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EU Affairs

Brussels must learn from Merkel's failure to bring her people with her

As coalition talks between Germany’s CDU, CSU and SPD parties have cleared the first hurdle, it looks likely that Angela Merkel will end up heading a grand coalition government in the next eight weeks. Including Martin Schulz in the government will inevitably raise questions about his recent proposal for a new EU treaty leading to a federal EU super-state.

In a vaguely worded announcement they said: “We are convinced that Europe needs a fresh start and have developed the right ideas to go with it”. Should we hold our breath?

France’s Emmanuel Macron has also spoken about ambitious plans for deeper European integration, claiming that there cannot be a strong France without a strong Europe.

Does this mean that we are on the eve of another top-down attempted integrationist heave?

Perhaps such ambitious plans will be hatched in the magisterium of the EU hierarchy but that does not mean that they have much chance of success.

By irony, the success of Trump’s tax plans in the US and the repatriation of US corporate profits will take pressure off the push to harmonise EU corporate  taxes. Once the new lower US corporate tax rates begin to bite, the present benefits of aggressive tax planning and avoidance will diminish. Corporate giants will no longer amass vast undistributed cash piles and OECD pressure on tax havens and corporate tax avoidance will intensify.

The Brexit negotiations are crucial to that process. If Britain wants to negotiate a close trading relationship with the EU 27, then there will be increased opposition among many EU states about allowing the UK to pursue aggressive corporate tax policies while a new EU corporate tax regime is imposed and controlled by Germany and France in their own interests.

Martin Schulz is no friend of Ireland, politically or economically. If he does join a grand coalition, Ireland should hope that his CDU and CSU partners keep a tight rein on his EU aspirations.

Is that a reasonable hope? The CDU and the CSU both face the challenge of the right wing, Eurosceptic party, AfD. Would an aggressive integrationist strategy on EU affairs increase the likelihood of further growth in AfD support?

So while Macron and Schulz and the Brussels magisterium may favour moves towards deeper EU integration, the new German government will face different pressures.

Outside of Germany, it seems that the Netherlands, Sweden, Finland, and Denmark are definitely not enthusiastic about new moves for deeper integration. Moreover, on Germany’s eastern and southern borders, the governments of Poland, Hungary, the Czech republic and Austria do not look kindly on the idea of an integrated Europe dominated by a self-serving Paris-Berlin axis.

Curiously, EU Council President, Donald Tusk, has turned on the present Polish government with a new ferocity, claiming that the Law and Justice party (PiS) actually wants to follow the UK out of the EU. That of course is false – fake news. The Poles and the Hungarians want to stay in the EU but their governments want to resist domination from Brussels on issues such as migration policy. Tusk is widely seen as preparing the way for himself to re-enter Polish politics.

Germany does not want confrontation with its eastern and southern neighbours. A new integrationist treaty push would fan the embers of anti-German resentment into flame.

Merkel looks to be entering her last term as Chancellor as a lame-duck leader of a reluctant and internally suspicious coalition. While Macron may see domestic political advantage in demanding further integration, there are very few political advantages for others in doing so.

Italy is going to the polls in the next few weeks. And the pro-integrationist Matteo Renzi’s Democratic Party is struggling badly in terms of popular support.

Spain is convulsed with Catalunya. And Greece and Cyprus have their own problems.

All of this suggests the Macron’s international showmanship and Schulz’s plans for a “take it or leave it” treaty initiative for a United States of Europe will fall on deaf ears.

Deep down, most European governments and peoples are broadly content with Europe as it is – a functioning partnership of connected member states enjoying freedoms of trade and of movement within the EU.

Deep down, most EU governments and peoples do not want freedom of migration into their countries from outside the EU. They reject the effort by Germany to open borders to mass economic migration into the EU from the Middle East, Afghanistan and Africa.

And politically, for many people EU integration connotes surrendering national autonomy on those issues to a central imperial authority over whom they will have little of no influence.

Merkel’s failure to grasp these political facts of life led to the success of the AfD and to her own weakened state. If Brussels does not learn from Merkel’s failure to bring her people with her and instead looks to deeper integration as the answer to the EU’s problems, they will weaken the EU – not strengthen it.

Taking on the governments in Warsaw and Budapest, as some in Brussels wish to do, will end in tears. Friendly persuasion and encouragement to do the right thing internally is the right approach to take with authoritarian tendencies in the politics of member states.

So Leo Varadkar was perfectly right to visit Hungarian premier Viktor Orban in Budapest recently. Ireland needs allies not enemies. Some people may feel queasy about the elected governments in Prague, Vienna, Budapest, Bucharest and Warsaw. They are entitled to their opinions of those governments. But they are elected governments. They also face the judgment of their own people at the ballot boxes.

The EU Commission is not elected. And the European parliament is not a truly representative body in reality. So they should be conscious of their own limitations and should strive to work within them.

If the majority of citizens of the majority of EU member states are broadly content with the EU as it is, the best course is to leave it as it is and to develop its institutions and programmes as they are.

Remember, the time of Trump is limited. His increasingly execrable behaviour on the international stage is the shame of his country. He should look at his own record on post-hurricane, electricity-less Puerto Rico before he enumerates the sh**holes of the world. His party faces the electorate soon enough.

The effects of Brexit, though bad for Ireland, may yet be less severe than many people fear.

The EU doesn’t need bold new initiatives at this point in some form of response to external developments. We need to chill out. We need to use our politics to deal with real rather than imagined challenges.


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