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Dec 2002 Journal

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When Irish Ayes are smiling

The Second World War visited death and suffering upon more people than any other catastrophe in history. The only way of coming to terms with this unimaginably devastating tragedy is to focus on its positive after-effects, of which there are three: (a) the notion that democracy and human rights have potentially worldwide application; (b) the creation of the State of Israel; (c) the concept of a unified Europe.

The last-mentioned was certainly an idea whose time had come by 1945, as dazed survivors glanced at the ruins all around them. European integration started with a nucleus of 6 countries, which then expanded to 15 and will reach a total of 25 in the foreseeable future.

This incremental, continent-wide expansion, however, doesn’t tell the whole story. The EU is at present in considerable disarray. Voting procedures are disputed. Smaller member states complain of being browbeaten by big ones. Above all, the Stability Pact, designed to underpin the strength of the euro, shows signs of unravelling. But none of these problems is beyond the wit of man to solve. They represent the growing pains of a maturing supra-national organism – pinnacle of the evolution of a continent which for centuries was the beating, as well as blood-spattered, heart of the world.

Mention of blood brings us to the crux of the matter. Given Europe’s relatively modest proportion of the world’s land mass, its soil has been more saturated in blood than that of the other continents. Spain fought wars in the Netherlands and Italy, Russia in Poland and the Balkans, Sweden in Germany and Poland, Turkey in the Balkans, France pursued European primacy and Germany world domination by war – in pursuit of which both countries fought each other intermittently for 300 years.

No more! Today France and Germany are locked in an indissoluble marriage of mutual convenience. Over and above banishing the spectre of intra-European conflict forever, the EU acts as an agent for draining the murky recesses of Balkan politics of xenophobic toxins. For example, Croatia, which only ten years ago was in thrall to the nationalist demagogue Franjo Tudjman, knows it will only follow neighbouring Slovenia into the enlarged EU if it can show cast-iron democratic credentials.

Even so, integration into the Union offers no absolute guarantee against the recrudescence of racism. The Haider phenomenon in Austria – no less than Le Pen in France – reminds us of the ever-present danger. But if Haider today no longer presents the threat he did two or three years ago it is in no small measure due to the EU’s mooted boycott of Austria after his party’s accession to power.

It is no exaggeration to say that the attitude to European unification is a litmus test for separating out extremists – of both right and left - from mainstream democratic politics. In the Irish referendum on the Nice Treaty left-wing Sinn Feiners made common cause with right-wing ‘pro-Life’ Catholics in the NO campaign. The main point of these Nay-sayers was attachment to Irish neutrality – as if De Valera’s stance during the last war had been something to be proud of!

Another, more keenly felt, cause of Irish shame until the 1970s was the fact that young men could not find work at home. Thanks to EU subsidies that situation has now been reversed. When emissaries from the would-be accessor states of Eastern Europe told Dublin audiences not to be selfish and deny others the advantages they themselves enjoyed, the Irish, to their credit, responded. Green is also the colour of hope!
Richard Grunberger

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