David Cameron: EU referendum on his agenda
You can hear the excitement in his words. “After the Berlin Wall came down, I visited the city and I will never forget it: the abandoned checkpoints, the sense of excitement about the future, the knowledge that a great continent was coming together. Healing those wounds of our history is the central story of the European Union.”
Twice in the twentieth century, Europe tore itself apart in conflicts that grew to engulf the world. The EU emerged from the ruins, built on a vision that this must never happen again.
From small beginnings – there were six founding members of the European Economic Community – the EU has grown to embrace 28 sovereign states. It is undoubtedly greater than the sum of its parts, a remarkable achievement given historic enmities.
In 1943 Jean Monnet, the French statesman and father of the EU, said: “The countries of Europe are not strong enough individually to be able to guarantee prosperity and social development for their peoples.”
His instinct was right. Half a billion live within its borders. Now they are among the wealthiest in the world – collectively EU countries account for almost a quarter of global gross domestic product (GDP) – and as an entity, Europe is the largest global economy.
Successive treaties have removed more and more economic and political barriers, and seen greater pooling of sovereignty. EU institutions have grown in power, and it has begun to develop many trappings of a state: an EU President, parliament, central bank, and cabinet. It has a foreign minister, missions around the world, and is represented in the United Nations, G8 and the G20.
Northern Ireland has benefited enormously from membership of the EU. Billions have poured in, and much of the infrastructure necessary to sustain the economy was supported by EU funding.
The European project was important for another reason too. By reframing the relationship between Britain and Ireland within a European context – and focusing on the importance of pooling sovereignty for the greater good – John Hume created the conditions for the peace process.
So far, so good. But the UK’s relationship with Europe has never been smooth. Its entry was bumpy, and politicians on the right and left have sniped at it over the decades. Thatcher fell over Europe, and the Major government was destroyed by internal conflict over the Maastricht Treaty.
The Tory right and UKIP have forced an in-out referendum – announced in Wednesday’s Queen’s Speech – and British PM David Cameron embarked this week on renegotiating Britain’s relationship with Europe. The political realities are that ‘Little Englanders’ could propel the Scots, Welsh and Irish out of Europe against their will.
For all those who support the European project, the knee-jerk reaction is to be critical of Cameron and oppose the referendum. But a black-and-white approach to the European question would undermine the long-term stability of Europe.
Even the most fervent supporter of the EU recognises it is in need of reform. There is a democratic deficit, the all-powerful European Commission needs to be more accountable; the parliament, which at least has the benefit of a democratic mandate, needs to speak more powerfully for those it represents; and the European bureaucracy needs to be trimmed. There is too much waste.
Cameron is not alone in looking for reform. There are concerns in other European states about the centralising instincts of Brussels. Pro-Europeans need to accept the need for change and get involved in the debate.
The discussion about meaningful reform provides an opportunity to create a Europe fit for the twenty-first century, to make it better connected with its citizens, and to promote the importance of European values.
As for the young man who walked in the ruins of the Berlin Wall and witnessed “a great continent coming together”. That was none other than David Cameron.
I imagine some people are fed up with liberal commentators like me extolling the virtues of last week’s vote on same sex marriage, so just one reflection. At Mass with my mother last Sunday, I wondered how the priest would deal with the referendum result. Pentecost, he told us, was the day the Holy Spirit inspired the disciples to spread the Good News. He said it was the birthday of the Church and on birthdays you get a present. “Your present today is no homily. I haven’t been inspired.” One man okay, but his lack of inspiration is a metaphor for the state of the Irish church today. Where is the Holy Spirit when you need him?
- A version of this column appeared in The Irish News on May 29 2015