June 9, 2008
There is something irrepressibly German about Bryan Adams’ power ballads. Every taxi in Berlin seems to be permanently tuned into either the Canadian’s particularly pedestrian back catalogue or, worse still, Dancin’ On The Ceiling by Lionel Richie – a track so awful that even Lite FM was ashamed to play it.
However, musical tastes apart, there is a deeply European feel about this part of the world. Seeing as we are all focused on Europe at the moment, it is an interesting place to start thinking of the future of the EU- and Ireland’s place in it.
Arriving in Berlin by train from Poznan in Poland, hurtling through the flat steppe of western Poland — what was once the breadbasket of the Prussian Empire – makes you understand what the new EU is all about. It is about reconciliation. It is about avoiding, at all costs, the continental catastrophes – both ideological and military – of the 20th century.
Last week, there was absolutely nothing in the Polish or German press about Ireland or the Lisbon Treaty, because the vast majority of people who buy papers here do not care about it, or how we vote. There are bigger fish to fry, like this evening’s Poland-Germany game.
Already, the clash between these age-old enemies has sparked a diplomatic incident, after a Polish tabloid published a mocked-up image of Poland manager Leo Beenhakker holding up the dismembered heads of Joachim LÂ²w and Michael Ballack, Germany’s manager and captain.
As the train motors its way through the former East Germany (Ballack’s birthplace), it’s hard to forget that this part of the world has seen horrendous slaughter in the name of nationalism, followed by the grotesque experiment of Marxist Leninism. Beneath the banter over today’s Euro 2008 showdown in Klagenfurt, the memory of the war and the fear that this might repeat itself somehow, some way, at some time, is the adhesive that sticks the EU together, in this region that was once known as Mitteleuropa.
Poznan itself was once known as Posen, and was the eighth largest city in Germany before the war. The Germans of Posen paid heavily for their compatriots’ crimes in the east, and were ethnically cleansed from here by Soviet forces in 1945.The new border, which shunted Poland westwards by a few hundred miles, was only recognized by Germany in the 1970s.
Today, this episode has been brushed under the EU carpet. As a result, Germany grudgingly accepts that it remains Europe’s biggest donor, and Poland enthuses about the fact that it is its biggest recipient of structural funding. In the next four years, Poland will get â‚¬70 billion in aid. Keeping these old tensions under wraps is central to the EU. Yet the reminders of history’s fault lines are everywhere.
You rattle along the same railway that carried Hitler to his Wolf’s Lair, and Stalin to the Potsdam Conference. The railway straddles the same road that brought Napoleon’s Grande Armee, in 1812, to disaster in Russia. This common history is what the EU is about.
Nations, federal states and great political projects are built on the foundations of common memories. It is this common experience, this familial narrative, which forms people’s emotional echo. It bonds them together. You might have noticed that it is practically impossible to go into a continental home without seeing a grainy photograph of the family’s ancestors.
The photographed family portrait, although still with us, was a huge European bourgeois trend before the war. Rarely do you see a family portrait without at least some of the young men in uniform. This is their story.
It is not a history that we Irish share. It has little personal resonance for us and it makes us analytical, rather than emotional, Europeans. Therefore, when we vote on Europe, we have no real feeling about what we are voting on. It is a plebiscite that lacks tradition, and politics without tradition is hard to sell, unless cost/benefit figures are overwhelming and people vote with their pockets.
As the EU moves to the east – having incorporated 70 million new Slavic citizens in the past four years and probably another 20 million when the constituent parts of the former Yugoslavia join in the next enlargement – it will be all direct cost and will have no budgetary benefit for Ireland.
Yes, there are positive spin-offs from being part of the EU, in terms of the perception of being in an economic club, but these are hard to evaluate. Against that background, the Yes side’s mantra, that Lisbon is about ‘‘jobs, jobs, and jobs’’, is embarrassing. The only reason that foreign investment will remain or continue in Ireland is if we are profitable. Once we can generate profits, then all other things follow. In addition, the No side’s argument, about rising corporation tax, is fallacious and ultimately not much to worry about, because corporation tax, as a revenue generator around the world, has fallen so much that it is possible to envisage a world with no corporation tax at all in the future.
The way Europe has changed means that Ireland will become less and less significant for Europe, and the EU will become less and less significant for Ireland. But that does not mean that we shouldn’t still be in the game. In fact, keeping the team on the pitch is probably the best we can do. Once we realise that the nice, cosy EU of western Europe we joined up to was just a sideshow for the main eastern event, we can examine where we want to be and who we should ally ourselves with.
Given that the EU is obsessed with making the east a success, our real politik should be about making sure that we can be as ‘a’ la carte’ European as possible – and this brings us to the crucial area of how we do business in Europe, and how we might do it in the future.
Ireland was amazingly successful at ‘personality politics’ in the past. Relationships, networks and contacts mattered hugely. Traditionally, big personalities count in little countries more than they do in larger countries. So, while we might not have had the institutional strength in the past, we had popular people, a popular brand and a popular story to tell.
It has always been the case in selling that, if you want someone to buy something from you, the best thing to do is ensure that they like you. We did that extremely well in the past. Our commissioner was a crucial salesman in this regard, irrespective of whatever impartiality oath he signed on the way in the door.
Losing our permanent right to appoint a commissioner is a big blow to Ireland’s commercial infrastructure in Europe. The Yes side has downplayed this, but horse sense argues the opposite. Would we be more popular or have more influence if we voted No? Clearly not. We have been dealt a hand which sees us arguing here over the greater negative, rather than an obvious positive versus an unambiguous negative.
No matter which way we vote on Thursday, the most crucial change to appreciate is that we need to alter the way we play the game at the EU. Oddly enough, the Slavic countries might be our best bet, and our newest and most vociferous allies.
They like the low tax regime we have created; they also need to follow our basic plan of attracting foreign investment; and they, for a variety of nationalistic and colonial reasons, like us.
We need to make sure that the French are kept well away from economic policy, as their weakness for taxes and habitual descriptions of the Irish as ‘‘freeloaders’’ characterises their position. The best way to do this is to be part of an alliance that is inimical to Paris’ interest. That means closer links with London and Poznan than with Lyon and Perpignan.
Whether we vote Yes or No, we won’t change the way Europe is going. Deft, skilful and self-interested diplomacy – playing the long, not the short game – is what is demanded now.