Feel the fear and do it anyway, that was the self-help battle cry of the 90’s. And when it comes to politics, it’s a maxim that voters need to live by. With the UK’s EU Membership Referendum (or Brexit) looming ever closer, I’d like to send a little message from Ireland to our neighbours across the pond and it’s this: whatever way you decide to vote, don’t let your decision be motivated by fear.
Negative campaigning seems to be the most popular approach when it comes to influencing voters. ‘Put the fear of God in them’, is what our Irish rugby captain Paul O’Connell used to say in his pre-match speech and it seems to work. Let me remind you of our last European referendum in Ireland, the Lisbon Treaty. It became clear by the end of the campaign that half of us didn’t even understand what we were signing up to, but the common consensus was that we didn’t want to lose even more of our autonomy to Europe. So we voted no. Seeing as we were the only ones who had the opportunity to vote on the treaty, we were giving a voice to the 500 million European citizens who were denied a vote on Lisbon. We were the catalysts for a forward move towards a social Europe, a Europe that cherishes it’s citizens. I was so proud of our nation. Despite our size, it seemed we had an equal voice in Europe and if we weren’t happy, they would respect our sovereign decision.
But that was until Europe told us we got the answer wrong. We were supposed to have voted yes. So our government decided that we were going to keep having this referendum until we got the right answer. That’s European democracy at work right there! And that’s when the scare tactics really began in earnest. Along with the promise of jobs, investment and a ‘fairer’ Europe, apocalyptic tales of Ireland’s isolation on the fringes of Europe were rife. How would we survive out in the cold? Unbelievably, the referendum was rerun and under the guise of attaining special conditions like keeping our tax rates and our ‘highly restrictive’ abortion laws (thanks for that Europe), Ireland voted yes. It’s amazing what a bit of fear can do. And talk of money.
They did the same thing in Scotland – worrying the heads off people that they would be kicked out of Europe and would have to reapply for membership. Well guess what Scotland? You might be out of Europe now anyway, except you’ll have Wales, England and Northern Ireland for company. The problem in these debates is the polarising views – left and right – that end up with people shouting their extreme positions at each other and the majority of people who are probably in the middle don’t have their voices heard at all. What I think citizens really want is a certain amount of autonomy when it comes to making their own laws and deciding where their money goes. No-one seems to understand what goes on in Brussels and the European Parliament. All we know is that we get ‘directives’ from people who have never even stepped a foot on our soil and couldn’t possibly know what our citizens need.
What began as a mutually beneficial economic agreement has turned into a power hungry, elitist governing power that can tell farmers in the west of Ireland not to cut the turf on their own land or fishermen not to fish their own waters (giving the rights instead to European trawlers) yet refuse to step in when it comes to negotiating deals with pharmaceutical companies (Ireland pays up to 40% more than UK for the same drugs). Not only do they issue directives, but they can block you from making decisions for your own people. Eleven European countries have objected to Ireland’s recent decision to put health warnings on alcohol products. Finally, our government is addressing this massive health problem of alcohol addiction that has been affecting our citizens for decades, but the European Commission fears that it will be a barrier to free trade! It’s this kind of interference that makes me question the role of Europe and where this path is leading us?
If the British public do vote to exit the EU, what is there to be so afraid of? Maybe it will be better! The truth is, nobody really knows. Nobody can guarantee economic stability. Look at what happened to us with our banking crisis – in many ways, being in Europe made things worse for us. Germany refused to let our banks burn the bondholders (because most of them were German) and we ended up saddling the public with billions worth of private debt. Even the IMF have admitted that the European Central Bank gave us a terrible deal, and we had no control over inflation rates or interest rates that might have eased the austerity measures imposed on us.
It would be erroneous of me to suggest that Ireland didn’t gain from it’s membership in the EU, but is that a reason to keep supporting a system that is hungry for more control and more ‘unity’? Perhaps we shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater, but I think we need to ask the citizens of Europe what they want from the union and instead of terrifying them into giving the right answer, actually listen to what they have to say. If Britain speak up now, I think it will be for the betterment of Europe. It might be the catalyst for actual reforms and maybe we’ll come up with something better, instead of clinging to what we have now because we’re too afraid to leave.