1 June 2015 Edition
‘British renegotiation is also an opportunity for Irish democracy
Could there be a silver lining to the Tory cloud of an EU referendum?
What we need now is a serious debate on what changes can realistically be made now to the EU that will strengthen national sovereignty and how to achieve those changes
THE Conservative Party victory in Britain and the certainty now that there will be a referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union has thrown the Irish Establishment into total turmoil.
But any renegotiation also gives Ireland possibilities to change aspects of the EU that do not suit us and restore powers to Irish sovereignty that will help us end austerity and grow our economy.
Instead, media commentators are wavering between blind terror that we will be forced to choose between Britain or Brussels, and a despairing assertion that it will be alright on the night and that Cameron will convince voters to stay in.
There is next to no analysis of what exactly will be raised by the British side during the negotiations on the reforms they want to see in the European Union – even though Cameron has asserted that the reforms he wants will need a new treaty.
EU defenders, including the influential Financial Times, are arguing instead of a new treaty that an exemption protocol could be provided for Britain, as happened in the case of Denmark when the Danish people rejected the Maastricht Treaty in 1992.
But all this presupposes clarity about Britain’s demands and that sufficient concessions can be given to Britain to enable Cameron to make a case for staying in.
The British demands can be boiled down to two key issues.
Firstly, pandering to the anti-immigrant racism that is inherent in British (English) politics, they want to severely restrict future immigration even from EU countries, thus ending the free movement of labour which is a core principle of the EU.
There is no possibility of the British getting this, as Eastern European member states will veto any proposals on those lines, though they might accept limitations on welfare access until a certain period of insured work was achieved.
At the same time, worries about immigration are not exclusively racist, though that is a big factor in Britain. Workers everywhere get concerned when cheap labour is brought in to undercut their wages. In this context, racism can only be avoided by ensuring that wage standards are protected by law and that immigrant workers must be paid the standard union rate.
The second set of British demands, however, concern how the EU functions. Britain complains about too much red tape – often a cover for Conservative dislike of social regulation.
But the restoration of various powers to national parliaments could include the right of a member state to directly undertake job creation through state industries.
This is currently illegal under EU law but the winning back of such powers is a vital step if any future Irish government is to have the opportunity to end austerity and grow the economy at good standards of living instead of leaving us reduced to providing profits for foreign bankers.
Moves away from the ‘ever-closer union’ that is a key principle of the European project are not just in the wish-list of British Conservatives; they are in the vital interests of the Irish people and those of all the peripheral states and should, of course, be part of the programme of a genuinely socialist movement in Britain itself.
Neither the Irish Government nor the Fianna Fáil opposition has the backbone to look for such changes. They are too concerned to parade themselves as the “best boys in class” and win the applause of their European masters to bother about the needs of working people in Ireland.
Of course, Britain has no right to decide whether any part of Ireland should stay in or leave the European Union (just as England has no right to decide that question for Scotland).
But an independent Ireland is only independent if we have sovereign powers ourselves to develop our economy, strengthen our society and re-Gaelicise our culture and outlook.
What we need now is a serious debate on what changes can realistically be made now to the EU that will strengthen national sovereignty and how to achieve those changes.
This debate needs to take place especially in the trades union movement, but not as a knee-jerk response to the perceived and actual backwardness of British Conservatism but as an active intervention to use this opportunity to turn back the tide of EU centralisation and win back the nation that successive Free State governments have sold.