A malign influence from Britain

Fri, Sep 18, 2009, 01:00

IRELAND HAS become a battleground for several conflicting political currents in the European Union as voters prepare to decide on the Lisbon Treaty on October 2nd. That is to be expected in this emergent transnational political system, notwithstanding electoral sovereignty. Less expected and worth more discussion than it has had so far is the fact that the most prominent intervention of this kind comes from the hard Eurosceptic and Europhobic wings of British conservatism who want to weaken the EU radically or withdraw from it altogether. Their objectives are altogether at variance with Ireland’s vital interests as a small state in a well-functioning EU system.

The scale of the intervention will be brought home next week when every household in the State will receive a set of leaflets from the Europe of Freedom and Democracy group in the European Parliament, whose dominant member is the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP). The group’s 30 members are right-wing nationalists brought together on an anti-immigrant and frequently racist programme, but they have no Irish MEPs. The leaflets deal with jobs, immigration, taxation, democracy, values and rural Ireland. They say wrongly that Lisbon gives the EU full control over immigration and that Turkey’s accession would lead to a mass migration of cheap labour, along with crude anti-Islamic illustrations. Other arguments are made with a similar farrago of false claims or legal half-truths.

This would be less disturbing were it not part of a wider pattern of British influence on Ireland’s Lisbon debate. Many British-based newspapers are using their position in the Irish market to promote their own partisan or ideological arguments about the EU, with little regard for this State’s very different political culture and experience or for a balanced debate on Lisbon’s merits. They want to force the Conservatives to reopen Lisbon by a UK referendum if Ireland votes Yes, or to use an Irish No to deepen the consequential fragmentation of the wider EU system in an effort to subvert it altogether. In fact, the Conservative leadership has decided to respect an Irish vote in favour and to concentrate then on renegotiating British relations with the EU.

An Irish No would transform that negotiation into one about the emergence of a two-tier Europe, as continental states would seek to preserve core EU institutions and agree a looser relationship with the UK. In those circumstances, Ireland would soon be repositioned within a British sphere of influence, reversing the achievements of EU membership which have given us a more genuine independence since joining 36 years ago. That would be an utterly regrettable outcome.

These hard political realities are seldom taken account of by Ireland’s hard sovereigntists. Sinn Féin’s advocacy of a No vote in the Republic sits awkwardly with its support of closer European integration in the Northern Executive, for example. Many on the left of Irish politics fail to see this political logic. Voters tempted to support them should be fully aware that a No victory would embolden such a hard right-wing agenda.