An Atlantic referendum – the view from Ireland

What is the view from Ireland as its closest neighbour – the UK – faces the biggest political decision in a generation: whether to remain in or leave the European Union?

Slea Head, County Kerry, Ireland

Slea Head, County Kerry, Ireland

This is the edge of Europe.

Geographically, the continent goes no further. This is the wild Atlantic coast of County Kerry, in south-west Ireland.

I travelled to Slea Head, where the ocean waves roll in and looked out from the cliffs. The next nearest landmass to the west is North America – where millions of Irish people have sought refuge and a better life in the past.

Ireland is now firmly a European state. It joined the euro when the single currency came into effect in 1999 and looks enthusiastically towards Europe for infrastructure support and agricultural subsidies – and financial bail-outs.

It is way out on the western boundaries of the continent but it is no margin state. Its closest neighbour is the United Kingdom where there is a major political dilemma going on right now.

In a few days’ time, the United Kingdom will hold a referendum on whether to remain in or leave the European Union.

Out on the headland, it was a useful place to try to contemplate the mental picture for the UK at the moment.

The Remain campaign in the referendum battle would say it is isolationist to put yourself on the fringes of Europe. They would see it as a parochial and backwards move.

The Leave camp would counter that such a step would broaden your horizons and expand your outlook over the thousands of miles of open ocean stretching away from the coast, rather than focusing on the argumentative backyard in Europe.

What is unknown for Ireland is how – if, at all – trade, the peace process, the special relationship with the UK and the possibility that the country could have a border with a non-EU state would be addressed.

Whichever side of the debate you are on, Ireland and the UK have a shared history  the question is will they have a shared future?

Ireland has shown that its position as a boundary country is in geography alone. What the British people now have to choose is whether to remain in the EU or move to these Atlantic margins.

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Policing the protests

As this blog noted at the start of October, (see ‘Europeans having to swallow some tough medicine – 09/10/10’) an autumn of strikes and public protests was just beginning in Europe. Italy, the UK and Greece have borne the full force of mass demonstrations and France and Spain have suffered large-scale strikes.

On Wednesday 22 December, more protests went ahead in Rome with demonstrators campaigning against cuts to the education budget. There have been nationwide demonstrations across Italy since November in response to the new education bill.

Students are up in arms, as they have been in Britain.The recent student demonstrations across the Channel were a reaction to the coalition government’s decision to raise the upper-limit of tuition fees which universities can charge from £3,000 to £9,000. Greece has also seen widespread protests; reactions to the economic austerity measures announced by Athens.

But eyebrows have been raised over the way that the police have managed the protests. Tear gas has been used in Greece to disperse the protestors and the UK has employed water cannon before in Northern Ireland. The tactic of ‘kettling’ was controversial. The police have a hard enough job to do already, but over-zealous baton-wielding has sparked a number of inquiries. In Italy there has been fierce parliamentary debate over the idea of preventative arrests of possible trouble-makers.

With Spain and Portugal not entirely economically secure yet, and after a year of intense pressure for the eurozone, internal departments in governments across the continent will have to investigate their chosen methods of dealing with protestors. As education budget cuts, austerity measures, pension reforms and the effects of weak currencies bite, strikes and widespread demonstrations will continue. Many of the campaigners have declared war on their respective governments; the police must be ready and prepared to uphold the peace.