Sunday, January 01, 2012

What Does It Mean to be Good Europeans?

As Ireland has navigated the European project since its accession in 1973, one of the most common throwaway soundbites from our political leaders has been "we are good Europeans". It's an interesting phrase, a little like inverse patronisation, such as "I'm a good little boy!" It's also just a tad submissive, though the phrase is invariably followed by a "but", and a statement of strength and independence.

That we are European is geographic, but the word European in this context means participants in the great European Federalist Project, the post-War compact (to invoke the new mot du jour) that was initially to stop France and Germany fighting again, then to provide a liberal democratic bulwark against communism during the Cold War, and most recently to provide a cohesive, defensible economic counterweight to the dollar and the yuan. This is all geopolitics, big style.

That we are particularly good Europeans is on the one hand easy to say. We support a strong Europe; we support not being isolated and carved up by the Chinese and the Americans. We support not having nuclear war. We support not being Communist. These are general things. We have always however defended our sovereignty, our independence, and our right to do things a little differently in sensitive matters, particularly those aspects of taxation policy, social policy and those aligned with the church.

Now we need to decide whether in being good Europeans we are happy to sacrifice some of that sovereignty, that independence, for the good of the project overall, to contribute to a rising tide that should float all boats. As part of a stronger, more integrated Europe we will be less independent but better financially defended; we will have to fight in Brussels for investments in Cork and Galway and Dublin; we will defined far less in relation to Britain. Tax policy and social policy will both be removed from us and placed instead in the hands of Eurocrats. In truth there are many reasons why this would be a good thing. In theory it should be more efficient - though there will still be waste, there always is in major bureaucracy. But it cannot simply be a recipe for a super state.

Ireland's acquiescence to a greater European Integration, along with the participation of the other Eurozone members, should trigger a devolution of power from Brussels. Right now, the really important powers are balkanised - in particular federal tax policy - and the less important powers are centralised. This lack of fiscal control compromises stability and cohesion, while the centralisation of lesser aspects of government frustrates and alienates the citizenry. Social policy should be restored to the states. While we're at it, defence policy should be centralised, as collective security requires collective decision making.

Ireland pretends to be a good European, but it is not. There are no good Europeans, only good Irishmen, Frenchmen, Germans, and so on. The era of good Europeans passed with Jean Monnet and his ilk, those ideologically driven supra-national figures who bore a genuine sense of solidarity coupled with real, dynamic leadership into a post-war vaccuum and launched the most astonishing act of statecraft since the Bolshevik revolution. Europe will be united now only in crisis, in tragedy, or in war. We have a crisis on our hands - whether it is enough to unite the nations of Europe, time will tell.