last year, Boris Johnson said British laws would diverge from those of the EU and added

“That is the point of our exit, and our ability to enable this, is central to our future democracy”.

Divergence from the EU is central to the future of British democracy according to the Prime Minister.

Where will that leave Northern Ireland under the terms of the Protocol he signed, and which was endorsed by Parliament?

 The Joint EU/UK Committee, set up under the Withdrawal Agreement, will need to monitor the political and security consequences of this  rush to diverge.

 Title X of the Agreement requires advance notice, and consultations, of changes in regulations as between the UK and the EU. It will be important for peace and security that these consultations include representatives of all major interests in Northern Ireland.

WHAT THE UK ACHIEVED

That said, the Agreement contains significant gains for the UK side, at least as far as the island of Britain is concerned. 

 Firstly, there will be no direct application of decisions of the European Court of Justice on the island of Britain. 

Secondly, while the UK has accepted that it will not regress from present high social, environmental and quality standards, it will be free to set its own UK standards for the island of Britain. These will, as I have said, be different from those applying in Northern Ireland and in the EU. 

This right to diverge is what UK Brexiteers saw as an expression of UK’s sovereignty, and they have got it.

But, thirdly, the UK also accepts that divergence will not come for free.

 As one advocate of Brexit, Dr Liam Fox MP, put it in Westminster during the debate on the Agreement

“If we want to access the Single Market, there has to be a price to be paid.  If we want to diverge from the rules of the Single Market, there has to a price to be paid”

The Agreement establishes detailed mechanisms to negotiate the  ”price” will  have to be paid, mostly by consumers in the form of higher prices,  for divergence.  It will going on for years to come.

These mechanisms in the  Trade and Cooperation Agreement ( A Partnership Council, Joint Committees, and Arbitration Tribunals) are completely untested at this stage. A great deal will depend on the particular use the UK decides to make of its new freedoms.

ARBITRATION TRIBUNALS…..OUR JOINT FUTURE

If problems arise and these cannot be settled in the committee system, there is an agreed provision for arbitration. Three person Arbitration Tribunals which will operate on strict time limits will be set up. If the Arbitrators find that either the EU or the UK has breached the agreed principles, the other party will be allowed to impose tariffs or prohibitions, to compensate for losses it has suffered. 

Incidentally, these tariffs, if imposed, will have to be paid on goods going from Britain to NI or vice versa.

 This aspect of the Agreement is valuable from an EU point of view.

 In its absence, any disputes would have had to be referred to the disputes resolution system of the WTO.   That WTO system is both cumbersome and narrow. Parties before the WTO can stall, adopt delaying tactics, or ignore rulings. Disputes there can drag on for years, as we have seen with the US/EU dispute about subsidies to Boeing and Airbus. So reaching agreement on a customised EU/UK disputes resolution mechanism was an important achievement for Michel Barnier.

But there are potential downsides in the Agreement for the EU too.

 We will be replacing a single set of rules, interpreted by a single judicial authority, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) with individual Arbitration Tribunals, operating under tight deadlines. This could lead to inconsistent decisions in different areas of trade. If a Tribunal interprets EU law differently to the interpretation later made by the ECJ on the same subject, there could be real difficulties

The UK will be free to negotiate trade agreements of its own with non EU countries. These negotiations may create additional pressure for even more divergence between UK and EU standards. 

 The UK may come under pressure to allow the imports to the UK,  that would not meet EU standards.

 For example, the UK may come under pressure to accept chlorinated chicken, hormone treated beef, or foods that have been genetically modified. If these products are then incorporated into processed foods, which are then exported to the EU, there could be big problems. We have experience of food quality scares in the past.

 There are separate and detailed provisions for imports which could upset the playing field on which EU and British producers will compete.  This could arise if there are hidden subsidies or monopolistic practices. 

HOW THE EU MUST RESPOND TO BREXIT

In global terms, the continent of Europe has been weakened by Brexit.

Brexit will force the EU to up its game.

 As a single entity, the UK will be able to move more quickly to set new regulations for new sectors, based on the technologies of the future. The EU, with 27 members to satisfy, and budget of only 1% of GDP, may move more slowly. That must be addressed.

I hope that the Conference of the Future of Europe, meeting for the first time this week, will not be afraid to streamline EU decision making procedures, including, in necessary, by targeted Treaty Amendments.

 A Union that is unable to amend its constitution eventually gets into trouble, as the US is finding.

