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Who dares to speak for Europe?

Speech by Brian Hayes MEP to the Merriman Summer School Ennis Co Clare – Thursday July 30th 2016

Who dares to speak for Europe?

Looking at the fallout from the British EU referendum last week, I am reminded of the children’s nursery rhyme Humpty Dumpty. Who or how long will it take to put Europe back together again after Brexit is now the central question in European politics.

On June 5th at an investment conference in Paris, Daniel Kahneman, the 82 year old Israeli Nobel Laureate for behavioural economics, made some very interesting observations on the British referendum, then less than three weeks away.

He warned that British voters were in danger of succumbing to impulsive gut feelings and irrational reflexes in the campaign, with little regard for the enormous consequences down the road. He went on to say that the referendum debate was being driven by a destructive psychological process, one that could lead to a grave misjudgment and a downward spiral for British society.

One week after Brexit, much of his prophecy seems to have come true. The decision by Britain to leave the EU was in the first instance an act of self-mutilation. Reactions to the decision were felt first in currency exchanges and stock markets. Sterling continues to fluctuate wildly, Britain has lost its Triple A rating and there has been an enormous destruction of asset wealth. The Irish stock market has been the hardest hit in the backwash. The sale of government shareholding in Irish banks is now well and truly off the agenda.

We have crossed a bridge into the unknown. The consequences will play themselves out over the time ahead. There are no guarantees about the final destination.

Political consequences of the decision to leave followed immediately and the damage is obvious. A British PM gone, the British European commissioner gone, the Conservative Party now engaged in a divisive leadership campaign, the British Labour Party imploding, Britain now deeply divided in so many ways. One of the few adults around appears to be Nicola Sturgeon in Scotland. The British state itself is now at risk of disintegrating. And by the way, in case you haven’t noticed, England is out of the Euros!

Britain is diminished and the EU damaged. Britain’s friends and allies are disappointed and dismayed; the enemies of Britain and of Europe will have been celebrating last Friday. The hard men in the Kremlin were toasting Nigel Farage on Friday; populist parties of the right and left will have been energised and the dangerous forces of racism, nationalism and irrationality are gathering momentum all across Europe.

Our world has suddenly become a lot more fragile and considerably more dangerous.

The British political system and the British media must shoulder responsibility for this shambles.

For more than 30 years now the Conservative Party has pursued an anti-EU agenda. It was always a case of us against them. The British Labour Party has also been deeply conflicted on the EU. Apart from the SNP in Scotland, only the Liberal Democrats Party was a strong voice for Europe and it is now a marginal political force in Britain.

The anti-EU agenda in Britain has been supported for decades by a vicious and sustained campaign of sneering, un-truths, lies and vitriol in large sections of the British media. As the good book says – “you reap what you sow”

The Remain campaign was never a positive campaign for the EU. David Cameron admitted that he found the EU frustrating. His support for Europe and that of others on the Remain side was never enthusiastic. Add into the mix a large measure of anti-immigrant sentiment and it is surprising at all that the remain side got to 48%.

Ireland has been one of the big beneficiaries of the European Union. When we joined the then EEC in 1973 Ireland was still a relatively under-developed country. Our membership of the EU has transformed this country.

Over thirty years we have doubled our labour force – from one to two million people at work. Over €53 billion was received in net payments to this country. We now have an internationalised economy, from pharma to technology to financial services. In 1973 our average pay was one half what it was across the other Member States of the EEC, now it is 25% more than the EU average. We have the highest proportion of young people in third level education of any Member State of the EU. This year we became a net contributor to the EU budget – an amazing turnaround for what was once a poor country.

The EU is not about handouts. It is about a hand up. It is about countries taking the opportunity to improve themselves. To trade into a market of 500 million people across Europe.

No country has used the opportunity of the EU to develop its potential and grow its self-confidence better then Ireland. As a small country we have been transformed. The EU didn’t do it for us; we did it ourselves. But without the EU we would not have made the leap forward. The EU greatly helped our ability to move from under the skirt of Britain, to compete on the world stage, to diversify and prosper as a modern economy.

