“Freedom of Movement, Peace in Ireland and Christmas Turkey”
Liberté de Mouvement -Freedom of Movement
The summer of ’76 lives on in the English imagination as a gloriously hot summer. For me it was a Continental one, with a DAAD scholarship in Germany from June to mid September and at the end of the summer grape picking in France. Le Vendange (the grape harvest) was early that year, the best summer since ’47 in the Beaujolais – rather than getting a few weeks in Ireland upon returning from Germany, I had to turn around and go almost immediately to France.
The academic experience in Germany, at Kernsforschungsanlage Jülich in Nordrhein-Westfalen (now Forschungszentrum) was excellent. I was working in atmospheric science: the concentration of free radicals in the upper atmosphere, as it was suspected they could destroy the ozone layer. More interesting for the purpose of this article was the general impression of Germany – rich, vibrant, clean, well run – far ahead of Ireland and the UK.
France also was very positive experience, the French wages were good by Irish standards (far better than mushroom picking). The accommodation was decent and the food and wine excellent – I still remember the excellent green salad with freshly picked lettuce and garlic laced dressing. There were a mixture of Irish and French students along with some locals. The wages were sufficient to pay a trip from Rosslare to Le Harvre, a few days in Paris and a return trip via Callas/Dover with a few days in London before returning to Dublin via Holyhead. France also seemed well ahead of Ireland and the UK and indeed seemed to have even better infrastructure than Germany.
The French seemed to like Irish workers. They struggled to get younger French people to do the harvest. Very similar to the UK today relying on Eastern Europeans. At the time of course there were only 9 members in the EU and Ireland was the poorest. Times have changed, but for me and many Irish, Freedom of Movement meant the ability to live and work in the EU expanded my horizons far beyond my small country.
The only bad experience of the entire summer was arriving at Dover, it was rainy and grim which didn’t help but I was dragged off by immigration for interrogation. This was nothing personal. It was the height of the troubles and any 20 something male Irish person was a suspected pIRA terrorist. The questioning was very aggressive, on question near the end was “Why do want to come to the UK?” – the context and tone was keeping out Jonny Foreigner. I resisted the temptation to say that I had no desire to come to this poxy country, but I calmly assured them that I was only transiting the UK, back to Dublin, and was allowed in.
For me Freedom of Movement, FoM, is a wonderful thing – certainly the greatest perk of being a member of the EU: the ability to work, live and study almost unhindered in Europe. Apart from the potential damage to Northern Ireland, it is the thing that annoys me most about Brexit. The cutting off of such opportunities for the young is almost vindictive. The consequences for the c 5M citizens of different EU28 nationalities in the EU and UK horrendous.
PM May is troubling. I find her very difficult to watch, there often seems to be a total disconnect between her words and facial expressions. On the prospect of termination of FoM however her face seems to light up, her eyes shine, she seems to truly believe in finishing FoM and controlling “immigration” is her life’s work and destiny. All the unpleasantness of being PM, at this very difficult time, is worth it if, in her warped mind, she can achieve just this one thing. It reminds me of that aggressive Dover immigration officer from so many years ago.
la Paix en Irlande – Peace in Ireland
Returning to the ’76 Beaujolais, I was a practicing Catholic at the time and went to mass on Sunday in the local village church at Saint-Laurent-d’Oingt. One of the themes of the mass was La Paix en Irlande – it was at the height of the troubles and clearly big news in France also. There seemed to be genuine concern for Ireland – far more so than in England.
Watching the Brexit negotiations has been stressful and fascinating. There is a very different relationship in continental Europe towards the EU. In Britain it very often is seen as a necessary evil, something that is useful only entered into on a transactional basis. To Europeans it is primarily a peace project – the UK is one of the few countries not to experience war on its territory (or at least not troops on the ground) in the 20th century.
I found the WWI armistice commemoration in France very moving, in particular the efforts Merkel and Macron to show a totally united front and emphasised by excellent photography. The fact that some 70 world leaders attended was a measure of its significance even if Trump and Putin turned up late. It was excellent to see Leo Varadkar there – the Irish have a complex relationship with the 1st world war as touched upon by my On Ypres and Poppies piece, for too long the Irish sacrifice has not been properly honoured. There is a determination that war will never happen in Europe again.
