John Bruton

Opinions & Ideas

CAN THE FORCED MARCH TOWARDS BREXIT BE STOPPED?

Can the forced march, towards a hard and deeply disruptive Brexit, be stopped?

Part of the difficulty with the Brexit crisis is that the two sides are approaching the negotiation with radically different assumptions.

For the UK government, it is a purely political exercise. This explains why the UK government is setting out its negotiating position, to the extent that it has one, in political speeches and briefings. It is as if the whole thing was a PR exercise. Thus UK leaders are attracted to ambiguous political buzz words like “bespoke solutions”, “frictionless borders” and “imaginative thinking”

For the EU side, things are very different.  For the EU, the issue is a legal one, where understandings reached with the UK must be converted into legal texts, which will be watertight, and able to stand scrutiny in the European Parliament, and in Ministries of all 27  EU states. The EU will insist that precedents not be created for the UK, that would lead to similar demands either from existing or from prospective new, EU member states

The EU sees the European Treaties, which the UK signed 40 years ago, as a contract between nations. The EU sees them as similar to a contract between private parties. Withdrawing unilaterally from a private contract is not something you can do for free, especially if the other parties to the contract undertook costs expecting you would keep your side of the contract. In private business, the party unilaterally pulling out of contract would be the one offering compensation.

The UK does not see it this way at all. It sees the EU as a sort of club, where one can just decide not to renew one’s subscription and leave. The UK sees things like this because the nature of the EU, and of the political obligations the UK undertook when it joined it, have never been explained to the British public by British politicians.

Any country wishing to join the EU, and there are numerous candidates, is told, at the outset of the negotiation, that it must bring all its relevant legislation, including its customs rules, into full compliance with the EU “acquis”. So a precedent, that granted exceptions from this, to a country that was voluntarily leaving the EU, would undermine the EU position in future enlargement negotiations.

The UK approach to the issue of the border in Ireland illustrates the UK’s superficial understanding of the EU Customs Code, even though the UK had a hand in drafting it. For example, some in the UK think one can comply with the code, simply by checking electronically the number plates of goods vehicles crossing the border.

As I understand it, the Code requires that a sample (2/3%) of goods, crossing into the EU Customs Union, must be physically examined.  Whether this happens at the exact geographic border, or some miles away at a depot, the effect will be highly disruptive.

Many cargoes will contain a mixture of components, from different countries to which different rates of EU tariff may apply, so these cargoes of mixed goods will have to be checked.

Food imports to the EU will have to be examined with particular care, to see that they comply fully with EU rules in regard to pesticide residues, additives, GMOs and hygiene. Food safety is a highly sensitive issue politically.  Even if the UK, once it has left the EU, has the same, or similar, rules on food safety, it will no longer be subject to EU enforcement of these rules within the UK.

So the EU will have to check UK originating goods rigorously for itself, on its own territory. “Good faith” will not be enough, because the EU writ will no longer run in the UK.

The tragedy of what is happening on Brexit is that it is an abandonment of a fundamental UK constitutional principle, which is the ultimate sovereignty of Parliament.

Under this principle of parliamentary sovereignty, no Parliament can bind its successor.  There is thus an inbuilt capacity for Parliaments to change their minds over time, in the same way as voters can change their minds. This flexibility, inherent in Parliamentary sovereignty, used to be an expression of historic British pragmatism.

Now that is gone.

A referendum decision, taken without a full understanding of what a “Leave” vote meant, is being deemed by both major Party leaders in Westminster, as holding Parliament in a vice like grip.

MPs are no longer free. They will be presented with a fait accompli, and told by the two leaders, on pain of deselection, that they may not reopen the referendum decision.

The only place in which this fateful march towards disaster can be stopped is in Westminster itself. It cannot be stopped in Dublin or in Brussels.

Here the politicians of Northern Ireland bear a heavy responsibility, on which they will be judged by history.

Brexit changes the constitutional status of Northern Ireland, without the consent of its people. But the politicians that Northern Ireland voters elected to Westminster, either refuse to take their seats, or back Brexit uncritically, in defiance of the balance of opinion in Northern Ireland.

There is no voice or vote in Westminster for the majority of Northern voters who voted to remain.

If Sinn Fein took their seats in Westminster they could change the dynamic of Brexit  and of the future these islands for generation to come. This is what Irish Nationalist MPs were able to do in 1910.

Just as today’s historians still debate who did what, between 1910 and 1922, similar questions will be asked for years to come about who rose to their responsibilities on Brexit in 2018 and 2019.

