About half a million UK-resident Irish citizens can vote in this week’s referendum. The Irish in Britain have been assumed to be overwhelmingly in favor of Remain, but anecdotal evidence, media reports and social media activity contradict this. Along with the Northern Irish electorate of some 1.2 million, over 1.7 million Irish and Northern Irish votes have not featured in the main opinion polls – but they could make a real difference in so close a contest.
In Ireland, in recent months, much of the talk has been about the centenary of the 1916 rebellion, after which most of Ireland left the UK. Here in the Britain, we’ve had the EU debate. Both debates center around the same fundamental issue: national independence, and the right of a sovereign people to govern itself democratically. Both debates also hinge on whether the price of independence – be that in blood or treasure – is worth paying. Few predict civil war in the event of Brexit, but many weighty political figures say that our children – on both islands – could face a poorer future if the UK leaves the EU.
The campaign to remain has played upon the fears we all have for our children’s future, saying that families will be less well off in fifteen years time if the UK leaves the EU. Such forecasts seem to me about as accurate as predicting the weather in fifteen years’ time.
I have decided that my paramount hope for my children is that they come of age in a true, functioning democracy, where their vote really counts for something. I do not want them to vote for the first time aged 18, only to discover that most of the laws that affect them are made by a labyrinthine EU bureaucracy which they have no real democratic control over.
Our Government has consistently pointed to risks from Brexit for Irish-UK relations & North-South ties in Ireland. https://t.co/HOguz74sAL— Daniel Mulhall (@DanMulhall) June 21, 2016
Therefore, I will be voting to leave the EU. I love Europe and feel deeply connected to it. Indeed, my English wife is half-Italian and we have family and friends across the continent. Yet that is precisely why I will be voting to leave. If the UK leaves the EU, it will dramatically set back the EU’s drive towards becoming a federal pan-European superstate – an outcome which few ordinary Europeans want.
Brexit will likely trigger demands for similar referendums elsewhere, perhaps even in Ireland. These will subject the EU to real democratic control and may reshape it radically. Those of us with the privilege of a vote should vote to leave so that our friends and family in other EU states might have a chance of their own vote on the EU some day – and in the hope that our children might grow up in a Europe of co-operative functioning, independent democracies, rather than in the increasingly centralized bureaucratic hegemon we see rising before us.
The vote will directly affect Ireland. Indeed, the OECD says that Brexit will economically impact Ireland most, after the UK. However, the forecasts suggest that any impact will ultimately be fairly mild. Such forecasts may well be completely wrong in any event. However, it is inarguably the fiscal straitjacket of the euro which has brought mass unemployment to much of southern Europe. Ireland too suffered greatly because it lacked the ability to control interest rates, thanks to the euro, which poured petrol on the housing boom of the last decade and so exacerbated the bust.
Ireland ended up a de facto vassal state of the troika, having unpopular policies imposed without democratic consent. Ireland’s budget was even found being passed around the Bundestag for approval before the Irish people’s elected representatives were allowed to see it. When we have not voted as the EU wished in referendums, we’ve been told to vote again. The euro has been a disaster for much of Europe and the German-led political control required to sustain the single currency has led to deep resentment and the disturbing rise of far-right politics across the continent.
The EU is not well run and its institutions lack real democratic control. I lived and worked in Brussels as a lawyer and witnessed first hand the contempt for democracy and ordinary people held by many Eurocrats. I arrived in Brussels as a starry-eyed pro-European twenty-something, and left as a Eurosceptic a year later. Often, however, the decisions affecting EU states are now taken completely outside of the EU institutions – in increasingly large part by Germany. This was the often case during the euro crisis where the German finance minister called the shots.
Also, last year, Angela Merkel threw open Europe’s doors to over a million migrants and refugees who were simply let walk into Europe without any vetting. As so many of these were economic migrants, and not refugees, this action undermined support for the many genuine refugees who really needed asylum. Germany then threatened smaller countries into taking a portion of the migrants it had invited in. The lack of any vetting meant that some the terrorists who committed the massacres in Paris last autumn could, and did, use these uncontrolled flows of migrants as cover. I personally admire the humanitarian motives of Germany’s generous, if foolhardy, gesture, but the problem is that governments need to be accountable to their electorates.
If the German people want to elect a government that lets in millions of people without any vetting, that is their business. However, when you are in the EU, it becomes everyone else’s business too. This means that people in Poland and France, for example – who cannot vote for Angela Merkel, or remove her from office – must live with the consequences of her decisions. This is how democratic accountability breaks down.
Perhaps we should not be surprised: Democracy is only viscerally prized by relatively few European states. As an East German, Mrs Merkel herself, for example, only tasted democracy for the first time in 1990. It’s frequently forgotten that most EU countries have been dictatorships within living memory. Here’s a list of some EU nations, next to the date when they most recently became democracies: Spain: 1982; Germany (West). 1952; Germany (East) 1990; Portugal, 1982; Italy, 1946; Poland, 1990; Latvia, 1991.
These facts alone show, at best, a very short history of uninterrupted democracy in many EU states. Perhaps, for some nations, democracy has not been around long enough for a deep culture to develop that instinctively resents a government that ignores the will of its people. Only Britain, Ireland, France, Sweden and a few other nations have a long history of democracy.
The Eurozone has been a place of economic and demographic stagnation for many years now. The real economic growth has been in Asia, Africa and the Americas. Leaving the EU and focusing more on global trade could benefit the UK and consequently Ireland in the long term. Yet even if the most fearful economists are right, the UK and Ireland will still be rich countries in the event of Brexit, just perhaps very slightly less so. Even in this worst case scenario, being very slightly less rich seems like a pathetically small price to pay for democracy, when you consider that so many laid down their lives for it in the past century. The markets may not like the uncertainty of a renegotiation between the UK and the EU in the short term, but this is a question where we need to look decades ahead.
I hope when my kids come of age, they will be voting in a truly democratic country, in a more democratic Europe of prosperous, peaceful and co-operative independent nation states. Voting leave seems the best way to achieve that ideal.
Rory FitzGerald is an Irish-born journalist and writer who lives in Britain. He writes for the Huffington Post among other publications.