GREECE may ultimately be the smaller — more solvable — problem facing the European Union this week. The high-stakes game of chicken ongoing since Sunday, parlayed through numerous meetings, is garnering media attention.
It is compelling. It has a range of characters straight out of central casting, but it is fixable in the short-term.
Tomorrow, another issue will be tabled. It is potentially far less amenable to solution and has enormous consequences for Ireland, as well as for the political and constitutional relationships on these islands.
UK prime minister David Cameron will formally propose a recalibrated relationship between Britain and the EU; then, it’s game-on.
I purposely say recalibrated, because the terms, as distinct from the themes, are not yet known. Tomorrow will tell. For now, the EU Council, in December, is the possible end date.
Cameron is committed to an in-out referendum by 2017. It is more likely he intends to have that vote next year. In theory, a shorter time frame, if realisable, allows him to capitalise on the momentum of his general election victory.
By 2017, a government in mid-term is unlikely to be as flavoursome, and by then his backbenchers will be looking over the horizon to the next election.
Cameron has emphasised a union of states in which the single market is complete, but the diversity of those member states is respected. Power would somehow flow back to national parliaments, and the onward march to greater institutional integration would be arrested.
What is also required is greater control over inward migration from other EU states and over their welfare entitlements. This last issue falls across one of the four fundamental freedoms of the EU — the free movement of labour; the others being goods, services and capital. It will, depending on the terms requested by Cameron, be the potential sticking point.
What may be clearer tomorrow are the specific changes he requires to persuade his own Conservative Party, and ultimately the British electorate, to stand behind him. In holding a Scottish referendum in the last parliament, and promising an EU one in this, Cameron has shown an extraordinary appetite for the political high-wire.
That he has been successful once, at least in the short-term, doesn’t diminish either the danger of failure or the scale of what is at stake. Withdrawal of Britain from the EU would surely trigger immediate demands for another referendum on Scottish independence. A narrowly-won decision in Britain, to stay in, but where a majority in England voted to leave, would exacerbate palpable sentiments of English nationalism within the Conservative Party.
Cameron must, in the coming months, negotiate a settlement with his EU partners which he can successfully sell, firstly, to his own party, and then to the British electorate. Party unity, and the continuing union of Britain, are at stake as well as continuing membership of the European Union.
As our European Affairs committee reported yesterday, what unfolds in Brussels tomorrow is pivotal for Ireland thereafter.
If most Irish parliamentary coverage is dominated by the dysfunction of the Dáil chamber or the slow-motion horror of the banking inquiry, real work, which is under-appreciated and under-reported, is happening in committees.
The European Affairs committee’s report is a solid analysis of the issues a British departure from the EU poses. It has specific recommendations on how best we can influence events that will be beyond our control.
The seriousness of the threat to Ireland’s interests is matched by the response. After months of hearings, the committee report is one aspect of that. Another is that a dedicated unit has been established in the Taoiseach’s department to help map our response.
The foundation of Ireland’s bilateral relationship with Britain, which predates our entry together into the then EEC in 1972, is the Common Travel Area (CTA).
Britain is the only country we share a land border with, and we are the only EU state they border on. The Common Travel Area, and the unique status of Irish citizens in Britain as ‘non-foreign aliens’, must be copper-fastened in all circumstances. The Good Friday Agreement has been built on that foundation.
Bilaterally operating the joint institutions, whereby one state is outside the EU, would be difficult, if not impossible. Establishing an external EU border on the island of Ireland, separating North and South, would be far more pernicious than the Republic of Ireland–Britain border that exists now, and which, because of our common membership of the EU and the Good Friday Agreement, is almost negligible.
The nub of what the committee, led by its chairman, Dominic Hannigan, advocates is that we must establish, from the get-go, that our status has an essential, vested interest in the detail of both Britain staying in the EU under changed arrangements, or leaving altogether. Ireland’s capacity to influence the negotiations will be a litmus test of the Government’s standing in Brussels.
After so much was sacrificed by us in the banking crisis, for a supposedly greater European interest, it remains to be seen what regard is paid to our interests over the coming months. As Hannigan remarked when publishing his committee’s report, “Ireland has to be in the negotiations before the referendum and after the referendum, the effect on us is so great”.
What is certain is that the constitutional architecture that has held the United Kingdom together since 1707, punctured only by the violent departure of Ireland in events whose centenary we now commemorate, is irreversibly loosening.
The densely interrelated context of British-Irish relations, the internal Brisih relationship and the UK–EU relationship are all in the melting pot. The only absolute certainly is change. The issue now is what change and what its effects will be.
The Conservative Party will not survive intact. Clearly, some are intent on leaving the EU — and leaving the party if that is not realised. The challenge for Cameron, with a parliamentary majority of only 12, will be to lose as few as possible.
That requires results in Brussels that he can successfully sell at home. We have an interest in ensuring that he gets a deal he can sell, but which does not sell us out. Winning a Britain-wide referendum, where both turnout and sentiment are uncertain, will be difficult.
Unlike on ‘the continent’, or even in Ireland, there was never an emotional attachment to the EU in Britain. From the beginning, it was about economic opportunity. The greater political project was never fully shared. Now it is at stake. Britain out of the EU will be irreversibly diminished. But Britain’s difficulty will not be Ireland’s opportunity.