One very notably absent figure was PM May. It seemed rather than the occasion being used to enhance European unity, it was being exploited by the British as an occasion of nationalistic militaristic propaganda – the small nation that took on the world and won. A revelling in the glory days of old empire. A deliberate distancing from our European allies. Indeed Britain has a very militaristic culture, which seems, like wallpaper, almost invisible to people who grew up here. I thought Naomi O’Leary on the Irish Passport podcast captured it well in her recent Why the Poppy Divides Ireland. This militaristic culture is also a major thread in Fintan O’Toole’s new book Heroic Failures: Brexit and the Politics of Pain. In the UK there is almost a reverence for war. Even if there is never a real war again there are some who would like to relive the fantasy through a hard Brexit.
Returning to the original theme, the Irish see a clear and present danger with Brexit, in that it could destabilise the North. This resonated very strongly with other Europeans who see the preservation of peace as the very essence of the EU project. This is a major reason in the steadfast backing of Ireland in its concern for the preservation of peace and the Good Friday Agreement. The Brexiters still don’t seem to get this and, even after the draft withdrawal agreement has been stabilised, believe a pip-squeak county like Ireland can’t get in the way of Britain’s manifest Brexit destiny.
la Dinde de Noël – Turkey for Christmas?
As of earlier this week the draft Withdrawal Agreement has been stabilised. The 585 page document is very legalistic and complex. It seems clear however that it is an attempt by the EU to conform to the UK’s red-lines in as far as possible. It is not too far from the landing zone predicted by savvy commentators like Prof Chris Grey and Prof Simon Wren-Lewis for example in his Conservative Zugzwang Redux post. I had thought an EEA solution similar to Norway was a sensible solution, but May’s driving passion is the termination of FoM – nothing else seems to matter.
In an attempt to appease the DUP the UK has agreed to a backstop for the whole of the UK to remain part of an EU Customs Union, but with deeper integration of the NI within the Single Market. Gone are references to NI staying within the EU customs territory but as Colm O’Mongain in the Brexit Republic podcast says rather than the Catholic mystery of transubstantiation (converting bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ) it could be described as “consubstantiation” – with NI remaining simultaneously part of both the UK’s and EU’s custom territory. A few thoughts:
- Rather than a sensible compromise like a Norway solution, the backstop more resembles Turkey. Customs Union membership with almost no say. This was very predictable, much worse than EU membership and light years removed from the freewheeling Brexit fantasies promised in the Referendum. This would be bad enough in itself, but may well tear the country apart and leads to decades of uncertainty for the UK. This is a dreadful deal for the UK. It is of course far better than the near Armageddon of “No Deal.”
- For the EU it is a deal. An orderly withdrawal which will be treated with immense sadness. As compared to two years ago when there seemed a real possibility of a domino effect and the EU splitting up it is livable with. There is however, from the EU’s perspective, no prospect of a better deal. As Tom Hayes says on his BEERG Brexit blog “As my American friends would put it, the EU has already ‘cut the UK a sweet deal’ and are not going to make it any sweeter”. The granting of a UK wide backstop is a major concession on the part of the EU.
- For NI this is an excellent deal. There is a separate UKNI distinction which gives it extraordinary comparative advantage, being part of the UK and EU simultaneously. Even the Ulster Farmers Union traditionally closely aligned to the DUP recognise that it is far better than No Deal. The DUP of course hate it. If Dublin is happy – by definition there must be something wrong in their zero-sum game mind.
- Dublin is indeed happy. Their primary objective of keeping the open border and protecting the GFA has been achieved. Their secondary objective of keeping good trade links and open borders with the UK ditto.
- Scotland and Wales are livid. The correctly recognise the excellent deal NI has and are afraid in a competitive environment investment will go to NI rather than their respective countries. Whereas there are dozens of pages in the WA dedicated to NI, there is not one single mention of Scotland or Wales. I can totally sympathise with this.
So will there be a Turkey for Christmas? The Westminster politics is fascinating and will be the subject of my next article. There appear to be only three options: the WA deal, No Deal or stay in the EU probably via a People’s Vote. The chances of any meaningful negotiation of the WA are zero. The People’s Vote option which looked so unlikely a few months ago is gaining momentum and may indeed be the most likely outcome. No Deal of course will happen by default if there is complete chaos in Westminster over the next 4 1/2 months. Not since WWII has there been a greater need for leadership. Sadly there seems to be little from the two major parties.