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Brexit - EU Affairs

The European project belongs to the member-states that comprise it – not the other way round

Scarcely had our new best buddy, Guy Verhofstadt, landed back in Brussels when his name appeared on a draft resolution in the European Parliament proposing that Northern Ireland should remain part of both the Single Market and the Customs Union after the UK leaves the EU.

This, the parliamentarians argued, was the only way in which the Irish north-south border could remain invisible and friction-free. The corollary is that there should be a de facto economic border between Northern Ireland and Britain down the middle of the Irish Sea.

This binary analysis and choice ignores a few realities. Theresa May and her deeply-riven Tory government is dependent on the DUP to stay in office. The DUP cannot be seen to accept the repartition of the UK into an EU and non-EU federated economy.

Already James Nicholson, a unionist MEP, has pointed out that such an outcome would, in the eyes of unionists, rupture the Good Friday agreement by effectively ending UK sovereignty in the North without the formal consent of a majority there. Needless to say, nationalist politicians claim that the UK already ruptured the Good Friday agreement by committing to leave the EU against the wishes of a majority of the voters in Northern Ireland.

The European Parliament resolution also seems to forget that there is still one way to square this circle. If the EU and the UK conclude an agreement including a close free-trade partnership in goods – a partnership very similar in substance to membership of the customs union by whatever label it is known – there can be an invisible friction-free north-south border. But that involves the UK seeking and obtaining a soft Brexit – an outcome that Ireland should work for.

The EU single market, on the other hand, does not affect how the north-south border will appear physically post-Brexit. Access to a single market for services, banking, insurance, freedom of establishment, public procurement rights, etc., is in no way affected by the presence or absence of a physical border infrastructure on this island.

Some people, including some MEPs, naively argue that ending the Freedom of Movement pillar of the single market somehow logically necessitates a form of immigration control between the Republic and the UK. That might be so if the UK were intent on imposing a visa requirement on EU member state nationals entering the UK directly from the continent. But there is no prospect of that. French and Polish citizens will be able to travel visa-free to the UK post-Brexit - as long as they have a passport (just as they will still need to do travelling to Ireland).

Control on inward migration from the EU to the UK will be most probably done by limitations of a different kind, including mandatory work permits, obligations to register for long-stay residents, and denial of rights to social security, of access to housing and rental, and to health services.

So the North not being a geographical part of the Single Market (as distinct from the Customs Union or a close analogue) is not an insuperable obstacle for the maintenance of an invisible, friction-free border. Northern Ireland residents have a right to be citizens of the UK or of Ireland, or of both. They will probably have the unusual status of being entitled to be regarded as citizens of the Union even though they are born and reside outside the boundaries of the Union. That does not create any insuperable problem either.

The Verhofstadt-signed EU parliament resolution is very probably destined for the political waste paper basket. It is highly unlikely that Northern Ireland will end up as part of the Single Market. It is highly likely that the invisible friction-free border will be achieved in the context of a negotiated UK-EU free trade partnership which leaves the UK outside of the single market.

So what are we Irish to make of Petit Emmanuel Macron’s so-called visionary speech on the future of Europe?

Very little, I suggest.

The speech itself was very similar to Juncker’s State of the Union speech. Macron is in trouble at home. His domestic popularity is at record low levels for newly elected French presidents. Like the ill-fated Matteo Renzi who claimed shortly before he had to resign, that he and Italy would bring about a federal United States of Europe, Macron finds it consoling to indulge in soaring rhetoric about France’s vision for Europe.

Discussion of a dominant Franco-German alliance leading the way in European integration is a great domestic political distraction for Macron. At its heart is the political lie that there is some form of equality between France and Germany – a lie that is convenient for both states in that the Germans can conceal their strength while the French can conceal their weakness.

The integrationist, federalist heave advocated both by Juncker and Macron in recent weeks is not going to work. Why not?

The Netherlands, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Poland, the Czech Republic, Malta, Cyprus, Hungary and Greece, among others, are not meekly going down the road of a Franco-German hegemony in the EU, based on a closely integrated Eurozone with tax harmonisation and a single Euro-zone budget and finance minister. We may not know where the Baltic states,  Spain, Portugal, Slovenia and others are on that issue. But Macron’s vision appears to be a minority view – just as his point of view was not shared by three out of the four candidates in the first round of his presidential election who between them got roughly three times the vote Macron received,

It isn’t only Ireland that is opposed to it. We are not alone or isolated in any sense.

Nor is there anything stopping any member states who want to integrate their budgetary policies or tax systems from doing so. The same applies to those who want to create a common defence in parallel with Nato. Nobody is stopping them.

The real possibility of a Jamaica Black-Green-Yellow coalition in Germany is another obstacle. The CDU’s sister party, the CSU, and the liberal Free Democrats are both strongly opposed to Macron’s plans for integration of the Eurozone economy. And Merkel is less than lukewarm on Macron’s rhetoric.

The apparent front-runner in this month’s election in the Czech Republic, Andrej Babis, had this to say about Macron and about Juncker: “He should really concentrate on France. All these proposals that we’ll have a minister for finance for the eurozone and all of this further integration should make Mr Macron and Mr Juncker think of why Brexit happened”.

And EU council president, Donald Tusk, also very much deflated their  integrationist balloon in his letter to EU heads of state attending this week’s informal council meeting in Tallinn, Estonia, when he implicitly pleaded for progress on practicable policy agendas rather than divisive and unachievable grand plans.

We Irish have to break out of the lazy mind-set that the future of Europe is all about federalism or disintegration – a mind-set carefully nurtured by an influential but unrepresentative minority. Ireland’s interests are well served by Europe remaining a largely inter-governmental partnership of sovereign democracies pooling some of their competences. There is nothing unsustainable about that form of EU; on the contrary, it is the federal model that is unattainable, unsustainable and undesirable.

The European project belongs to the member-states that comprise it and sustain it – not the other way round.

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