Short History of Brexit: From Brentry to Backstop, by Kevin O’Rourke, 352 pp, £20, ISBN: 978-0241398234
Some Irish thinkers are having a great Brexit. Kevin H O’Rourke, Chichele professor of economic history at Oxford and a fellow of All Souls College, is one of them.
Economic history can be a challenging subject, with feet in two schools of thought. But it is an invaluable discipline for understanding the impulses, the divisions, and the background to Brexit. Those combined political and economic instincts existed long before the UK applied to join the European Economic Community in 1961, a point which O’Rourke expertly elucidates in his book, and they are likely to persist in the UK long after Brexit.
Perhaps with a subconscious nod to Samuel Beckett, this book was originally written for a French-language audience, and later republished in English. As a result, O’Rourke uniquely covers an interlocking trinity of UK, EU and Irish economic history: from Joseph Chamberlain’s nineteenth century tariff proposals to the formation of the Schumann-Monnet-inspired Common Market, on to Theresa May’s July 2018 Chequers plan (from Chamberlain to Chequers in a nutshell).
From a policy perspective, this is the best strategic framing of Brexit of any book on the subject so far. O’Rourke is particularly illuminating on the political and economic transformation of Ireland. In the early 1970s it was not thought feasible for Ireland to join the Common Market unless and until the UK did, an entry which was achieved, together with Denmark, in 1973. Hardly anyone today suggests that Ireland should leave the EU, solely because the UK is leaving. That is a remarkable change in just one and a half generations.
O’Rourke also gives an excellent analysis of the dynamics of the Brexit talks up to the end of UK-EU negotiations in late 2018, including a lucid explanation of the politics and technicalities of the “backstop” designed to protect Strand II (cross-border co-operation) of the Belfast Agreement.
However, there is much more in O’Rourke’s book than an Irish story or perspective. The explorations of broader UK and West European economic history and political thinking are worth reading in and of themselves. In sum, this is a must-read book on Brexit, Ireland, and the EU.
This combination of British, European and Irish economic history, topics which are rarely treated together in such depth, sparks several thoughts about Ireland’s future in the EU post-Brexit. Those reflections are the focus of the bulk of this essay, which attempts to build on O’Rourke’s book by assessing the EU post-Brexit, including in a global context, and outline some initial ideas on how Ireland should prepare.
It is not easy to sum up O’Rourke’s lessons in one pithy phrase. But Lord Darlington’s description of a cynic in Oscar Wilde’s Lady Windermere’s Fan comes to mind: “a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing”. As the UK learns the price of Brexit, the EU has shown its value to Ireland. The ever-looming spectre of a no deal Brexit indicates its potentially heavy price, the next deadline being Halloween, October 31st. In the event of a no deal Brexit, the EU would immediately classify the UK as an outsider. Concretely, that would mean it would leave the EU with no legal framework to continue trading smoothly as today, for example. As businesses and trade unions in Ireland already know, that in turn would cause huge socio-economic disruption.
Even if things go smoothly, meaning the UK leaves with a withdrawal agreement in place, the eventual EU-UK trade deal will probably be the first international commercial accord since the Second World War to increase barriers to trade rather than reduce them. But the price of Brexit goes beyond the economic costs so far for the UK, such as multinational companies moving to Ireland, not to mention potential future economic costs. At its core, the idea of Brexit may appeal in principle to many, for a variety of reasons, but in practice it is riddled with contradictions. This is because Brexit involves a very difficult trade-off between an outdated “us alone” vision of political independence and global influence, and a world where prosperity and security are increasingly interdependent. True, the post-Brexit UK could align itself more closely to the United States, as some ultra-Brexiteers wish. But that would not be “taking back control”: it would be handing it over to Washington – the UK would have no vote at the American table, in contrast to its seat at the EU decision-making table in Brussels today. The idea that “global Britain” could choose between Europe and the world defies geography. UK goods exports to Ireland are currently worth more than those to China. Moreover, the idea that the UK would have more influence on global affairs by going it alone defies reality. As the old diplomatic adage puts it: “if you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu”.
