Bruce Arnold

Critic of Public Affairs, writing about art, theatre, music and politics

The EU is changing and we must face up to the real issues at hand

At a meeting in Cork last week, Declan Ganley addressed student members of three political societies: the Europa Society, the International Relations Society and the Fianna Fail Society. His speech focused on this democratisation of Europe and covered his checkered involvement in Irish politics during the two Lisbon Treaty campaigns. He developed a theory of democracy for Europe beginning with the people, the opposite of democratic gestures from those who have undermined democracy by concentrating power at the top.

It was a rousing event and ended with a student examination of Mr Ganley's intentions between now and the European elections in 2014. He concluded by countering this with a question of his own to his student audience. "If this happened and I came back, who in this room would be willing to get involved?"

A student who was there later told me up to two-thirds put their hands up in favour of direct involvement in a campaign led by Mr Ganley, who then asked the other question: "Who would campaign against?" No one responded.

Let me fast-forward to another insight, a paper by the British Tory MP Bill Cash calling for a new, positive relationship between European nations as part of his argument in favour of restoring more power to EU member state governments and his analysis of the kind of referendum needed in Britain.

Mr Cash runs head-on into the charter for a federal system in Europe that is being promoted by the European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso in his blueprint of last November. This is also being promoted by the President of the European Council, Herman Van Rompuy.

Mr Van Rompuy, in his stilted, academic style, deals with the pressing issue of democratic legitimacy and accountability (words he clearly avoided in Dublin) by dismissing the democracy that we as national states already possess.

"National parliaments," he has said, "are not in the best position to take (the common interest of the union) into account fully."

And he goes on by turning to another – and in my view discredited – institution, saying that "further integration of policy making and a greater pooling of competences . . . should first and foremost be accompanied with a commensurate involvement of the European Parliament".

Mr Barroso goes further: "The European Parliament and only it is that assembly for the EU."

Unsurprisingly, from Mr Cash up to David Cameron, this is no way forward. The bureaucrats in Brussels know all too well how to handle and manipulate the European Parliament. What they cannot cope with is the throaty and strident voice that should be coming from the 27 democratic assemblies around Europe. Westminster is the most challenging and most vocal.

An unlikely partnership emerges from all this: Mr Ganley, Mr Cameron, Mr Cash and a roomful of Irish students, future architects of some kind of political future for this country, cutting their teeth in the European election in 2014 and making their mark, if they have any political good in them, well before that date.

The facts of the matter, as far as Britain is concerned, are in that "Speech that has Not Yet Been Made" by Mr Cameron. The contents of the speech have been well publicised. There will be a renegotiation of Britain's terms of membership of the European Union and there will be a referendum in the UK, including Northern Ireland.

It gets complicated after that, both in terms of the wording of the question and also of the meaning of a Yes vote as opposed to a No vote.

According to Matthew d'Ancona, writing in Saturday's 'Daily Telegraph', "there has been some justifiable confusion about the likely consequences of a victory for the No campaign. Would such an outcome be taken to signal rejection of the deal and an instruction to the government of the day to come up with something better? Or would it trigger exit from the EU? I am told by Downing Street sources that No would indeed mean Out".

As far as Ireland is concerned, this is not a prospect that should be masked diagnosis of British foolishness.

Our own past foolishness embracing the euro has been far more catastrophic, bringing us economically to our knees and producing draconian interference in our democracy by the same "Europe" that Mr Cameron is handling well enough in the circumstances.

He, the Westminster Parliament, every and government institution in the still relatively independent United Kingdom, are all grappling with monstrous layers of bureaucratic and regulatory fudge, which handicaps the single most important benefit to Britain of EU membership, which is access to the single market.

For us, that is less clear-cut. The British market is of primary importance for us yet we are more deeply entangled with EU interference in our affairs. No one would see the European Parliament as a way back to democracy. That institution represents Mr Barroso reaching for a handy formula that will sustain his own stranglehold on the centralised EU control, against which Mr Ganley spoke in Cork with such telling effect on his student audience.

Mr Cameron has real issues in his defence of Tory aspirations. He has Mr Cash, chairman of the European Scrutiny Committee in the House of Commons and chairman and founder also of the European Foundation think-tank, together with other British EU critics, all on his heels asking the question: "Who governs Britain?"

Mr Cash refers to "the simple democratic principle of whether we are able to make our own laws in line with the wishes of the voters and what they vote for in general elections. This is the key reason why we need a referendum and ahead of the European elections in 2014".

Ireland does not ask this question. The answer is already clear: Europe. Instead, we ignore its relevance and turn it on its head.

We have done this, not by recognising how difficult life would be for us if the United Kingdom exited the EU or achieved fundamental changes in its relationship with the EU along the lines proposed by Mr Cash.

Instead, within Ireland's political and economic leadership, there has been a characteristic national response expressing concern about British foolishness. This avoids serious examination of the problem that a federalising EU or eurozone confronts us with from our own point of view.

There is some evidence of growing recognition in the last couple of weeks of the seriousness of what faces us.

This is not just in terms of the UK and trade but also in respect of growing awareness of the impact of EU/British developments on our relations with Northern Ireland in the event of Britain and ourselves discovering or creating a new economic and European fence between us.