In early 1968, concerns grew in the Soviet Union about the liberalisation of the Communist regime in Czechoslovakia under Alexander Dubcek. Increasingly strident comments were made in Moscow and elsewhere in Eastern Europe about anti-Soviet and anti-socialist tendencies, bourgeois ideology and counter-revolution. Eventually, in late August, and in spite of valiant attempts at compromise from Dubcek, Warsaw Pact tanks moved into Prague and the ‘Prague Spring’, with its hopes of peaceful reform of Soviet-bloc Communism, was snuffed out.
There is a world of difference between Czechoslovak dissidence in the late 1960s and British dissidence in relation to the EU. No tanks from Brussels are poised to roll into London and citizens within the European Union, unlike those in 1960s Eastern Europe, enjoy basic if increasingly challenged democratic and religious freedoms. Nevertheless, there may be a parallel to be drawn in the stridency of the language used in both cases, in relation to countries looking for a looser arrangement with, or a break from, an international union. For anti-socialist tendencies and counter-revolution in Prague, read ‘ the darker energies of resentment and xenophobia’ in London or ‘transparently absurd’ propaganda or ‘visceral and irrational’ British attitudes, to quote a few Irish commentators.
Our commentators and politicians generally echo highly critical EU perspectives on Brexit but give limited attention to the problems and issues which have fuelled dissatisfaction with the EU, in Britain and elsewhere. Yet there have been growing concerns in many countries about the modus operandi of, and democratic deficit in, the European Union. Even in our own country, where we meekly accepted a re-run of two EU referendums, there has been some criticism of the pressure applied by the European Central Bank on the Irish Government to take the bailout route in 2010 and of the enormous debt burden then placed on the Irish State.
In his memoir earlier this year about the Greek financial crisis of 2015, (Adults in the Room. My Battle with Europe’s Deep Establishment, The Bodley Head, London), Yanis Varoufakis, the Greek Finance Minister at the time, offers a more robust criticism of European institutions. He paints a troubling picture of EU power-brokers who were disdainful of the democratic mandate received by a newly elected Greek government, and unwilling to work towards meaningful debt restructuring of a country whose citizens were suffering great hardships as a result of the economic crisis. He also describes the dysfunctional complexity of EU decision-making, or what he calls the ‘eurozone runaround’. For example, any attempt, he writes, to enter into a meaningful discussion with the highly influential German Finance Minister ‘was blocked by his insistence that I go to the institutions instead. Once there, I soon discovered that the institutions were also divided’. He concludes: ‘The runaround is a systemic means of control over governments of countries whose banking and/or public sectors are financially stressed’ (p. 308).
Varoufakis was a member of the radical socialist Syriza Government, whose politics would have limited appeal to this writer. However, he also comes across as a patriot and humanitarian who was attempting to ‘rescue my country from the debt bondage and crushing austerity being imposed on it by its European neighbours and the IMF’ (p. 7).
His account of labyrinthine EU processes also gives some sense of the huge difficulty the British necessarily face in disentangling themselves from such a large and complex union, in which they have been embedded for over forty years – a difficulty which critical Irish commentary about British approaches seldom seems to acknowledge.
As our opinion-formers sometimes forget, UK membership of the European Union – unlike Czechoslovak membership of the Warsaw Pact after the Second World War – is voluntary. Brexit may or may not be a wise decision and will have to stand the test of time. Given that a majority in Northern Ireland voted against it, it could well make Irish unity more likely in the long term. It will certainly complicate our lives considerably in Ireland in the years ahead, particularly in border regions. Nevertheless, the principle of subsidiarity and the voluntary nature of the European Union both imply that any decision to leave the EU is a sovereign, national decision, which appropriately belongs to the British or any other nation within the union. The European Union is formally committed to subsidiarity, for example, in the Maastricht Treaty, but the often angry reaction in Brussels to Brexit, and accompanying warnings of punitive Brexit financial settlements, would suggest that its implications are not fully understood.
Given our painful history, we in Ireland are understandably wary of British nationalism. Nevertheless, we would surely be better advised to respect the democratic decision taken by the British people in 2016 and seek to adapt as skilfully as possible to this new reality rather than to be continually scolding about our errant next door neighbours.
Christians can legitimately take different views on the future of the European Union, the relationship between the Union and its members and their respective powers. These are all issues which we could profitably debate more fully in Ireland. However, current debate in Ireland on the EU and its future, as on many other topics, tends to lack breadth and diversity.
The Pope’s address
One useful source for reflection is Pope Francis’s powerful address to the European Parliament in Strasbourg in November 2014, which highlighted the need to respect national diversity within the Union:
All authentic unity draws from the rich diversities which make it up: in this sense it is like a family, which is all the more united when each of its members is free to be fully himself or herself. I consider Europe as a family of peoples who will sense the closeness of the institutions of the Union when these latter are able wisely to combine the desired ideal of unity with the diversity proper to each people…
Since the 1950s, the Catholic Church has been broadly supportive of European integration while expressing warnings from time to time about its direction. In his 2014 address, Pope Francis praised ‘the firm conviction of the founders of the European Union, who envisioned a future based on the capacity to work together in bridging divisions and in fostering peace and fellowship between all the peoples of this continent’. However, he also spoke about ‘a general impression of weariness and ageing…of a Europe which is no longer fertile and vibrant. As a result, the great ideas which once inspired Europe seem to have lost their attraction, only to be replaced by the bureaucratic technicalities of its institutions’.
The Pope concluded his address by saying that ‘the time has come to work together in building a Europe which revolves not around the economy, but around the sacredness of the human person, around inalienable values. In building a Europe which courageously embraces its past and confidently looks to its future in order fully to experience the hope of its present’.