Perhaps the biggest cost of Brexit will be for UK domestic politics. That domestic divisions are deep is shown by the current machinations at Westminster. The UK government has already requested (and received) two extensions to the Brexit process. Theresa May will soon step down and many of the candidates to replace her tried to outdo each other on their pure-Brexit credentials. Simultaneously, calls for going back to the people grow louder. All this suggests that Brexit is not only revealing a political crisis, but perhaps also a constitutional one.
Conversely, the EU has shown its value to Ireland during the Brexit process. First, and foremost, through the impressive solidarity of the other twenty-six remaining EU governments on the need for a “backstop” to protect the peace process on this island. Protecting a peace process comes naturally to the EU, since it was created to build peace between previously warring countries through a process of socio-economic interdependence. As O’Rourke puts it, on this question Ireland “was pushing on an open door”.
The other twenty-six EU governments also support Ireland for two harder-nosed reasons. The first is that EU membership matters, and at least twenty-one EU members could be classified as “small countries” like Ireland (populations of twenty million or fewer). So, even if the UK is a major NATO ally, geopolitical priorities for France, Germany and others mean that the interests of an EU member (in this case Ireland) must come before the interests of a soon-to-be non-member (the UK).
The second reason, which O’Rourke slightly underemphasises politically (if not technically), is that EU governments agree the single market must be protected at all costs. The single market is the one bit of the EU that all members sign up to: not all are in the euro, the passport-free Schengen travel area, or all aspects of foreign and security policy co-operation, for example. The arrangements in the “backstop” provide for the UK to either remain in a customs union with the EU, or to introduce more port checks between Britain and Northern Ireland (there are some Northern Ireland-Britain port checks already, for example for livestock). It would be much easier to protect the single market through a shared UK-EU customs union or with more of the existing port checks between Northern Ireland and Britain ‑ both options contained in the “backstop” ‑ than along the long 500-km Ireland-UK land border, which is probably impossible to police. If Ireland had to police the land border and was not able to protect the single market, this could raise questions about its future in the EU, as other EU members might then be tempted to introduce checks at continental ports on goods from Ireland as well as from the UK, especially if large amounts of American chlorine-washed chicken or Brazilian hormone-treated beef turned up at Parisian restaurants. Bluntly, that worst-case scenario would be a de facto West Brexit. In other words, Brexit is potentially a triple existential challenge for Ireland: for the peace process, for UK-Ireland relations and for Ireland’s membership of the EU. This combination of factors might help explain why the other EU governments have not “thrown Ireland under a bus”, despite all the noise at Westminster.
The EU shows its value to Ireland in other ways too. The EU single market (not including the UK) is currently worth more for Irish goods exports than the UK and US combined. Figures from the Central Statistics Office show that during 2018, the post-Brexit EU accounted for around 40 per cent of Irish goods exports, compared with the US on 28 per cent and the UK on only 10 per cent. Since Ireland’s economy depends on exports, it also helps that Ireland is a member of a major player in setting global trade rules, namely the EU.
The basic aim of EU foreign policies also matches that of Ireland: to replace the law of force with the force of law. The EU, after all, has always been a peace project founded on democratic values and respect for laws, and wants a world order based on the rule of law. For example, it is the EU that is currently trying to persuade Iran to keep its commitment to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), and not develop a nuclear weapons-capability, while the US is preparing to sanction Tehran.
The world economic and political picture is becoming more complicated, however. Global politics is characterised by a fundamental paradox. On the one hand, the world is becoming more integrated ‑ economically, socially, and even at the individual level. On the other hand, it is becoming more politically fragmented, conflict-ridden, and dangerous. Interdependence is racing far ahead of national and global governance, often causing nationalist backlashes. And all this has been happening while economic power has been shifting from the West to the rest: according to some projections, states outside the Western-led Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), including fast-growing billion-people behemoths China and India, will account for more of global economic output than the current OECD members by 2030, and perhaps sooner.
