Welcoming a realistic union

Welcoming a realistic union
The View


The 2018 Annual Report of Christ Church Oxford, where I was at college 50 years ago, arrived recently. Christ Church is one of those institutions, which are both academic and ecclesiastical, with the cathedral of the Diocese of Oxford at the back of the front quadrangle. It was founded by Cardinal Wolsey, who oversaw the building of the Great Hall, and re-founded by Henry VIII. Despite its subsequent Anglican character, a recent history by Judith Curthoys carries the title The Cardinal’s College, and the symbol carried both on the college tie and sported by the college boat club is a cardinal’s red hat and tassle.

The opening article-cum-editorial written by Mark Edwards, Professor of Early Christian studies and Tutor in Theology, ruminates about Brexit. He lists three precedents, the first of which, the late 3rd-Century Roman usurper, Carausius, would have stumped most readers.

Roman rule

According to Wikipedia: “Carausius appears to have appealed to native British dissatisfaction with Roman rule”, and briefly established a breakaway empire of the north, consisting of Britain and Belgian Gaul. He issued a coin with his effigy, carrying the inscription ‘Restitutor Britanniae’ (restorer of Britain). After a few years, he was assassinated by his finance minister, who briefly succeeded him. It would be premature to speculate on a analogous metaphorical outcome today.

Edwards also cites King John as being “forced into a reluctant Brexit by the French”, who removed him from their country, and of course Henry VIII, whose original wife Katharine of Aragon, ‘humble et loyal’ as her tomb in Peterborough Cathedral proclaims, was aunt of the powerful Spanish emperor Charles V. Edwards, writing of Brexit, speaks of “consternation in academic circles – arising partly from a real sense of loss and partly from its exposure of our negligible influence on those whom we have educated”.

A recent programme shown on RTÉ tracked innumerable meetings that the European Parliament’s principal spokesman on Brexit and former Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt of the Liberal group had held on the subject in the past two years.

He explained that what made him so passionate about the European Union was the fact the territory of today’s Belgium had been a central battlefield of European wars for centuries, under attack from all quarters. The EU had given Europe the opportunity to put all that behind them. Countries are very foolish, if they take peace and prosperity for granted, as something independent of the EU.

In face of discouraging developments around us, there have also been positive ones. The dignified and harmonious transfer of power to a new government in Greece was one of them. The ability of the European Union to agree after arduous negotiation a new team to lead the institutions was also heartening.

The new Commission President-designate Ursula von der Leyen is a progressive Christian Democrat politician of a high calibre with long political experience and an ability to communicate in many languages.

Von der Leyen, till recently German defence minister, no longer refers to a European army, but of an army of Europeans, i.e. among the willing”

It is overdue that the Commission President should come again from a larger country. The last one, Jacques Delors, was of great benefit to Ireland, at a time when there was greatly increased structural and cohesion funds to facilitate the introduction of the single market.

Those alarmed by von der Leyen’s reported European ambitions should take comfort from her July 20 interview with the French newspaper Le Monde. The question was put to her that at the outset of her career she had said she dreamed of a United States of Europe: had that dream changed?

Her reply (my translation) was: “It has matured and become more realistic. At the heart of the European Union, unity dominates in diversity. It is something different from federalism, and it is the good way, in my opinion.”

There is no disposition to create a full-scale EU federal budget of a credible size, especially not in Germany. That means that, subject to overall deficit parameters, the vast majority of spending and taxation decisions continue to be made by member state governments accountable to their parliament and people.

Von der Leyen, until recently German defence minister, no longer refers to a European army, but of an army of Europeans, i.e. among the willing. Again, we need to understand the realities. Notwithstanding President Trump’s criticisms of NATO allies, the US remains vigorously opposed to any attempt to erect a rival or substitute European military alliance, in which countries in central and eastern Europe, who see themselves on the front line, would have no faith. European electorates would be totally unwilling to pay the enormous cost of substituting for the American shield.

A third concern in Ireland in past referendums was that somehow the EU would undermine the ban on abortion. Despite the energy that went into such campaigns, the introduction of abortion in the Republic did not come from the EU. In the case of Northern Ireland now the impetus is coming from Westminster, in part an expression of frustration there with the role of the DUP.

Social matters

Of course it would be far better if social matters of that kind were addressed by a functioning system of devolution sensitive to local opinions and concerns in Northern Ireland.

The extension of the 1967 Act is not supported by any of the five main parties.However, as things stand, Westminster’s crude threat to move on them will only be averted if devolution is restored.

Some of the case for Brexit is based on outmoded conceptions that the EU either wants or is capable of moving towards a European super-state. The threat of a no-deal Brexit is being brandished by British politicians to procure, they believe, negotiating advantage. The refusal to rule out the device of proroguing parliament is for the same purpose.

The challenge will be to preserve or retrieve as much normality as possible.  One could begin with the continuing free movement on this island of animals and agri-food products, with health and veterinary checks as at present at the ports.