Irish Times view: Brexit a bewildering act of self-harm

What we cannot and will not accept is that the EU is the problem

Video: Mark Hennessy and Cliff Taylor of the Irish Times reflect on Brexit and its historic implications.

 

‘Dare to dream that the dawn is breaking on an independent United Kingdom, ” Nigel Farage boasted this morning. Dream on. The truth is that the shocking decision of the UK to leave the European Union, genuinely bewildering to its friends and allies across the Irish Sea and the continent, will leave the kingdom neither independent nor united. It will be poorer, more isolated and less influential.

Our neighbours have inflicted a deep wound on their country, economically and politically. And they may well have set in train its disintegration as Scotland and Northern Ireland demand that their expressed preferences be respected. They have dealt a seismic blow to the long-term viability of the EU – around Europe the forces of euroscepticism and xenophobia have received a perhaps irresistible boost. They have also almost certainly plunged not only themselves but Europe into recession – the swift and sudden response of the markets bodes ill.

Interdependence

No man is an island, no more than any nation. In this age we are no longer alone masters of our fate. Interdependence in globalised markets and in the face of political turmoil and instability that rolls across the world in great tides makes the idea of pure “independence” a utopian dream of the past, of the days of empire. The mantra “Take back control” is an easily-sold, demagogic delusion. The choice for all of us is not between standing resolutely alone and voluntarily co-operating with those around us, the issue is how we co-operate. Sovereignty consists in the ability to affect decisions, the ability to get things done. Shared, it is not diminished, but enhanced. To deny such realities, Canute-like, is to stand against the movement of history. To will sovereignty is not to create it.

The EU has been increasingly weighed down by failures to deal fully with a succession of crises, from the 2008 financial collapse to a resurgent Russia and the massive influx of migrants last year. Yes, we must listen to what British voters and others are saying about that weakness and undoubted failings of its democratic structures. Yes, we too must commit to far-reaching reform. But that is because the majority of our peoples still regard the union as part of the solution, an essential part of the solution. What we cannot and will not accept is the central Leave contention that the EU is the problem.

There is a huge irony to this sorry decision. Britain’s assertion of its apartness and otherness from Europe is actually the expression in the UK of a very European phenomenon – indeed, arguably, global – a political tidal wave that has in the wake of the economic downturn swept across all our states. It has variously taken the form of a virulent anti-politics politics, of euroscepticism, of xenophobia, of islamophobia... It feeds on fear, deprivation, and prejudice. And on success – France’s Marine Le Pen and the Netherlands’s Geert Wilders will be invigorated and have already called for more national referendums. Polls show they have now a growing chance of producing similar results. In European capitals there is a real sense of fear that the whole great peace project of European construction is in danger of unravelling.

People have spoken

But the decision is taken. The people have spoken. And we must now begin to work out how best for all of us to accommodate generously the UK government’s new mandate in a way that both respects it and respects fundamental European values. Not least, that includes free movement of labour, an indispensible pillar of a single market, that cannot be traded away in a deal giving back access to that market. The UK cannot expect access to a market of 500 million without accepting, as others have, that there is a ticket price. There can be no free ride.

For Ireland, of all remaining member states, the challenge ahead is particularly acute. The threat to our strong trading relationship both across the Border and the Irish Sea should not be underestimated – the Republic will now be the external border of the Union, responsible for policing and taxing its trade across that border. The free travel area which Leave campaigners have promised us will remain may also, however, find itself falling foul of zealous new UK curbs on migrants from the EU. In some form a return of little lamented border controls is inevitable. That alone would set back the coming together of the two parts of this island which has been such an important dividend of the peace process.

To tackle such challenges Ireland will almost certainly have to engage in special pleading with our European partners to seek approval for the continuation of a unique bilateral relationship with a non-member with specifically tailored rules to facilitate those historic ties. A happy outcome is by no means a given, but our partners’ generous past recognition of the particular challenges of our peace process – apparently quickly forgotten by many Northern voters – would suggest a willingness to hear our case.

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