In some respects, the EU has some inherent advantages for shaping the future global order because the emerging messy system of global governance resembles the EU setup in many ways: diverse practices and types of membership for distinct policy areas, with different political coalitions forming around different issues (the EU working with Brazil, China, India, Japan and others to persist with the 2016 Paris climate accord, for example, despite the Trump administration’s intention to withdraw the US).
But three major geopolitical uncertainties may severely test the EU in the coming decades: potential turbulence centered on China; the ambiguous future of US power; and Europe’s ever more unstable neighbourhood. China’s future trajectory will be the greatest geopolitical challenge for the current global system of rules and politics. This is because, based on some measures, China’s economic output has already surpassed that of the United States, and Beijing’s military spending may exceed that of Washington within a decade. Europeans should not ignore the huge potential for turmoil centred on China that could affect their interests. This turmoil could include an Asian economic downturn triggered by a Chinese slowdown, a major security crisis arising from one of the many territorial disputes in East Asia, or massive domestic political unrest. The EU should start thinking much more politically about China (and about the US-Chinese relationship), which is also an indispensable partner for coping with global issues like open trade or climate change.
Economically rising democracies including Brazil, India, Indonesia, and South Africa are likely to become more influential, and they could become stronger partners of the EU alongside richer democracies such as Australia, Canada, Japan, and South Korea. But ultimately, the future of global governance will depend mainly on the United States. Although on some measures it currently seems to be in relative decline, the US will remain the most powerful country in the world for the foreseeable future, and a future renewal of its strength should not be ruled out. The US has some structural economic advantages, such as huge shale gas reserves and an innovation culture, that may contribute to a revived surge of the country’s economic (and concomitant political) weight in the world in the coming decade.
Even so, the US alone will not be able to guarantee the future stability of global order ‑ nor will any other government. Consequently, the EU should be prepared for different future scenarios for US power, not least since the EU’s own security currently depends on the United States (mainly, but not exclusively through NATO). European confidence in the leading role of the US has been shaken ‑ albeit concerns about American unilateralism have replaced initial fears that the Trump administration would embrace isolationism.
Most of the states in the EU’s extended neighbourhood are weak, failing, or failed. The wider Middle East contains eight of the world’s ten most lethal conflicts, and many of the same countries face a combination of massive demographic growth, economic stagnation, major resource shortages, and deepening sectarian cleavages. Sub-Saharan Africa remains at risk of famine on top of some long-running wars (in Somalia, for example, or South Sudan). In addition, Russia’s growing military strength, and current strong-arm tactics in Ukraine and other parts of its western neighbourhood, will not mask that country’s serious political, economic, and demographic weaknesses forever. Given this very challenging and evolving global, and regional, economic and security landscape, to promote their values and to protect their interests, EU members would be wise to work closer and better together.
The EU could evolve in lots of ways after Brexit. Perhaps the best recent summary of this potential evolution was a presentation by Catherine Day, former secretary general of the European Commission, before the Joint Oireachtas Committee on European Union Affairs on April 3rd this year. Day mentioned six aspects that Irish EU-watchers should be conscious of, and four are especially noteworthy from a strategic perspective. First, the EU will become more “continental” in outlook, resulting in France and Germany playing a bigger role, and much of what the EU does will depend on their ability to reach consensus. This will not only place greater responsibilities on Paris and Berlin: it will also place new demands on the other twenty-five EU members to try to influence them. Second, the nineteen-country Eurozone will become even more important, as a kind of “core group” for the EU. Debates about Eurozone consolidation and deepening, therefore, will have more strategic significance for the EU than before. Third, the need to help those who have not prospered economically in recent years, alongside the absence of the UK, is likely to mean that social policy will become a more important EU policy area. Fourth, there is a danger that the EU could become more protectionist and less global in outlook post-Brexit. This shows itself already in the Franco-German desire to merge Siemens and Alstom into a European engineering-industrial “champion”, but some in the EU could become tempted to tweak their global outlooks towards a kind of “giant Switzerland” model.
