We in Ireland are in danger of viewing the world through Brexit goggles. We must beware.
Brexit goggles cause the wearer to see a Brexit angle in everything - trade, travel, transport, the economy, tax policy, terrorism, football: you name it, it’s all about Brexit.
The media in Ireland have Brexit goggles on most of the time - and this is a bad thing. Brexit goggles filter out things that are happening elsewhere, allowing only the Brexit-related stuff through. British Media have Brexit goggles nailed onto their collective skull - nothing, repeat nothing, gets through to them unless it’s about Brexit. And as Irish media is excessively influenced by the British media agenda, we are afraid to remove the Brexit goggles - for fear of missing something.
In fact we are missing something. Actually, we are missing loads. Particularly where the European Union is concerned. Indeed such is the powerful filtering effect of the Brexit goggles, we are missing information that is vital to our own understanding of Brexit, and the post-Brexit world that is rapidly evolving. We are limiting our own vision to such an extent that we are in danger of falling over several cliffs: at least the British are only heading for one cliff edge.
The business and political communities have also donned the Brexit goggles, led (astray) by the media. And by their own fear (the counterpart to that other great spur to action, greed - look at all those Brexit conferences and consultants out there).
The result is the same - too much information is being filtered out, and there is too much concentration on the visible Brexit problems. This is understandable from a tactical point of view, but is self defeating from a strategic standpoint.
To survive Brexit - and thrive in the post-Brexit world - we need to peel off the Brexit goggles and bin them.
Then we will see that the universe does not revolve around the singularity known as Brexit. In fact most countries beyond these shores aren’t all that interested in Brexit, and the interest level tails off pretty fast the further east of Dover one gets. Ireland has stated its intention of remaining a member of the EU.
Over the past year, the popularity of the EU has risen to an all time high among Irish people surveyed for the regular Eurobarometer polls. But have we thought about what kind of EU we are committed to remaining in? We are thinking a lot (understandably) about the border with Northern Ireland and all that flows from it. But how much attention have we paid to the evolving plan for a Eurozone treasury, with its own budget, debt instruments and a single 'Finance Minster' to run it (and chair the Eurogroup).
Coverage of this important proposal by the European Commission three weeks ago was conspicuous by its absence across the Irish media.
There was a minor frisson of shock across social media earlier this week when the Financial Times reported Angela Merkel was giving guarded backing to the plan, which is enthusiastically supported by Emanuel Macron, the new French President. As if this was all going on behind closed doors in secret. It wasn’t. It was a big news story elsewhere in the EU, especially in the Euro Area. But not in the "only English speaking country" in the single currency. This is a live issue. It seems likely to end in a new treaty or an amendment to the Lisbon Treaty to underpin it. We are very likely to face a referendum on this issue in a few years time.
Given our recent experience at the sharp end of the Euro-crisis, we ought to have a strong interest in this. Given our interesting history of EU referendums, should we not be examining this issue more thoroughly now, rather than waiting to the last minute and hitting the population with a load of indigestible legal and technical bumf and telling them to hurry up and vote? Do we have a view on this issue at all? But with the widespread wearing of the Brexit goggles, the issue has been thoroughly filtered out.
Then there is the issue of European Defence. In referendums past, defence has been a neuralgic issue. Yet the European Commission decision to commit EU budget funds to defence research - for the first time ever - slipped by here almost entirely unremarked on. Even by the groups and individuals who are normally most vocal raising the alarm about any and all EU defence issues.
At the EU summit on Thursday night, leaders agreed to use the EU budget to pay for military missions - deployments by the EU battlegroup, a 1,500 strong immediate action force that has existed for almost 15 years, but has never been used. One reason: if there is a mission, the countries supplying troops on 6 month rotations have to pay for the mission themselves, resulting in a pass the parcel game in which nobody wants to pick up the tab, so the force is never deployed. Using a common budget into which everyone pays makes deployment more likely. Have we thought about this?
Or has it been filtered out by the Brexit goggles? The British after all, have been one of the chief impediments to efforts to increase EU involvement in the defence and security realm. Ironically Brexit has quickened the pace in the defence portfolio. As has the arrival of President Trump. And the migration crisis. And the Russian hybrid warfare in the East (and possibly the US, via hacking and fake news, as well).
And most particularly, the campaign by Islamic State and its adherents in the streets of European cities. And it the IS campaign of destruction in the Middle East and North Africa that has driven the migration crisis to unprecedented levels. That’s why a big chunk of time at the summit was taken up with a review of the "Central Mediterranean Route" for migration, and the highly unstable situation in Libya. That’s why an Irish Navy ship is down there now, rescuing migrants.
Migration, security, defence, and the economy are the key issues in the European Union and its member states. Not Brexit. But you wouldn’t think that in the land of the Brexit goggles.
When Donald Tusk briefed the media at the end of the summit on Friday he said Brexit had taken up very little time at the meeting. But the weight of media coverage was all about Theresa May and her proposals for dealing with EU citizens rights. But Mrs May at her own press briefing said migration and security were the main items at the summit.
The sight of the new French President and the German Chancellor holding a joint press briefing - whilst not unprecedented - was certainly a signal that the Franco German motor has been revived. And, as Mr Macron said, when France and Germany agree, things get done in the EU (which hasn’t been the case for over a decade). The two leaders are going to work together on a set of reform proposals for Europe, with a Franco German summit coming in mid July. They haven’t revealed anything so far, preferring to work quietly to see what is possible between them. It will be a powerful impetus to the direction of the EU. We need to watch that space. But we can’t do it with Brexit goggles on.
Focussing overly on the minutiae of customs regulations may cause us to miss other important developments and opportunities. While Angela Merkel was praising President Macron for making France very attractive to start up companies when he was economy minister, and restating the importance of the as yet unrealised Digital Single Market, Bloomberg was airing an interview with Stripe founder John Collison.
His top line was that the Digital Single Market still doesn’t exist, despite years of talk. But things are moving in Europe. He was in Germany to launch Stripe in the Benelux, Germany, Austria and Switzerland, and was lavish in his praise for Europe as a good place for digital businesses, despite the missing legal infrastructure. He said Europe has five of the world’s top ten computer universities, is rich and well connected by broadband. And the startup scene, particularly in fintech impressed him. He said Ireland, in particular, was "like night and day" compared to when he left ten years ago.
This is important, but again, the Brexit goggles are filtering it out. It’s not just the Digital Single Market that is lifting off in Europe; pretty much everything is. For the first time in a decade every state in the EU is forecast to grow this year. Growth is expected to outpace the US and UK, and with significantly lower debt and deficit levels. Unemployment is falling. 232 million people are in work, the highest employment level recorded in the territories of the EU. None of this gets through the Brexit goggles.
We should stop panicking about Brexit. It is an issue to be managed. A serious one, undoubtedly. But not the only one. It is changing the direction of the EU, but not in the way many who drove the pro-Brexit campaign in the UK expected. If we follow the lead of the Brexit obsessed UK media, we will miss all the other developments that are in train in the EU we have pledged to stay in, and the currency we share with 18 other countries.
OK, I admit it - the idea of Brexit goggles is inspired by the concept of Beer goggles - that well known phenomenon by which members of the opposite sex appear more attractive the more you drink. But like Beer goggles, there are after effects from using Brexit goggles: regret, possible contagion, and the prospect of the mother of all walks of shame the day after. Don’t say you weren’t warned.