Don’t you just love good old Nigel? His visit to Ireland last weekend had all the signs of a farewell tour. Part of me thinks he will miss the European Parliament, deprived of a platform now that his Brexit mission has been achieved. But he now looks like a man desperate to find a new role. In politics, things are never as good a second time.
So Nigel now wants us to leave the EU. Last weekend at the RDS he promised us a bright new future, free from the clutches of Brussels, free to presumably strike all those great new trade deals. With one shot we could back control, leave the Eurozone and hey presto all our problems would evaporate into thin air. It all sounds great.
What no one asked Nigel or indeed his admiring band of followers – some of whom have been around now for quite a few years – what exactly are we supposed to do when we take back control?
He is wrong to say that we need new parties to fight the good fight on Irexit. We already have them. From the Socialist Party to People before Profit to various Independent politicians, they have all argued that Ireland should leave the EU. Even Sinn Fein up until recently wanted an exit plan until they realised that they would end up on the DUP/UKIP side of the argument, so a little back-tracking was required.
Whatever about new parties to fight for Ireland’s cause, Nigel is right about one thing, we do need a big debate about Ireland’s role in the EU post-Brexit. We need a debate where everything is put on the table and where the full implications of what Ireland leaving the EU would mean. I am up for that debate and I think many others are.
Soon after the Brexit referendum, I recognised that some people would legitimately now argue for Ireland to consider leaving. There are people, a sizeable enough minority but a minority nonetheless, who have always wanted Ireland to leave the EU. They have a right to be heard. All I ask, on behalf of those who want to remain, is the right to be heard also.
Let those who want Irexit to organise politically and stand for election; nobody is stopping them. But let the debate be about real alternatives and the implications of those alternatives spelt out rather than just slogans. Slogans like: “the EU is the bogeyman”; “All the problems we face are down to the bureaucrats in Brussels”; “By taking back control we solve our problems.” It all sounds so simple.
After the financial crisis, Brexit and the migration crisis, Europe needs a new direction. The rise of the populist left and right, despite the victories for the centre-ground in Germany, France and the Netherlands last year, is a reminder that business as usual won’t get the EU to a better place. Added to that, we have the rise of the right in Poland and Hungary which creates further problems in trying to chart a way forward.
Fundamental questions remain. What is our place now in the EU as Britain prepares to leave? As a wealthy country that has done well from EU membership over forty years what can we offer next? Will the EU end up as a two-speed project with the core Eurozone countries forced to integrate further leaving behind those on the outside? What are the implications for the EU on the international stage, especially in the area of climate and defence, with an increasingly isolationist United States?
Rarely at home do politicians or the media debate Europe and its future as we gorge out on a diet of local news. Rarely is Europe part of an election debate, something that is not common in other countries. Rarely is Europe debated within political parties – my own party included.
Ireland cannot and should not decide to sit out this debate. Full marks to Helen McEntee for the national dialogue she is launching as Minister for European Affairs; everyone should get behind that process.
However, getting the EU really working requires more Europe and more integration. And the question must be asked whether people want that.
Whether we like it or not we have a reputation of being a ‘Doctor No’ in the EU. Winning friends and influencing people requires us to set out in a positive way the direction we believe that Europe needs to travel. Simply listing on a frequent basis what we are against won’t cut it in the future.
Rather than seeing the EU as something of a cash cow, which it no longer is to Ireland as we are net contributors now, we need to start asking ourselves what can we bring to Europe. How can our influence, especially as a bridge to the United States, help Europe to stay competitive and open for business. We should reflect on where we think the EU should focus its efforts most and where coordination between Member States is most effective.
As part of the future of Europe debate, we also need to be open as to the changes that may follow. Open to possible changes on EU security and defence, on migration or paying into a reformed EU budget. We need to be prepared to review existing EU opt-outs we have in place. We can do more which then gives us more credibility in demanding that our red lines are upheld.
So thank you Mr Farage. If anything, your little visit has helped to spark the start of a long debate in Ireland on our future place in the EU. A debate that is very much needed.
Brian Hayes MEP
Fine Gael Dublin