Do Sinn Fein MPs really want to be asked, in twenty year’s time,

“Where were you in 2018, when Westminster broke its word, and voted to reimpose a border in Ireland, because it insisted on leaving the EU Customs Union?”

and to have to answer,

“I was sitting at home, because my principles would not allow me to use the vote that I had”.?

The welfare of the people of this whole island, at this critical moment in history, is at stake.

 That should prompt rexamination of republican abstentionist doctrine. Of course this is not easy. But  the policy has  been changed before, for arguably far less immediately important reasons.

 

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HUGE CHANGES WILL OCCUR IN THE NEXT TWENTY YEARS

Europe is getting old.

This is happening for two reasons

  • We are living longer
  • We are having fewer children.

Life expectancy in the European Union countries was 67 years in 1950, now it is 80 years. In fact, life expectancy is increasing by 3 months every year.

In 1960, the birth rate was an average of 3 children for every woman. Now it is halved to 1.5 children for every woman.

There are small variations between countries, with a higher than average birth rate of nearly 2 in France, Sweden, Ireland and the UK (in declining order). The lowest birth rate in the EU is in Portugal, followed in order by Poland, Spain, Greece and Italy.

Interestingly, the proportion of woman with work outside the home does not lead to lower birth rates, according to these international comparisons.

Europe’s declining, and ageing, population has had, and is likely continue to have dramatic effects.

Whereas Europeans made up 13.5% of the world’s population in 1960, by 2060 Europeans will only be 5% of the world population. Political perceptions have yet to catch up with this reality.

In 2016, the fastest declines in population (in order) were in Lithuania, Latvia, Croatia, Belgium and Romania.  But there was some growth in Luxembourg, Sweden, Malta and Ireland. These changes are due to immigration within the EU.

The number of Europeans of working age will fall by 65 million people by 2060.

Unless people retire later in future, this will mean fewer people earning and in a position to pay taxes, and more people retired and receiving pensions and health services, paid for by someone else.

With fewer young people, EU countries will have fewer local people available to work in the health services, in social care, and providing minimal military and police security for European population.

To recruit these young people into services, much higher salaries will have to be paid and/or immigrants will have to be recruited to these jobs.

Human Services, already poor in many countries, are likely to disimprove, and become costlier, unless people providing services are replaced by robots.

Older people will have different priorities to younger people.

They will tend not to be as entrepreneurial as younger people, and to be more risk averse. They will tend to spend more of their income and save less of it.

So we could have fewer innovations, and less capital from saving available to fund them. This combination is a formula for lower economic growth, at a time when demand for the fruits of growth to go on healthcare and pensions will be increasing.

These trends are not, of course, entirely inevitable.

  • European birth rates could increase. In the last few years, they have stopped falling. Women could decide to have children at a younger age. French policy on this issue is worth looking at.
  • Improvement in educational methods and efficiency could mean that young people are ready to working productively, at an earlier age, rather than at progressively later ages, as is the present trend. One must ask if vested interests are behind the ever higher qualifications being required for certain jobs.
  • Retirement ages could be increased. Some countries have already done this. It is not popular because it is seen as reducing pension entitlements
  • Cultural change could lead to greater activity rates, and innovativeness in business, among older people. This could boost economic growth and reduce dependency.
  • Rather than resist immigration, Europeans could start to encourage it, on the basis that we need immigrants, of working age, to staff our hospitals, security services, and pay taxes. Germany is thinking along these lines. But the reverse is happening at the moment.

For example, the EU is entering into deals with countries like Morocco, Libya and Turkey to keep refugees out of Europe, at least until we have figured out a way to integrate the refugees we already have. These deals are in response to voters who have fears about immigration.

Public opinion is divided.  50% of people in Hungary and Poland regard refugees as a burden. But majorities in Germany, Sweden and Spain believe the refugees will eventually make their country stronger.

If immigrants are to help EU countries to maintain a healthy and balanced population structure, we are going to have to give a lot more thought to how best to help immigrants become fully integrated into society, with good links to the native born population.

Workplaces alone cannot bear the whole burden of integrating their workforces, as we see from experience in Northern Ireland of relatively little political and cultural integration between ”Nationalists” and “Unionists”. Work places have perhaps become more specialised and solitary, and opportunities for integration between workmates may be less as a result.

Local communities, and religious, sporting and cultural organisations must play a part too. Where these organisations receive support from public funds, they should perhaps get a little extra if they have a good record of integrating immigrants.

Schools are very important, especially where the language spoken in the home is different from that of the school.

