After Brexit, Ireland can form part of new ‘grit in the oyster’
After UK leaves, role of contrarian bulwark against France and Germany will be vacant
John Major in Dublin. Photograph: Tom Honan
Contrariness was the hallmark of the UK’s sometimes fractious relationship with the EU long before the Brexit vote. And it was never something for which they felt the need to apologise. Indeed they saw it as a strength, and not just for themselves.
As former prime minister John Major put it this week: “To have a grit in the oyster is quite useful and Britain has often been the grit in the European oyster.” Speaking in Dublin, Major noted that Britain saw itself as “the protector of small nations who were reluctant to speak out against the broad consensus themselves”.
With the UK due to exit the EU in March, who will take up the mantle of protector against the union’s dominant member states, France and Germany? Maybe that won’t be the problem it might once have been. Already, the Hanseatic League, a club comprising Ireland and seven other fiscally conservative northern European countries, has emerged as a credible contender for the role.
Last week France and Germany shelved plans for a proposed EU digital services tax following a forceful campaign by the emerging alliance. A digital services tax would disproportionately hit economies such as Ireland’s, home to online giants Facebook and Google.
Perhaps the EU’s smaller members are now confident enough to speak for themselves.
Major also argued that the UK’s decision, under his leadership, not to join the euro at the time of the Maastricht treaty was in the best interests of the EU’s smaller countries.
“I declined to join as I thought the structure of the euro was going to lead to trouble. I could not see how countries like Greece could compete in the same monetary zone, with the same exchange rate as Germany,” he said. “We were alone in saying that ... I think in retrospect that we were right.”
Of course, that sidesteps the reality that the decision was made out of self-interest, particularly the UK’s desire to keep control of its own interest rates and its beloved sterling.
The seeds of Brexit were sown a long way back.