Joe Mulholand: Brexit is not just about Ireland and the UK

We urgently need to take account of overall state of EU and risk of disintegration

Most of the discourse on Brexit in this country has focused, not surprisingly, on the rather narrow agenda of possible economic effects on our economy and the restoration of a border between North and South.

The fallout from Brexit, however, will be much more extensive and far-reaching for Ireland, Europe and the wider world, which makes it imperative that we broaden the discussion to take account of the bigger picture.

Such is the threat to the very existence of the European Union posed by a major member state's decision to leave, together with the growth of anti-EU, populist far-left and far-right movements resulting in instability in many member states, there is an urgent need to widen the discourse to take account of the overall state of the union. The disintegration of the European Union, no longer unthinkable, would be disastrous not only for the people of this island but for everyone in Europe and far beyond.

The EU is by no means flawless but – with 28 sovereign member states with such diversity of interests, economies and cultures – how could it be otherwise? However, the fact remains that, as Barack Obama said in one of his final speeches as president of the US, the European Union stands as one of man's great achievements of the 20th century.


Unfortunately, one doesn't hear this message often these days, either from Brussels or from the member states, and certainly not from Nigel Farage and other Eurosceptics in Britain and elsewhere who have been long opposed to the European project.

The world has not, perhaps, been in such a dangerous place since Cold War days. There are now many forces, including, on recent evidence, the US and Russia, which would appear to wish for the destabilisation of the EU – even perhaps its ultimate destruction.

Is it not time for all of us who believe in liberty, fraternity, interdependence and international co-operation for the common good, to rally to the defence of the European ideal at this time of its gravest crisis so far? This community of large and small nations in a democratic alliance, freely and willingly entered into, has never been so demoralised and so fragmented and in need of inspirational leadership.

Original vision

We might start by reminding ourselves of the achievement that is today the European Union. Born out of the catastrophes of the first and second World Wars in a Europe that had seen suffering, death and destruction on an unprecedented scale and which, split by the Iron Curtain, was on its knees, the first steps towards its creation were hesitant and difficult. It was the moral purpose and political and intellectual tenacity of statesmen such as Jean Monnet, Robert Schuman and Konrad Adenauer, all of whom had lived their lives in the shadow of war, which brought about the union we now have.

It is worth noting that those European leaders who had a vision of a united Europe included Winston Churchill, who declared at the Congress of Europe in the Hague in 1948 at which Ireland was among the participants: "I hope to see a Europe where men and women of every country will think of being European as of belonging to their native land and wherever they go in this wide domain will truly feel 'Here I am at home'."

Largely because of the bitter aftertaste of the financial crisis that hit the EU eight years ago, it is now too easy to forget that its history is not a story of failure but predominantly one of remarkable success. In the second half of the 20th century, the greatest achievement was in the domain of economic performance, with many of its members showing impressive rates of growth and jobs, huge advances in science and technology, large improvements in infrastructure – particularly transport and the creation of innovative new industries. Parallel to this economic success was the development of a Europe of pluralist democracies and liberal politics in which the arts and sciences flourished.


According to the former taoiseach Garret Fitzgerald in an address to the MacGill School in 2002, in relation to our size, no country had benefited more from the European Union than Ireland. He reckoned that during the first 25 years of our membership, the combined impact of the Structural Funds and the CAP added as much as 5 per cent annually to our GNP.

Nevertheless there are not only major external threats to the EU but internal shortcomings that fuel the negative and destructive rhetoric of its detractors and which must be urgently and effectively addressed. Unemployment, stagnant economies, growing inequality, the struggle to maintain the euro, bankrupt banks, the migrant crisis, terrorist attacks on major European cities and disaffection with the institutions of the EU have all spread demoralisation and despair and left the way open to those who would abandon many of the values on which the European Union is founded.

Saving the EU

The European Union must urgently reform and make decisions about its future shape, about the role being played by its institutions including the European Parliament and about policies including monetary union and, perhaps inevitably, greater political integration.

It must make renewed efforts to connect with its citizens and bring democratic debate into every region in every member state. It is not enough to be granting financial assistance to schemes and projects throughout the EU. The union remains remote from most citizens and has to be constantly explained. In this regard, its own representatives and the media also have responsibilities.

It is not, then, the time for this small vulnerable country to be issuing warnings about our continued membership of the EU. Rather, as Commissioner Hogan has recently said, we should be moving closer to all of the other member states and indeed becoming stronger in our conviction that our place, socially, economically and culturally, is firmly in Europe. All citizens of the EU have to be persuaded that this European project is worth defending – especially in the fraught environment in which we find ourselves at this time. The European Union is too important in all our lives to be allowed to fail.

Joe Mulholland is a former RTÉ executive, founding director of the MacGill Summer School and a member of the Institute for International and European Affairs.