In many ways, the appeal of a bit more protectionism is understandable. The last decade has been exhausting for the EU, between Eurozone, migration and Brexit challenges. Some consolidation would be welcome. Plus, there are lots of domestic challenges, such as more quickly adjusting economies to the climate crisis, and completing the single market, for instance in the digital realm. In addition, the EU would be on stronger ground to promote democracy and human rights worldwide if all its members adhered more clearly to those principles. To be fair, the EU has, at least, had some success recently at limiting the ability of Hungary, Poland, and Romania to interfere with the independence of their courts. West European politics are not immune to extremist impulses either, with strong support for right-wing nationalist parties in recent general elections, in France, Germany, Italy, and (to a lesser degree) Spain.
But looking beyond EU domestic political challenges, Ireland’s export-driven economy already sends more goods to the rest of the world (including the UK), than to the rest of the post-Brexit EU, and that trade depends on functioning global rules and enhanced international security. For example, the EU’s recent trade deals with Japan, Mexico, and South Korea should greatly benefit Irish exporters. Any EU retreat from global governance, in the hope of stemming the external challenges of globalisation and international geopolitics at home, would not be in Ireland’s long-term interest. To borrow from John Donne, no more than any human, no region is an island in today’s changing world.
What do the recent European Parliament election results tell us about the EU? EU-wide voter turnout shot up from forty-two per cent in 2014 to an impressive fifty-one per cent this year, the first reverse in declining turnout since the first European elections in 1979 (with a sixty-three per cent turnout). This is an encouraging sign of greater citizen engagement across the EU on European issues. The striking growth in EU-average turnout was largely driven by very high rises in four of the member-states with the largest populations: France, Germany, Poland and Spain.
However, health warnings should accompany broad catch-all labels for the multinational political groups at the European Parliament. A centre-right politician in one EU member state may support some policies considered centre-left in another, and the European Parliament groups are alliances of national parties; they are not full-blown European political parties. For example, some European Parliament groups are currently being reconfigured, such as the centrist Alliance of Liberals and Democrats (ALDE, to which Fianna Fáil and the Alliance Party in Northern Ireland are aligned), with the accession of French President Macron’s Renaissance. In one way, the next European Parliament (which will have 705 members after the UK leaves, down from 751 today) will be more politically fragmented, which may hamper law-making, since it will be more difficult to build political coalitions.
ALDE and the Greens (which include the Irish and German Greens) made significant gains, while the centre-left Socialists and Democrats (S&D, which includes Labour, the SDLP and Spanish PM Sanchez’s PSOE), and the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP, which includes German Chancellor Merkel’s Christian Democrats and Fine Gael) lost seats. But contrary to some pre-election projections, the overall share of the four broadly moderate groups only fell slightly from 529 seats in 2014 to 506 ‑ combining the European Parliament election website totals for ALDE, the Greens, S&D and the EPP. Not only mainstream moderates lost seats. The self-described “Euro-critical” United Left lost fourteen seats, a group that includes Sinn Féin, independent MEP Luke “Ming” Flanagan, Podemos from Spain, and Syriza from Greece. Likewise, the right-wing Eurosceptic ECR (which includes the Polish governing PiS party and the UK Conservatives) lost seven seats. Far-right nationalists, such as Italy’s Matteo Salvini and France’s Marine Le Pen, went up overall. Salvini’s Lega won twenty-eight seats (compared with only five in 2014), although Le Pen’s National Rally remained static on twenty-three seats. Since the UK Brexit referendum in 2016, however, most non-British Eurosceptics have become a bit less sceptical about the EU, in their public pronouncements at least. Very few now openly call for their country to leave the EU, as the UK is doing, nor leaving the common currency, the Euro, as Salvini and Le Pen have suggested in the past.