Pre school outreach to mothers of future pupils has been effective in improving literacy, and subsequent school performance, so it might also help with learning English too.

 

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Bruton calls for Brexit negotiating extension

John Bruton, Speaking to RTÉ’s Morning Ireland today.

Former taoiseach John Bruton has called for the two-year Brexit negotiating period to be extended.

Mr Bruton, who is also a former EU Ambassador to the United States, said the time limit is too short and any agreement reached will have to be ratified by the UK and EU parliaments, which also takes a lot of time.

Speaking to RTÉ’s Morning Ireland, Mr Bruton said that pressure for negotiations is too great and that mistakes are inevitably made, when insufficient time is given to negotiations.

Mr Bruton added that the time pressure is adding to a “fevered atmosphere” in British politics, with just over a year left before the negotiating period ends in March 2019.

He warned that Ireland would suffer as much as the UK, if the right deal was not reached.

Mr Bruton said there is a provision for the extension of the two-year negotiating period in Article 50.

He said that there are some downsides to the idea of extending the period and it would have to be reached unanimously.

However, he said the possibility of extending the period would allow for more rational discussion and a better outcome.

 

 

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TWO YEAR PERIOD FOR NEGOTIATING BREXIT CAN, AND SHOULD, BE EXTENDED

I am delighted to be invited to speak at this important launch.  I congratulate Skoda on the recent rapid growth in sales in the Irish market.

I would like to talk this morning about Brexit.

I believe that Brexit will do disproportionate damage to the motor industry, which is one of Europe’s premier industries. It depends for its efficiency on complex supply chains, and these will be disrupted if the UK Government persists with its intention to leave the EU Customs Union and Single Market.

The risk of the UK simply crashing out of the EU remains high. The fact that Mrs May has had to postpone her planned speech on Brexit, points in that direction.  So does her slap down of Philip Hammond for saying that the changes in the EU/UK trade relationship would be “modest”. That slap down is hardly consistent with her promises in regard to the Irish border, which still have to be converted into Treaty language.

The gap between popular expectations and practical possibilities remains dangerously wide.

The two year time limit to conclude the negotiation of the terms for UK withdrawal from the EU is, as we are slowly learning, far too short.

The implications of UK withdrawal have not, even yet, been fully discovered by the negotiators on either side. New complications and hypotheses are emerging every day. These arise because we are only now digging down into 40 years worth of trade deals, memberships, and understandings, which the UK can only be part of, so long as it is in the EU.

It would be in the interest of Ireland if the UK were to decides either not to leave the EU at all, or, failing that, decides to rejoin the EU, on terms acceptable to Ireland.

How might this happen? This is the question I am attempting to answer in a paper to be published today by the Institute of International and European Affairs.

The UK hopes to leave the EU on 29 March 2019 but to continue to have access to the EU market for a two year Transition Period, ending on 29 March 2021.This date was presumably chosen because it is before the scheduled date of the UK General Election.

I believe this Transition Period approach is a mistake. I believe it would be simpler and wiser for the UK and the EU to agree to extend the period for negotiation under Article 50 by two or more additional years. This can be done by unanimous agreement.

DISADVANTAGES OF THE PRESENT” TRANSITION PERIOD” APPROACH

At the moment, the UK is seeking a two year transition period, after March 2019, during which, having left the EU as a member,  it would still enjoy the benefits of membership of the EU Single Market, and Customs Union. Some in the European Parliament have said the longest Transition the UK might be granted is 3 years.

If this is conceded, the U K, for the duration of the Transition, would not then have any say in the making, and in the interpretation of the rules of the Single Market and Customs Union, with which it would have to comply. It would still be subject to ECJ jurisdiction, and would still be contributing to the EU budget, on the same basis as if it was a member.

The UK Prime Minister calls this proposed transition period an” implementation” period.

Businesses in the UK and in the EU, and particularly Irish businesses trading with the UK, would presumably be expected to be implementing changes in their business practice to accommodate themselves to the sort of arrangements that would apply, in March 2021, when the UK had actually left both the Single Market and Customs Union, as Mrs May desires.

The difficulty will be that no one would know for sure what to prepare for.

The Transition would be more of a Postponement than a Transition!

This is because the  EU and the UK could only start substantive negotiations of the terms of a future UK/EU trade deal at the beginning of transition period, because the UK must first become a non member of the EU, before it can negotiate a trade deal with the EU.

On the other hand, as a non member and during the Transition Period, the UK would also have to negotiate replacements for the hundreds of  Trade and other Agreements it has with third countries as an EU member, which would cease once the UK had left the EU, on 29 March 2019.

