Irish border crisis: a democratic deficit across Europe

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Sleeping rough in Dublin – the homelessness crisis is on both sides of the Irish Sea

There was something obscene about the intervention in the London media by the chief whip of the right wing bosses government in Dublin this week.

Fine Gael’s Joe McHugh summoned up the spectre of a resurgence of armed Loyalist and dissident Republican groups in the north of Ireland as a result of the Brexit vote in Britain.

He came across as threatening people in both countries with someone else’s guns. He did so on the very day that his own minority government nearly came crashing down as a huge scandal around police and ministerial corruption continues to fell senior figures. The latest is the deputy prime minister.

McHugh claimed that any divergence of customs arrangements arising from Brexit would create a hard border between the Irish Republic and the north, and the mechanism – smuggling – through which such armed groups would finance themselves.

Well, if you genuinely believe that, then the answer is to refuse to implement such a border – universally unpopular across Ireland. And that is what both Sinn Fein and Irish radical left parties have said.

But such popular refusal of a hardened border, with civil disobedience of the kind that peacefully beat the imposition of water charges in the Irish Republic, would open up two questions which the right wing parties on both islands – Fine Gael, Fianna Fail, the British Tories and the DUP – are desperate to keep closed.

It would call into question the austerity policies and tax haven status for the corporate elite in Ireland and in the UK. And it would challenge the sectarian unionist logic of the partition of Ireland, which provides a bedrock of reaction in both states.

The parties of the status quo want none of that. Instead, they are all engaged in reckless rhetoric aimed at using the Irish Question in a squalid political game to pursue big business and their own interests in the Brexit process.

The egregious Denis MacShane, who was jailed for fiddling his parliamentary expenses, told the Financial Times this week that Labour too should join this dangerous brinkmanship.

He wants Labour to ignore the referendum result and “stop Brexit” – with a cowardly and dangerous manoeuvre. It is for the Labour frontbench to say, in effect, that it would have liked to carry through the democratic will, but it cannot because of a combination of the objections of the Irish government and a commitment to keep Northern Ireland firmly part of the UK.

The only way to avoid a “hard border”, goes this argument, is for Northern Ireland to stay in the European customs union and Single Market (equivalent to staying in the EU) and therefore Britain to do the same.

It is difficult to imagine a more disastrous line for the Labour Party to adopt. In making the union sacrosanct it would strengthen the reactionary DUP, which is propping up the Tory government.

Worse, it would tell 17.4 million Leave voters that their democratic choice was not being honoured because of “the Irish”. What could be more guaranteed to recharge anti-Irish prejudice that has thankfully been draining for 20 years?

Britain does not have a far right of the scale of France or Germany. This would be one way to create one. But that has not stopped the EU from pushing this line, and the Irish government acting as a cat’s paw of Brussels, in an effort to gain leverage in the Brexit talks.

Now that Theresa May has bowed to the eye-watering divorce bill, it is to the Irish issue and the rights of EU and British nationals that EU negotiators and pro-EU politicians are turning to generate further crises.

Both issues could be settled by a British government easily: refuse to implement a hard border and guarantee the rights of EU nationals in Britain. But Theresa May’s government cannot do that because it wants a Tory-Unionist Brexit and one compatible with the interests of big business.

The EU and component governments are just as cynical. It was not only May who last year refused to settle the rights of EU nationals at the outset. So did Germany’s Angela Merkel, who insisted that they be thrown in as bargaining chips in the Brexit talks.

That is not the only thing they have in common. Weakness and division are as characteristic of many European governments and the EU as they are of the British.

The collapse of Merkel’s attempt to form a three-party coalition has plunged Germany into its deepest governmental crisis since the second world war. Like May, she also lost authority and seats in a general election this year that saw a decisive rejection of the outgoing grand coalition between her CDU/CSU and the centre-left SPD.

Now the SPD has done a U-turn and said it will go into talks, due to take place in January, over renewing a grand coalition or propping up a minority Merkel government.

There is no guarantee that talks will succeed or that any arrangement will be agreed in a vote by SPD members. The party has fallen in the polls since the U-turn announcement. A major point of division is over the proposals by French president Emmanuel Macron for modest reform of the EU – still as corporate capitalist entity but with a stronger role for France at some cost to German hegemony and national capitalist priorities.

That is an indication that contrary to so much pro-EU boosterism, the bloc is far from unified and stable. More glaring still is the contempt for democracy in the desperate efforts by the German establishment to cobble together a coalition and avoid at all costs another election.

Almost half of the population say they prefer a fresh election to either a grand coalition or a minority government.

But that is the last thing the elites in Berlin and Brussels want, though if talks fail it could still happen next spring.

Meanwhile, the German agriculture minister has just used his casting vote at an EU meeting to renew the use of glycophosphate weed killers widely held responsible for the collapse of bee populations and other environmental damage.

It has caused uproar in Germany. Some 1.3 million people had signed a petition to ban the chemical, and constitutionally the interim government in place is not meant to take controversial measures.

Beneath the theatre of the Brexit negotiations there is a deepening democratic deficit in all parts of Europe.

The British, Irish, and interim German governments are all minority administrations fearing judgement at new elections.

The EU is recklessly playing with destabilisation in Ireland in order to undermine the result of the British referendum. There is lots of talk in Brussels suddenly about the “sovereignty” of the Irish Republic.

There was none when Ireland and Greece were forced into the austerity memorandums to save the banks at the expense of the people and of “fiscal sovereignty”.

And where is this commitment to popular sovereignty over Catalonia? The EU says the Spanish state’s repression is “proportionate”, condones the jailing of elected ministers, and threatens the hardest possible of borders around any putative Catalan state.

Each government in the EU and the Brussels bureaucracy are looking to corral people behind them in their antagonisms with other states and in reinforcing the elites.

Whether it is in Britain, Ireland, Germany, Spain, Catalonia or elsewhere working people have a common interest in fighting to defend and extend both democracy and genuine popular sovereignty. And with a common purpose, which was tragically underscored these last two weeks.

On Monday night a homeless man in his fifties was found frozen to death in his tent in Dublin. Two weeks ago, 38-year-old mother of four Elaine Morrall was found dead, wrapped in a coat and scarf in her freezing home on Merseyside.

She couldn’t afford to put the heating on during the day to keep herself warm while the kids were at school.

There are housing and hospitals crises of similar dimensions on both sides of the Irish Sea. Two weeks ago 23 mainly elderly working class people in Greece were killed by flash flooding in a poor industrial area just a few kilometres away from the capital of a European state.

The next budget continues to squeeze Greek society to provide a budget surplus to hand to the bankers. There will be a 24-hour general strike in two weeks time in protest.

Working class people in Britain and Ireland have every interest in opposing their right wing governments and the neoliberal austerity hardwired into the EU.

Democracy, truly popular sovereignty and a rupture with austerity capitalism – that is what the labour movement should put at the heart of Brexit and the political crisis in Europe, not dangerous games playing around with working people’s lives in order to preserve a failing system.

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