There are two basic things any Irish government should want for the EU, for it to be more democratic and more effective – to work better, in other words. Completing the single market, for example, would help generate more economic growth. Making the EU more democratic is tricky politically. Unless Ireland wants the EU to evolve into a federal super-state, and there are strong arguments against such an objective, Dublin should consider how to improve national oversight of EU laws and activities. Concretely, this would mean encouraging better EU scrutiny at the Oireachtas, and more awareness of existing scrutiny, say via parliamentary committees. Ireland should also champion more transparency of decision-making at the Council of the EU in Brussels, the institution where national ministers meet to vote on EU laws (national governments co-decide EU laws with MEPs at the European Parliament). A second broad Irish objective should be for the EU to become a powerhouse of global order. Europeans should not be satisfied with merely defending the global status quo, expecting to decline gracefully inside an imaginary EU fortress. Great changes threaten the current rules-based international system.
The peace of Europe now mostly depends on events outside the EU. Foreign policy should therefore be at the heart of the EU’s political focus, not on its fringes. Europeans must be prepared to expand the rules-based world order and to push for the widening and deepening of international and regional governance (helping the African Union to prevent or stop wars, for example). A third Irish objective should be for the EU to be more a “super-partner” than a superpower. The EU’s experience of managing rules-based integration uniquely positions it within a more interconnected and competitive global operating system. The EU will probably not evolve into a superpower in this emerging world, but by building on its strengths and experiences it could become a “super-partner” for other countries and regions, as well as with its own member-states.
There will be at least three potential challenges for Ireland in the EU after Brexit. The first is alliance-building. Ireland has already joined some policy-specific coalitions, such as the “new Hanseatic League” on the Eurozone, which includes the Netherlands, Nordic and Baltic states. Dublin has previously teamed up with Paris and some Mediterranean capitals on the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). But Ireland will have a major structural disadvantage after Brexit, it will no longer have a next-door neighbour in the EU. Nor does it belong to any regional grouping, like other EU members in the Baltic, Benelux, Nordic, or Visegrad (Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia) formats.
Moreover, based on a recent study on EU coalitions, from the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), only a few EU members – such as Cyprus and Malta ‑ consider Ireland a potentially important strategic ally, sharing the same broad political outlook. All EU members will try to influence France and Germany after Brexit, but the ECFR analysis suggests that Ireland should invest much more in relationships with countries like Denmark and Portugal. Denmark joined the then Common Market with Ireland in 1973, has a similar history of EU treaty referendums, as well as a shared interest in issues such as global trade and agriculture. Portugal shares similar interests, a time zone with Ireland, and has a very strong Atlantic identity.
As Catherine Day elegantly noted in her April presentation at the Oireachtas, Ireland also has a defensive image among other EU members, very quick to say no to co-operating on policy-areas like corporate tax, but much less willing to take an initiative on closer co-operation. Given the impressive solidarity the other twenty-six remaining EU members have shown Ireland on Brexit, some will probably expect that to be reciprocated on their vital national interests. Consider the desire of a non-NATO EU members, like Finland and Sweden, to protect themselves from Russian aggression (military or non-military, like cyber-attacks).
A final challenge will be to develop Ireland-based knowledge of the EU, and to depend less on English-language analysis from the broader non-EU Anglophone world. Only one Irish newspaper, for example, has had correspondents in Paris, Berlin, Rome, Madrid, and Brussels (The Irish Times). This weakness could become a strength. After Brexit, Ireland will be the major remaining EU member where English is an official language, Malta being the other, and will want as close UK-EU and US-EU relationships as possible.
There is great potential for Ireland to position itself as an obvious partner for those in the UK and the US (among others) who share this objective of better UK-EU and transatlantic relationships – which would also help build stronger bilateral UK-Ireland and US-Ireland relations. In sum, Brexit has been and will remain very challenging for Ireland. The post-Brexit EU will be even more challenging for Ireland in many ways. The good news is that for Ireland the Brexit difficulty is also an EU opportunity.
Daniel Keohane is head of policy at European Movement Ireland.