Negotiating the terms of a Transition Period may prove to be very difficult, almost as difficult as negotiating a final agreement. Perhaps more, because there is no precedent to follow.

Of course, the political outlines of a  possible trade arrangement with the UK might have with the EU would be referred to in the “Framework for a future relationship” that, under Article 50, should accompany the Withdrawal Treaty.

The Withdrawal Treaty itself, and presumably the Framework, can be agreed by a qualified majority in the European Council.

But a future trade deal with the UK would face more difficulty. Depending on its content, and whenever it is eventually finalised, it  will  almost certainly require the  unanimous agreement.

If it covered services, many of which are regulated at national as well as EU level and which the UK wants included, it would have to get ratification from all the national parliaments.

So any outline of the trade deal, promised in the Framework accompanying the Withdrawal Treaty, might not survive the substantive negotiation that would take place after the UK had already left the EU

The Framework to be full of good intentions, but not full of the sort of bankable legal commitments that businesses will need to make investment decisions.

So two years may be too short a Transition period for business.

It will also be too short for trade negotiators, who say that a deal as complex, as the one the UK is seeking, would probably take 6 years to finalise, not just 2.

But, politically, a two year Transition, may be as long as the UK can live with, because its government is in such a political rush to leave.

By the time of the next election, the Conservative Party will not be comfortable ,if the UK is still in “transition”, implementing EU laws, contributing to the EU budget, and under the jurisdiction of the ECJ.  So it may be willing to pay a high price to finalise a Framework deal and end the Transition within the two years.

On the other hand, the likelihood is that, in those negotiating circumstances, the deal will be a “bad one” for the UK. But rejecting that “bad” deal will  not be attractive either because without a deal, the UK will be out of the EU, and will only be able to trade with the EU on “WTO terms”, which would be really bad for the UK, and appalling for Ireland.

All of this will be happening on the eve of the UK’s 2022 General Election.

In these circumstance the UK government might be tempted to look for an extension of the two years  Transiion and leave it to a post General election government to take the blame for an unsatisfactory Trade Agreement.

I believe one such time limited prolongation of the Transition Period, if requested by the UK, would be granted by the EU 27. But that would be it.

An indefinite prolongation, or a series of prolongations, would not be offered.

There is so much uncertainty surrounding the content and timeline of a UK/EU Trade deal that the Transition Period will not provide a reliable basis for planning by business.

All the same, the longer is the Transition, the better it will be for Irish business.

But a long Transition will be exceptionally difficult to sell in the UK.

It would offend against the principle of democratic representation. The UK would have to implement and abide by EU regulations, in the making of which it would have had no part. It would have no representation in the European Parliament,  Council or Commission. Any financial contribution it might make during the Transition would be represented by some as “taxation without representation”.

So, I conclude that, as the UK explores the difficulties of its proposed Transition or Implementation Period, it may find itself forced to look at other options.

The only other option on offer is an extension of time under Article 50 (3)

EXTENDING THE TWO YEARS AS PROVIDED FOR IN ARTICLE 50

Article 50 (3) of the Treaties, under which UK withdrawal is being negotiated, says a country that has applied to withdraw from the EU and given notice of intention to do so under Article 50 (2) shall cease automatically to be a  member

“ two years after the notification referred to in paragraph (2), unless the European Council, in agreement with the member states concerned, unanimously decides to extend that period”.

Extending the two year period is a matter for the member states. There is no provision requiring the consent of the European Parliament to such an extension of the two years.

At the moment, there is no official sign that either the UK, or the EU 27, would contemplate using such an extension, or even talking about it.

It is too early. To do so would signal weakness, and would be a poor negotiating tactic.

But the provision for an extension of the two years was put there for a practical reason.

Even with the best will in the world, trade negotiations can take longer that all sides want.

There can be unexpected technical and legal difficulties.

General Elections and government formation delay can prevent decisions from being taken. Look at the example of Germany at the moment.

Rigid time limits can also be exploited by forces that have another agenda, and simply want to maximise chaos.

Politicians can even change their minds, but need more time, than is provided with in the two year limit, to adjust the expectations of their supporters.

Time limits create a fevered atmosphere in which rational calculation becomes more difficult.

Time will have to allowed, at the end of the  two year period, for ratification of the Withdrawal Agreement, and of the Framework for Future Relations by both the British and European Parliaments, and both may look for time for debate and deliberation on the merits of rejecting, or accepting, the proposed Treaty

. Neither Parliament may wish to be confronted with a proposition, which says “take it or leave it, and do so now”.

Allowing time for Parliamentary ratification , on its own, might necessitate an extension of the two years.

An extension of the two year period, under Article 50 (3) would be different, in its effect ,from an extension of the Transition period.

Under Article 50 (3), the UK would continue, for the duration of the extension, to be a full voting member of the EU, except on issues to do with Brexit.

It would still be a member of the ECJ and a British Judge would continue to sit there.

The UK member of the Commission would continue his important work in that capacity.

The UK MEPs would continue to sit in the European Parliament, although from 2019 there would be different MEPs from some of the constituencies.

The UK would continue to be bound by EU law, but that will also be case during a Transition. But in the Article 50(3) scenario, the UK would enjoy democratic representation.

In these senses, an extension under Article 50 (3) would be a better deal for the UK than a Transition Period.

But the Referendum decision to leave the EU would not yet have been implemented. It would still be under negotiation.

An extension of time under Article 50(3) offers a greater degree of certainty to business. The UK would definitely retain all the obligations and advantages of membership for the duration of the extension.

Article 50 (3) offers no guidance on, and does not limit, the period of an extension that could be granted. Nor does it place a limit on the number of extensions that might be granted.

Given that every EU state, and the UK itself, would have to agree, the likelihood is that the initial period of any extension could be quite short.

But if, during that extension, negotiations were going forward in a good and constructive spirit, further extensions could become possible

Under the Article 50 (3) approach, the UK would still be a member of the EU.

Thus, while it could agree a framework for its future relationship with the EU and this could cover trade matters, the UK could not negotiate and finalise a trade deal with the EU or anybody else.

That would be a big negative from the point of view of those in Britain who believe there are attractive trade deals waiting to be concluded.

But, on the other hand, the UK would continue to benefit from existing EU trade agreements, and the extra time would allow it to put much greater flesh  and detail into the Framework for Future Relations with the EU, than will be possible in the time between now and March 2019.

I believe the two year time limits has created a fevered atmosphere in the negotiations. It  has politicised them in a way that makes rational calculation of mutual interest more difficult.

An early agreement to a substantial extension under Article 50 (3) would remove this problem, and would give the negotiators more time and space.

I have the sense that some in the UK are open to this possibility, but there is little appetite for it in Brussels.

If the EU side were unilaterally to offer an extension of the time period, under Article 50 (3), that went beyond the time of the UK General Election, it would thereby place a heavier responsibility for a bad negotiating outcome on the current UK government.

The UK government might want to reject such an offer, but it might not be able to persuade the UK Parliament to agree.

This would not be easily done.

There is a feeling in some continental EU countries that the UK has already taken up too much of the EU’s time. For example, the David Cameron’s decision to prevent the Compact for the Fiscal governance of the Eurozone being incorporated in the EU Treaties, even though they had nothing to do with the UK, has left a very sour taste.

There is a fear that any extension of UK membership under Article 50 (3) could be exploited by the UK to block other EU reforms, and/or to improve the UK’s position in the competition between the EU and the UK post Brexit.

Granting the UK, which had decided to leave and chose the timing of its Article 50 letter freely, an extension of the time limit, would be seen by many as encouraging other sceptical EU states to use the threat of withdrawal as a bargaining tactic, or a means of getting votes in Elections.

In this context, taking a tough line with the UK is not seen as “punishment” of the UK, as much as being “self preservation” by the EU.

An extension of time under Article 50 (3) would mean that UK MEP’s would still be eligible to sit in the next European Parliament, at least until the extension period had expired and the UK was out.

A European Parliament Election in 2019 in the UK would allow the British people to debate the issue of UK withdrawal from the EU in a much more informed manner than was possible in the Referendum of 2016. The campaign, and the result, of the European Parliament in the UK in 2019 would give valuable guidance to negotiators.

It might confirm the decision to leave, or it might signal a willingness to change course.

Either way, under the Article 50(3) time extension scenario, this would happen before the UK had actually left the EU. So the outcome of a European Parliament Election, in the UK in 2019, would be politically meaningful.

If the result was decisive vote in favour of Remain candidates, the UK might have the option of withdrawing its Article 50 letter and staying on in the EU, under existing terms.

An extension of time under Article 50 (3) would facilitate a second Referendum, if that is what the British people want.

The choice would be much clearer than it was in 2016, because Britain would still be in the EU at the time of the Referendum. So staying in the EU in existing terms would be the clear alternative to accepting the Withdrawal Treaty and accompanying Framework document that would be presented in the Referendum.

Reapplying to join under Article 49, which would be the only option if the change of heart took place after the UK had already left the EU would be much more difficult. It would mean a whole new negotiation and different, and less favourable terms of membership, for the UK.

On the negative side, UK MEPs continuing in the European Parliament after the 2019 Election could play the role of spoilers. They could ally themselves with nationalistic and anti system MEPs from other countries, who simply do not want the EU to succeed.

A disadvantage of a time extension under Article 50 (3) is that it would interfere with the plans of a number of European leaders, including the Taoiseach and President Macron, to allocate some of the seats to be vacated by UK MEPs, to MEPs who would be elected from a constituency of the entire European Union. In the European Parliament itself, work is already being done on the allocation of the vacated UK seats, and some existing member states could get more seats. Beneficiaries might be inclined to resist an extension of time under Article 50 (3), but the European Parliament’s consent is not required. But keeping the UK in the EU is more important.

CONCLUSION

If an individual wants to withdraw from a contract, he can do so, but he would normally expect to have to compensate other parties to the contract for the damage his decision might cause. No consideration at all was given, during the referendum in 2016, to the impact, UK withdrawal would have on other contracting parties, notably on Ireland.

For all these reasons, I believe the UK, and the EU 27, need to take time out to think about where we are going with Brexit. Two years is not enough.

The confrontational atmosphere, engendered by the artificial time limits in Article 50, prevents a quiet discernment of mutual interests. It imposes a dangerous straight jacket.

As I have shown there are advantages but also profound difficulties, with all the options I have considered.

But, on balance, I believe the best way to reach a sensible outcome in the negotiation, that will do least damage to the political and economic relations between the UK and the rest of Europe, would be to forget about the Transition option, and agree a time extension under Article 50 (3).

That may not seem politically feasible at this stage, but I believe it will be seen in a different light by next October.

As I said earlier, if the EU side were to offer such an extension, at a moment when the full difficulty of the Transition option was becoming clear, it would change the dynamic in British politics.

If it rejected the time extension option in favour of the Transition option, the UK government itself would have to take the full responsibility

  • for entering what some Brexiteers have described as “Vassal status”,
  • for implementing rules they had  no say in making, and
  • for entering a period in which the UK would paying into EU funds, with no say in how the money was spent.

The rush for an early Brexit, that motivated Mrs May to write her Article 50 letter before her government had done its homework, was driven by a deep fear among the architects of Brexit that, if they did not leave quickly, they, or their voters, might change their mind about leaving at all.

This is, quite literally, an irrational basis for deciding the future of Britain.

It is a deeply dangerous basis on which Britain would impose the costs of its mistakes on Ireland.

It will leave deep and lasting scars.

I believe that an extension of time under Article 50 (3) of the Treaty is the best way to minimise, and possibly to eliminate, the damage.

====================================================

Speech by John Bruton, former Taoiseach and former EU Ambassador to the United States, speaking at the Skoda  Fleet Business event at 8 am on Monday 29th January in Bellinter House Hotel, Navan Co Meath;

 

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COMPETITION IN THE WESTERN PACIFIC…..A THREAT TO WORLD PEACE?

“Asia’s Reckoning, the Struggle for Global Dominance” by Richard McGregor certainly has an ambitious title.

It chronicles the growing competition in East Asia between China on one side, and the United States and Japan on the other. This competition has economic, military, and resource dimensions.

China aims to again become the dominant power in East Asia, a position which it had until about 200 years ago. Until then, other Asian countries acknowledged the preeminent position of the Chinese Emperor.  This history partly explains why China still has such  seemingly extravagant ideas about how far Chinese territorial waters extend.

Since 1945, through its network of alliances and military bases, the United States has held the position of dominant power in East Asia and in the western Pacific. But its hold is weakening, especially since both Trump and Clinton foolishly decided the United States should pull out of the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), which would have provided an economic and trade under pinning to the US military position.

The United States position needed the economic strengthening TPP would have given it, because of dramatic changes that have occurred in relative economic power since 1990.

Since 1990,

  • the Chinese economy has increased thirty times in size, whereas
  • the US economy has only tripled in size. Meanwhile
  • the Japanese economy has only grown by 23%!

Countries like Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and the Phillipines, depend on US military guarantees to defend their territorial integrity. Communist Vietnam has also moved closer to the United States for this reason. This worked well when US global dominance was visible for all to see, as it was in the wake of the first Gulf War. But subsequent US military reverses, in Iraq and Afghanistan, and isolationist rhetoric from President Trump has created new doubts.

While China has settled land based territorial disputes it had with its neighbours, highly emotional and unresolved issues remain with Japan, the Philipines, and Vietnam about uninhabited islands,  territorial waters, and exclusive air space. And, of course, China claims Taiwan.

China takes these issues very seriously.

For example, in 2012, Japan had 50 coast guard vessels to China’s 40. Now China has 120, to Japan’s 60.

Economic growth has enabled China to invest heavily in its military and naval strength.

China may not be seeking global dominance, as this book’s title suggests, but it is determined never again to be dominated by outside powers, as it was between the 1830’s and 1945. Memories of these past humiliations are fresh in China, and are reinforced by propaganda.

It growing economic and military power has increased China’s diplomatic weight.

The opening by South Korea to North Korea around the winter games may well be an example of Chinese influence replacing the belligerence of Donald Trump.

As time goes by, the United States will find its dominance of the western Pacific harder to maintain, but this may not lead to military conflict.

Thanks to its one child policy, quite soon, China will become an elderly country. Japan is already elderly. Elderly countries are prone to be cautious.

On the other hand, as this book laboriously demonstrates, both China and Japan have become increasingly nationalistic. They have radically different understandings of history, and this shapes their sense of what is important, and of who they are. Accidents and miscalculations can lead to war, as happened in Europe in 1914.

This book gives a detailed account of the twists and turns on the triangular diplomatic relationships of the United States, China and Japan since 1951. Some of this is hard to follow.

It does not deal with economics at all, so the reasons for Japan’s decline are unexplored. Shifts in United States perceptions of Asia are also largely unexplained.

This book deals with an important topic, but it could be better.

 

 

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LORD EDWARD FITZGERALD

Over Christmas, I greatly enjoyed reading “Citizen Lord, Edward Fitzgerald 1763-1798” by Stella Tillyard.

Lord Edward Fitzgerald was one of the leaders of the 1798 Rebellion in Ireland. He was arrested and fatally wounded before the rebellion got fully underway, but he had done much of the ground work and planning for it.

Early in his life he became alienated from his father, the Duke of Leinster.

He was very close to his mother, who ensured that he, and his siblings, were educated in accordance with the principles of Rousseau. Much of the material in the book comes from letters he wrote to his mother. Later, he was inspired in a revolutionary direction  by the ideas of Thomas Paine, author of the “Rights of Man”.

For someone who was dead by the age of 35, Lord Edward led a very varied life.

A younger son of the Duke of Leinster, he joined the Army as many younger sons of aristocratic families had to do. He had some land at Kilrush Co Kildare but not enough to support an aristocratic life style.

He fought on the British side in the American War of Independence and this meant that he was one of the few 1798 leaders who actually had some prior military experience.

He was wounded at the battle of Eutaw Creek in South Carolina in 1781, one of the last battles of the war, and his life was saved by a young African American, who subsequently became his employee and friend, who eventually accompanied him back to Ireland. The two of them subsequently trekked across North America from Nova Scotia to New Orleans.

Like many on the Whig or Liberal side of UK politics, he initially supported the French Revolution. Most of these initial supporters moved away from it as a result of the execution of the King, the Reign of Terror, and French military advances into neighbouring countries. Not Edward Fitzgerald.

He even went to Paris in 1792 to observe the Revolution, and it was there that he had his first conversations with Henry Sheares about the possibility of bringing the Revolution to Ireland.

Although this is an excellent book, it does not fully explain the progression of thought which led a leading aristocrat, like Edward Fitzgerald, to become a violent revolutionary. Clearly, for him, the power of ideas over rode economic and class interests.

Another aspect of the 1798 Rebellion, not within the scope of this book, is why so many Catholic priests became involved in a Rebellion in Ireland in 1798, in support of the French Revolution, notwithstanding the fact that French Revolutionaries had suppressed Catholic religious practice and, in 1796, put down a pro Catholic Rebellion in the Vendee with exceptional brutality.

Tillyard’s book is exceptionally readable and illuminates the subject’s personal, as well as his political, life. I recommend it.

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PADDY HARTE RIP

 

I wish to pay tribute to the life and political career of Paddy Harte.

Paddy was first elected to the Dail in 1961 and quickly earned a reputation as an original, independent minded, individual who thought for himself about the political questions of the day.

He was supportive of the late Declan Costello in promoting the ideas in the 1965 “Just Society” document, notably on social capital investment.

He was a resolute opponent of republican political violence. Working with Glenn Barr, he sought reconciliation between Nationalists and Unionists on the island, notably through the joint commemoration of the sacrifices both communities made during the First World War. This was often a lonely path for him to follow, and he showed great physical and moral courage.