My essential point this evening is for Ireland to learn from the lesson of Brexit. We must stop taking Europe for granted. We must stop talking Europe down. We must stop this them and us attitude which effectively blames the EU for things that go wrong and ignores the positives that come from EU membership.

My question is who dares to speak for the EU and who defends its values here in Ireland?

The EU is not the bogeyman that some populist factions in this country like to present. The EU is not perfect. Far from it. Enormous mistakes have been made, especially in the run up and aftermath of the financial crisis. Its way of working is maddening at times. But the current aggressive and negative commentary on the EU in this country, represents the type of scapegoating that is such a common trait of the most evil form of recent European political history.

We need the learn the lesson from the relentless negative coverage of the EU in the UK and how that poisonous backdrop framed much of the debate.

We take the peace of Europe for granted at our peril. In the first half of the last century 80 million people died in Europe. On this day one hundred years ago the Battle of the Somme began, resulting in more than one million casualties. From the ashes of World War 2 and under the security umbrella of the United States a new Europe began to emerge – a democratic, peaceful and prosperous Europe. The EU was also there when the Berlin Wall fell and communism collapsed. At each step along the road towards peace on this island, the EU was there. Europe is essentially a peace project still under construction, but it cannot be taken for granted.

Europe badly needs good leadership. It misses having a strong Franco/German axis. Angela Merkel is the only standout leader amongst the big Member States right now. There is no Mitterrand and Kohl partnership as in previous decades. Europe needs the emergence of a Schuman or an Adenaeur – leaders who set out a vision of what Europe could become, leaders who can inspire the public with a message of unity.

Our own difficulties around the collapse of the country in 2010/2011 have conveniently allowed many people to believe that it was all the EU’s fault. That our problems were in some way not homegrown. We are also prone to a far bit of euro bashing in Ireland. That the debt was imposed upon us to save German banks or that in some way we could have dodged the bailout had the EU intervened. All of that is economic and political fairytale.

Europe made some very big mistakes in its response to the financial crisis. A Banking Union had to be put together at breakneck speed. We had no mechanism for bail-in bank resolution. The banks were not supervised at an EU level and the regulators failed miserably.

But the reason Ireland entered a financial assistance programme was because our tax base collapsed, based on a big fat property bubble. Europe didn’t guarantee the banks; we did.

Could the ECB have done more, much more, on allowing us to burn some senior debt? Yes of course they could. But that was small by comparison to the decision to guarantee the banks. The great great majority of our debt has nothing to do with the banks. Our debt massively spiked to keep public services opened and public servants paid.

We have it again on water. Europe is being blamed. As if we didn’t sign off on the Water Framework Directive or come to an agreement with Europe on the derogation that followed.

Countries that blame other people for their problems make the same mistakes over and over again. Here again no one speaks for Europe.

Criticising, pulling down, destroying is the easy bit. Working to find solutions, building a better future for all the citizens of Europe; that is the hard bit. What is so maddening about Brexit right now is that it is a total distraction from the jobs, investment and growth agenda, which should be the exclusive priority of all politicians in this post-crisis Europe. Instead we will face years of uncertainly and speculation.

The Taoiseach and the Irish government have made the case since last weekend that Britain need some time to decide what they want to do. Their options are limited. They want to be part of the single market without paying for it. But that a la carte option is not going to be on offer.

While they need some time before invoking article 50, I’m convinced that the EU will force the pace of the negotiation after that. Ireland has a crucial role to play in helping the process and hopefully trying to mend fences. Time and political change within the UK may well allow this entire issue to be reviewed when the full consequences of this decision are clearer.

The quality of life and the freedoms which Europeans now enjoy were not magicked into existence. We must be fully aware that powerful forces of disintegration are mobilising and gathering support all across Europe. We must not forget that the European Union is our Union, the Euro is our currency. Both are worth promoting. Both are worth defending.

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