PEACE AND STABILITY, RATHER THAN A CHANGE IN SOVEREIGNTY, MUST BE THE FIRST PRIORITY FOR IRELAND

Although legally speaking the issues are unconnected, Brexit has led to speculation that there might soon be a poll, under the terms of the Belfast Agreement of 1998, on Irish unity.

 The 1998 Agreement says that there should be such a poll if the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland believes such a poll would result in a vote for Irish unity. It assumes there would also be poll in Ireland as well.The relevant text in the Agreement is as follows; 

“The Secretary of State shall exercise the power under paragraph 1 if at any time it appears likely to him that a majority of those voting would express a wish that Northern Ireland should cease to be part of the United Kingdom and form part of a united Ireland.”

A majority for this purpose could be as little as 50.5% to 49.5%.

According to some of those present in the final days of the negotiation of the Agreement, the organisation and consequences of holding such a poll were not much considered at the time. But the text is there, and it has legal force.

That said, the history of Northern Ireland, since 1920, demonstrates the danger of attempting to impose, by a simple majority, a constitutional settlement, and an identity, on a minority who feel they have been overruled. If, for example, a 49.5% minority in Northern Ireland votes to stay in the UK, and resolutely rejects rule from Dublin, one could expect there would be difficulties, not least for the government in Dublin. 

 A poll in those circumstances could repeat the error of 1920, and add to divisions, rather than diminish them.

 I was a bit surprised then to see Bertie Ahern,  a former Taoiseach, call for the border polls to take place in 2028 (the 30th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement). 

Target dates tend to be misinterpreted as promises, a sense of inevitability takes over, opinion becomes polarised, and rational discussion of the risks becomes impossible.

 Reducing a complex issue, with many nuances and gradations, to an over simplified Yes/No question is risky anyway, and deciding such a matter by referendum, irrevocably, without first negotiating the details, is not wise. It can lead to unforeseen results. This is, perhaps, a lesson of the 2016 Brexit Referendum.

 Strangely, the Belfast Agreement, does not require the UK government to consult with the Irish government before calling such a poll, even though a poll on the same subject would have to take place in the Irish Republic. 

The result of the poll would have major financial, security and cultural consequences for the Republic.

 This omission, therefore,  of a provision to consult the Irish government gives weight to the suggestion that this part of the Agreement were not examined in depth by the negotiators in 1998.

Even though all other legislative decisions inside Northern Ireland must, under the same Belfast Agreement, be agreed by a procedure of parallel consent of both nationalists and unionists, this, possibly irrevocable, existential decision on sovereignty could be made by a  simple majority, of as little as a single vote, in a referendum.

This may be the law. But it sits uneasily beside the principles set out in the Agreement itself which say the parties will

“endeavour to strive in every practical way towards reconciliation and rapprochement within the framework of democratic and agreed arrangement”

It seeks something “agreed”, rather than something “decided” by a simple majority.

 Deciding the biggest question of all by a simple majority runs up against the principles in the Downing Street Declaration of 1993, agreed by Albert Reynolds and John Major.

It said that Irish unity should be achieved

“by those who favour it, persuading those who do not, peacefully and without coercion or violence”

This type of persuasion of the opposite community, is not taking place within Northern Ireland  at the moment, in either a pro Union or a pro United Ireland direction.  Thanks to Brexit, positions are more polarised now than ever. 

In the Downing Street Declaration in 1993, the Taoiseach, Albert Reynolds said on behalf of the Irish people

“Stability will not be found under any system which is refused allegiance, or rejected on grounds of identity, by a significant minority of those governed by it”.

Let us face facts. A poll on unity, carried by a narrow majority of say 51% to 49%, could not be guaranteed to deliver a system that would not be

 “at risk of being rejected, on grounds of identity, by a significant minority”

“The consent of the governed is an essential ingredient of stability” was what John Major and I agreed in the Framework Document of 1995.

Irish unity, carried by a 51/49% margin, might not obtain the requisite consent of the defeated 49%., who would still have to be governed.  That is practical politics.

 So, I say that peace and stability, tolerance and gradualism, should be our guiding principles in approaching the question of sovereignty over Northern Ireland.

The focus now should  be on making all the three strands of the Good Friday Agreement yield their full potential, rather than fixating on territorial sovereignty through a border poll. 

We must first build sustained reconciliation, and shared goals, between the two communities in Northern Ireland. 

