As a 21-year-old student, I stood in the Great Hall, Bruges, in September of 1988. I was at university there. Along with 10 other Irish students, I was a postgraduate at the College of Europe. The College of Europe is the West Point or Sandhurst of the EU. It is charged with training the next generation of European officials and, indeed, most of the friends I made there have become senior apparatchiks in the European bureaucracy.
Back then, Margaret Thatcher represented everything that was wrong with politics for us. Her policies had framed our political consciousness, not only in Ireland, but in England too. We had all worked during our summers in London. England was our closest neighbour. It was the source of our music, our culture and our worldview. We listened to the anti-Thatcher lyrics of The Specials, Elvis Costello and The Smiths. She was the enemy and her thinly disguised anti-Irish rhetoric infuriated us. Quite apart from popular culture, we had our views on the miners’ strikes, the City, the North and the “loads of money” culture in the south of England.
Mrs Thatcher was also anti-European and this, to us, the foot soldiers of the European movement, was also unforgivable.
Little did I know that the speech I was about to hear would constitute the opening salvoes of a battle that would culminate with the UK’s vote on the EU next year, known as Brexit.
It is interesting today to go over that speech to see the points Mrs Thatcher raised, how prescient she was and how in touch she was with the feelings of the average English person.
The first thing she did was outline a vision that could have been described as British ‘Gaullism’ in the face of those who want ultimately to see a united states of Europe.
Mrs T followed Charles de Gaulle by asserting that the best way to build the European Community was “willing and active co-operation between independent sovereign states”. She dismissed the idea that the United States might be a model for the future of Europe. At the time, lots of Eurocrats were talking about the “embryo” of a European government emerging through the single currency. Indeed, this all came to pass with the loss of sovereignty of a number of EU countries and the pooling of sovereignty of so many.
She warned against a EU superstate by saying famously: “We have not successfully rolled back the frontiers of the state in Britain, only to see them reimposed at a European level, with a European superstate exercising a new dominance from Brussels.”
At that speech in 1988 she also said that there could be no question of totally abolishing frontier controls because states had “to protect our citizens and stop the movement of drugs, of terrorists, of illegal immigrants”.
Now, it is easy to pick selectively from a speech and conclude that it was prescient in the extreme. However, the Bruges speech more or less outlined the position of the Cameron government more than 25 years later.
In short, Mrs Thatcher’s concerns were bang on the money as far as Britain is concerned.
The question we need to apply ourselves to in 2016 is whether Britain will leave the EU, and will it matter?
Well, of course it will matter, but maybe it will matter more to the EU than to the UK. The EU without the Brits will lose a certain appreciation of sovereignty and of the domestic parliament and will become much more regulated and much less tolerant of countries with low tax rates!
I’m in London as I write this, and it seems to me the idea that the UK will suffer isn’t shared by many. Most British people are not too worried about it. While people are afraid of change – and this is a change – for most Brits, it’s not really a big deal.
They know that they will still be able to trade, travel, watch the Champions League, sign continental players and enjoy all the “normal” benefits of being part of Europe, but they don’t have to be lectured by the insufferable French, don’t have to take in migrants they don’t want and don’t have to feel that their sovereignty is being constantly eroded.
The truth is the Brits – along with the Swedes and Danes – have been semi-detached Europeans since they refused to join the euro. All new EU members are obliged to join the euro at some stage, and therefore none of the three countries mentioned above have truly signed up to “more Europe”, which demands having the euro as currency as being one of the basic rules of the club. The Scandinavians have been more diplomatic in their opposition to a German/French dominated Europe than the Brits, but the only Scandinavian country in the euro, Finland, is in the third year of recession. This is enough to validate the decision to stay out for Denmark and Sweden.
Yesterday morning, I had discussions with British investors on Brexit and all seemed to be reasonably sanguine on the path to exit. They still believed that the vote would be close but they suggested four key reasons why this vote would be much closer than the last vote on Europe in 1975.
First, as Mrs Thatcher warned, the political integration of Europe has gone further than many voters would like. Second, the introduction of free movement of labour has led to increased concerns over immigration, which are being exacerbated by the ongoing refugee crisis. Third, the press is significantly more Eurosceptic than it was in 1975. Fourth, the UK economy is not in the parlous state it was relative to Europe in 1975 – so they feel they don’t need Europe so much.
It’s 50/50 now, but the more the establishment comes out in favour of Europe, the more a cussedness on the part of the average guy will emerge. Referendums, as we know in Ireland, are strange things and the mainstream political players can lose control of the message and the electorate very quickly. Mrs Thatcher understood this.
There is no reason to believe the UK can’t prosper outside the EU. The economy is big enough, globalised enough and flexible enough. And what happens to us when the UK cuts its corporate tax to 12.5pc? Official Ireland’s default position on all this is that the UK economy will suffer; I am not too sure. And if it prospers outside, ploughing its own Atlantic, English-speaking furrow, what does that mean for us?
Answers on a John Hinde postcard please!