Radical reform must be the EU’s response to Brexit

epa05433688   Britain's new Prime Minister Theresa May (left) responds to a question as German chancellor Angela Merkel listens to a translation during their joint press conference at the Chancellery in Berlin 20 July 2016 ahead of their 'dinner talks' later this evening.  EPA/SOEREN STACHE
May and Merkel: both have a major headache to deal with. For Merkel Brexit means finding a new vision for Europe

Inspiration comes from the strangest places. A piece of graffiti gave one of the sixties’ most successful Broadway musicals its title; and it’s hard to think of a more appropriate sentiment for any sane individual today. “Stop the world, I want to get off” – not to be confused with the Arctic Monkey’s “Stop the world, I want to get off with you”. (Remember them? Political animals will know them as one of Gordon Brown’s ‘favourite’ bands.) But I digress.

North Korea is testing nuclear missiles, Turkey is using a coup attempt to crack down on free speech and free-thinking, motor vehicles are being deployed as weapons of mass and wanton destruction, we have just voted to turn our backs on 27 allies and economic partners, the pound is in crisis, the economy is heading for recession, the entire Russian sporting elite is suspected of cheating, Boris Johnston is in charge of Britain’s foreign relations, and the United States of America (the world’s last remaining superpower) is poised to put its future (and ours) in the hands of a megalomaniac property developer, serial bankrupt and TV celebrity with a Walnut Whip haircut and a wife who does poor impressions of Michelle Obama. (Students of journalism will note the 122-word sentence. Normally I advise no more than 20, but these are exceptional times.)

So please, stop the world. I want to get off. A spell on the international space station suddenly looks appealing.

I suppose one mustn’t forget we have been here before. There have been worse periods of history. O’Casey’s line: “Th’ whole worl’s in a terrible state o’ chassis” reverberates through the 20th century.

Journalists are castastrophists, and the papers are filled with stories pushed as far as they can go, and then a little further. Most things we should take with the proverbial pinch of salt. Things are never quite as bad as they seem, nor do events turn out to be as catastrophic as you first thought. Let us hope Brexit falls into that category.

After 9/11, people talked about the ‘new normal’. It’s an interesting phase. What was once unthinkable, becomes reality, we come to terms with it and get on with life. Human beings adapt. It is how we have survived as a species.

Difficult times need leadership to help us get through. Yet the political class is in a state of collapse. There is a vacuum in the US, it lasts until the end of January 2017; in the UK Labour has ceased to exist as a political force, Arleen Foster is in denial about Brexit’s implications for Northern Ireland (or her precious Union), even the sure-footed Nicola Sturgeon is in a dilemma. Is she now looking for Scotland in the Union and in Europe? That appears to be the case. As for the Republic – perhaps the single biggest casualty of the Brexit vote – government? What government?

Ironically, Theresa May appears to be the only one taking a grip on things. But her decision to play the long game on pushing the Brexit button only extends the period of uncertainty. The markets are cruel and hate uncertainty. The economic consequences are already being felt, they will get worse (trust the catastrophist on this).

And so we must look to Europe: that great union of nations, working for common goals of economic growth, cultural and social cohesion, and security. I have bought into the European dream. But I am not naïve enough to believe the EU is perfect.

While it might be tempting for the EU to think of this as Britain’s problem, it is clear the forces which rent the UK from Europe are at play in other nations too: France, the Netherlands, Poland, even Germany have their exiteers, now embolden by Little England’s victory.

The EU is broke – Brussels has to wake up to that fact. Significant reform is necessary. This is the time for a new vision for Europe – referenced not by the aftermath of the Second World War, but built on the needs of 21st century Europeans.

Europe’s founding father Jean Monnet believed that future wars in Europe would be averted by pooling sovereignty in a federation. The primary threats to Europe’s security are no longer from national rivalries. The primary threat is an erosion of trust between those who govern and the governed.

Where is the Jean Monnet of today? Reform might save Europe – and keep the UK engaged and an active participant in an alliance of common purpose. That is the true challenge for Merkel, Hollande, Junker et al.

  • A version of this article appeared in The Irish News on July 22 2016