The European project: where now?

Posted on May 05, 2017

Tom Healy, Director NERI
Tom Healy, Director NERI

Much has been written, to date, about Brexit. Brexit – if it happens (it probably will but don’t bet on it) – will change everything. The exit of a major EU Member State with a population of just over 65 million or 13% of the total population of 510 million in the EU28 will be a major shock. The UK accounts for 16% of total EU Gross Domestic Product. The UK is embedded in a complex network of trade flows, manufacturing supply chains not to mention a myriad of regulatory and legal instruments governing trade in products and services.  The implications of Brexit for movement of persons, recognition of qualifications and rights of residency are huge and, at this point, unknown pending a lengthy negotiating period.

It is important to keep an eye to two ‘big pictures’:

  • The economic and political consequences for two major islands of the North Atlantic (Great Britain and Ireland);
  • The economic and political consequences for the whole of Europe (and not just the European Union).

First, the ‘big picture’ for ‘these islands’.  Squaring the circle of (a) open borders for movement of people within and between these islands, (b) avoiding lengthy truck tail backs on the M1 motorway/A1 dual carriageway near Killeen on the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic and (c) keeping the structures and institutions of the Good Friday Agreement intact will be a major challenge for all concerned. It is hard to avoid asking questions about the economic and political future of the UK in its current form as well as the Republic of Ireland.

The second ‘big picture’ is even more challenging. Mental borders are just as important as political borders.  The notion that ‘Europe’ is somewhere ‘over there’ (on the continent or on the other side of the English Channel) never quite disappeared from public consciousness in Britain over the decades since the UK’s accession to the EEC in 1973.  It would be wrong to dismiss Brexit or, indeed widespread Eurosceptism, as merely reflective of narrow nationalism or delusions of imperial grandeur and nostalgia. There is, indeed, widespread narrow nationalism and even outright racism evident in many parts of the EU (and not just the UK). On both sides of the Atlantic simplistic and demagogic narratives are at play.  However, demagogues and others will continue to take advantage of popular discontent with the EU as long as the direction of EU social, economic, trade and fiscal policy ignores fundamental social rights and reinforces exclusion and inequality for many.  The experience of the period 2008-2013, in particular, is salutary.

The stakes are high. Brexit is a wake-up call not only for people in these islands but across the EU. Unless the concepts and values of solidarity, ‘social market’ economy, workers’ rights and democratic consent are made real there is a very considerable risk that Brexit will not be the last exit and the aspirations of some for ‘more Europe’ will meet the same fate as the 19th century Latin Monetary Union.

The shock impacted by talk of Brexit (it has not happened yet) is an opportunity – perhaps the last – to ask serious questions about the future of the European Union as a viable, democratic and relevant project to unite the peoples of Europe on social and democratic values.  The challenge of reform is urgent.

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