That is a commonsense precondition for success of any of the many constitutional options that might be considered at some stage in the future.

DOES SINN FEIN ACCEPT THE IRISH CONSTITUTION?

The above article by Stephen Collins raises a very serious issue.He says “Sinn Fein was, and remains, the political mouthpiece of the IRA.”

He says “Sinn Fein was, and remains, the political mouthpiece of the IRA.” The IRA is illegal. It is a criminal offence to belong to it.

It is also unconstitutional. The Irish Constitution was adopted in a Referendum in 1937 and remains the supreme law of our state.

Article 15 (6) of the Irish Constitution plainly says

“The right to raise and maintain a military or armed force is vested exclusively in the Oireachtas.”

and it adds

“No military or armed force , other than a military or armed force raised and maintained by the Oireachtas, shall be raised or maintained for any purpose whatsoever”

The IRA has thus existed, and continues to exist, in direct defiance of the Irish Constitution.

Yet Sinn Fein members of the Oireachtas, serving under the same Irish Constitution, continue to extol the IRA and its actions.

This is hypocritical, but it is also subversive of the institutional basis of the Irish state.

Sinn Fein needs to say if it is willing to be loyal , in word and deed, to Article 15 of the Irish Constitution.

UNDER WHAT RULES DOES THE UK UNION WORK?

IS DEVOLUTION BEING UNDERMINED?

“Can the British State handle the challenges of devolution?” is the question asked by Michael Kenny, Philip Rycroft and Jack Sheldon in a recent paper published by the Bennett  Institute of Public Policy in Cambridge University.(see below)

Gordon Brown, former Prime Minister, asked a similar question, in a Guardian article last year, claiming that it will soon be

” impossible to hold together a UK of nations and regions in the straitjacket of a centralised state.”

His main criticism is that the UK government takes decisions, like setting the terms for Brexit, without ,properly and formally, taking into account the views of the devolved parliaments in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast.

All three of these clearly stated that they wanted to stay in the EU Single Market, but the Westminster government ignored them. It was guided instead by the opinion of English MPs.

 The contradictions are profound. It was in a speech in which she spoke of the 

“precious union” 

of the four nations, that the then PM, Theresa May, also announced that the UK would leave both Customs Union and Single Market( something to which 3 of the 4 nations were opposed).

 Later she went outside the  long settled  Barnett formula for dividing up finance between  the devolved administrations, so she could give an extra £1 billion to Northern Ireland, in return for the support of the DUP for her minority government. 

She only showed the devolved administrations the text of her Article 50 letter, initiating UK withdrawal from the EU, on the day she sent the letter to Brussels.

When Boris Johnson replaced Theresa May, he weakened the consultative structures she had used to avoid conflicts with the devolved governments.  He left it to Michael Gove to consult them and stayed away personally from the issue.

 Subsequently, in its (UK) Internal Market Bill, designed to replace the EU Internal market,  the Johnson government took back powers to London from the devolved administrations in areas of transport and education.

 It is believed Boris Johnson said privately that devolution has proved to be a “disaster”, which is hardly reassuring for those who want to preserve and strengthen devolution, to prevent a complete break up of the Union.

The underlying problem with the UK Union is that it is not underpinned by any written constitution or rule book, with which civil servants and Ministers in London could familiarize themselves.

 Every problem is tackled on an ad hoc basis by bilateral bargaining. This is in contrast with the EU, which has a very detailed set of rules, most recently updated in the Lisbon Treaty.

Just as most English MPs never understood the multi level system of government through which the EU worked when they were in the EU, they have not yet come to understand the multi level and variable system, under which the UK Union itself is supposed to operate. They still think of the UK as a centralised unitary state.

 For them, the unlimited “sovereignty of parliament“  over rules everything else.

 Devolved powers can simply be taken back at the will of the Westminster parliament (often after minimal debate there).

 This might work if everybody trusted everybody else. But that is no longer so. Now that power is held by different and often antagonistic parties in London, Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast, the casual “make it up as you go along” model of governance of the UK has run out of road.

The London civil service is not designed to cope with a union of four nations (of radically unequal size) .

Legally speaking, the problems of the UK Union are not the business of other countries, like Ireland. 

But we have problems, with which we need the active cooperation, and intellectual engagement, of the UK government, notably but not solely to do with Northern Ireland.  So we have an interest in ensuring that the internal governance of our neighbouring island is settled and stable.

Page 2 of 63

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén