The major line of argument for the “out” side in the EU referendum campaign is its supposed defence of sovereignty, of how the UK should withdraw from the EU to be able to take decisions unilaterally.
Whether it’s Nigel Farage wanting to withdraw from the Single Market, Michael Gove feeling constrained as a minister or MEP David Coburn wanting stronger toasters, the message is clear: the UK will be all right on its own, thank you very much.
The Prime Minister has been eloquent and forthright in his defence of engaging with our European neighbours within the framework of the EU: we take decisions together to gain influence and become decision-makers and not decision-takers. He concedes their sovereignty point, but describes it as an illusion of sovereignty; it’s better to have power and influence.
Yet the “outers” stick to their guns, some even admitting there will be economic disadvantages after Brexit, this risk being supposedly outweighed by the benefits of regaining sovereignty: we’ll be poorer and more at risk, but we will have decided to do so ourselves. Others argue there will be no risks as “they need us more than we need them”: They will have to continue trading with us, give us unfettered access to their markets, let us travel there with let or hindrance. And why? Because we’re the fifth largest economy in the world, and are important?
This attitude is a legacy of empire, a feeling that the UK can have what it wants come what may, and others must fall into line. By far the worst example of this mind-set was this week put on display by Lord Lawson, the octogenarian leader of VoteLeave, who hoped that after Brexit the Irish Republic would realise its mistake and rejoin the United Kingdom.
Not only is the “noble lord” a double hypocrite for taking advantage of his rights as an EU citizen by living in France, while wanting to deny the same right to others and for railing against unelected lawmakers in Brussels while being an unelected lawmaker himself in the House of Lords, he scored a hat-trick of hypocrisy by denying the Irish the same rights as a sovereign nation he reclaims for the UK.
He surely knows how fraught the common history between the UK and Ireland is, how centuries of British rule stoked the fires of separatism until a rupture was won and maintained through division, violence and loss of blood, violence which continued for decades after independence in 1921.
Even if the trade and other links between the two kindred countries remain stronger than relations between other nations, it is telling that Ireland is the only English-speaking country bar the USA that is not a member of the Commonwealth and that official state visits of the respective heads of state have only become possible in the past decade. This was all seemingly lost on Lord Lawson.
The effects of Brexit on the future of the UK have been discussed more in terms of the Scottish question, with Nicola Sturgeon, the Scottish First Minister suggesting a leave vote would trigger a second referendum on Scottish independence.
The effects on Northern Ireland have also been discussed: the present land border (with no border markings) could become a real border. The extensive cross-border trade and commuter flows on the island of Ireland would be endangered, the divisions with Northern Ireland may start to become more pronounced.
But the effects on Anglo-Irish relations have been less in focus. Ireland is one of UK’s largest trading partners, the UK importing more Irish goods than it does Japanese goods, and exporting more than it does to Spain or Italy. It trades more with Ireland than with China. This trade could be subject to tariffs. The Common Travel Area between the UK and Ireland, the mini Schengen between the two countries, would certainly end.
Would the two countries still grant each other’s citizens full voting rights? Over 300,000 UK citizens in Ireland and 400,000 Irish citizens in the UK could be disenfranchised overnight, not counting those in Northern Ireland who have no UK citizenship. Why give up strong ties for the illusion of sovereignty?
Despite the controversies of the Euro bailout in Ireland, their commitment to the EU remains solid. Why not learn from the Irish on their understanding of sovereignty in a European context?
The UK deserves a future where it secures peace and prosperity through dialogue and trade, being at the table together with like-minded partners and respecting them as such, so much more positive than being petulant and harping back to a bygone era.
For those UK citizens in Ireland and those Irish citizens in the UK who can vote in the referendum there can be only one positive choice on 23 June: Vote to Remain in the EU!
Thanks for Joey Davey Ovey, one of the Say Yes 2 Europe – Remain in the EU alliance.