Statement by John Bruton, former Taoiseach

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Radio Interview with Sean O’Rourke


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PETER SUTHERLAND RIP

Peter Sutherland was a brave and highly competent Attorney General of Ireland.

He remained committed to this country and helped Irish causes through his exceptional generosity.

In 1984, he was appointed to the European Commission.

Peter was especially proud of his initiative in setting up the Erasmus Student Exchange programme, which has had a profound and beneficial effect on the lives of hundreds of thousands of young Europeans.

In the wake of the passage of the Single European Act, which allowed majority voting on measures needed to establish the EU Single Market. As Commissioner, he negotiated a new legislative procedure which allowed for this and enhanced the role of the European Parliament.

As Competition Commissioner, he was aggressive in pursuing cases of unfair state aid, an activity which sometimes brought him into conflict with the Commission President, Jacques Delors, with President Mitterand and with Mrs. Thatcher. He was unafraid and stood his ground, and vindicated the independence of the Commission.

His most remarkable achievement was, as Director General of the GATT in getting the agreement, at a meeting of 160 nations in Marrakesh in 1994, to the establishment of the WTO.

The WTO established supranational panels to arbitrate trade disputes. It built the foundation for the building of a rules-based international order, in international trade, which has contributed to a quarter century of global prosperity, because the rules protected the weak as well as the strong.

This concern to protect the weak inspired his work for asylum seekers and refugees in more recent times.

He was a man of faith, who showed, through his life, that faith and modernity can be reconciled. His talents brought him great success, but he was always conscious of his responsibility to help others and give back to society.

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THE STRUGGLE FOR SUPREMACY IN EUROPE 1453 TO THE PRESENT

I recently greatly enjoyed reading “Europe, the Struggle for Supremacy 1453 to the Present” by Brendan Simms.

He writes from a perspective that sees continuing conflict as the determining force in European politics. Military and strategic considerations are paramount.

This emphasis would not be shared by all historians. Peter Wilson’s “The Holy Roman Empire, a thousand years of European history” lays stress, instead. on a long surviving effort to build a European  legal order, that curbed and contained conflicts, under a shared allegiance to an elected Emperor and to a commonly accepted set of mutual expectations. This thousand year old arrangement only ended in 1806, after 1000 years.

Indeed, Simms own book throws light on later attempts to reconstitute a common European Home with common European set of house rules.

In the 1920s, the French leader Aristide Briand was prepared to trade French sovereignty for permanent restraints on German power. The UK stood aside from this because it relied instead on guaranteed of military support for its position from Australia, New Zealand, and Canada at the Imperial Conference of 1925. Although the Irish Free State was at that Conference, it offered no similar guarantee.

After the Second World War, a meeting, chaired by Winston Churchill, took place in the Hague in 1948 in a second attempt to build a structure for unity in Europe and avoid another war.

It could not agree on a model for European unity. Most countries were prepared to pool some sovereign powers, but the UK insisted that it would only work on an intergovernmental basis, which maximised its freedom of action. Even when it eventually joined the European Common Market, which did contain some sharing of sovereignty, UK politicians, and public opinion continued to see “Europe” as something apart from the UK, with which the UK would do business on a transactional case by case basis. Therein lay the seeds of Brexit.

In their hearts, many English people never joined the European Union at all.

While Simms may over emphasise the geostrategic conflicts in and around Europe, others ignore these at their peril.

Russian pressure on the Baltic States and Ukraine harks back to conflicts that last came to the surface at the end of the First World War. Rumania feels threatened by Russian pressure in Moldova, which was occupied by Stalin in 1940 under cover of his pact with Hitler.

I do not think there is a true European Union consensus on how to deal with any escalation of these types of conflicts, notwithstanding the mutual defence assurances NATO members have given one another. There is still an implicit reliance on the United States to save Europe.

But, unless there is a crisis, European defence policy will evolve very slowly.

The EU is not a state and is not about to become one. It is, instead, a habit of consultation and common action between states, underpinned by legal and institutional arrangements that are evolving in response to needs as they arise.

Ireland will remain within that structure with some influence on its evolution. The UK is turning aside, which is unfortunate because the security of much of Ireland’s infrastructure is dependent on links through the UK and its territorial waters. The sea is not the barrier to interference by hostile forces that it was in 1939. Increased interdependence has brought  increased vulnerability

Brendan Simms writes very well and there is new insight or angle on European history to be found on every second page.

I recommend this book, and also Peter Wilson’s book too (although I am only a quarter way through it!).

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