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What holds the EU together

The next EU Council summit on December 10th and 11th will be the final opportunity to agree a budget for recovery for the EU.

Standing in the way are Polish and Hungarian objections to the idea that EU funding should be tied to adhering to EU values and policy objectives.

The establishment in Poland of LGBT-free zones and attacks in both countries on basic freedoms inspired the European Parliament to insist on ‘rule of law’ conditionality in the next budget.

The degree to which Hungary in particular has departed from EU values was demonstrated in an opinion piece that appeared on a Government-supporting website called a couple of weeks ago. The head of a Government agency, Szilard Demeter, wrote the following;

“Europe is the gas-chamber of Soros: The toxic gas, which is mortal to the European way of life floods from the capsule of the multicultural open society, and we, European nations are doomed to fight for our last sip of air, trampling each other and clambering on one another.

The liberaryans now want to expel the Poles and the Hungarians from the political community, we still have rights as members. We are the new Jews.”

This gives a flavour of the political rhetoric of the Orban government. Incidentally, it is unforgiveable that the EPP Party in the European Parliament (to which Fine Gael is affiliated) has not expelled Orban’s Fidesz party.

The Fidesz MEP who tried to evade a police raid at a lockdown-busting gay orgy by shinning down a drainpipe only served to underline the hypocrisy at the heart of the movement.

What holds the EU together in a time of rising nationalism and illiberalism? What is its binding logic? Many say that it cannot succeed without a demos - a core identity that binds together Bulgars, Gaels and Corsicans.

This question lies quietly at the heart of the current impasse about the next EU budget. Why should EU Member States that fail to uphold EU values receive funding? How do you avoid the EU becoming a cash machine for governments with autocratic tendencies?

Let me start this enquiry by dipping into English politics.

Jacob Rees-Mogg is currently Leader of the House of Commons, a routine administrative role that gives him a platform for his carry on. It is mostly entertaining except that so many people are convinced that his characteristic superiority is emblematic of England’s superiority. I won’t say it brought about Brexit but for millions of English people he has been a convincing advocate for English exceptionalism.

He is no fool, but seems to enjoy playing up the role of the upper class pompous twit with his cut glass accent and over-wrought manners.

Last week in the House of Commons, he was asked what the Government was going to do about the undermining of British heritage by the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement and others that are, for example, questioning Churchill’s legacy.

He listed off the good and the great of English (note, not British) history; Bodiciea, Alfred the Great, Richard the Lionheart (actually French), the Black Prince (white of course), Henry V, Francis Drake, Prince Rupert, Marlborough, Wolfe (no, not that one), Nelson (yes, that one), Moore, Wellington (actually Irish), Gordon and Montgomery.

Finishing with a flourish he mentioned the great Caractacus, because he “so impressed the Romans that, when they took him to Rome in chains, they freed him because they thought he was a fine and noble warrior”.

The implication was that these were real heroes and should be celebrated and forget all this woke nonsense about making sense of our history. It seemed to pass him by that Caractacus led a Celtic tribe.

It would be a mistake to mock this English jingoism as it does create a valuable national identity. Nevertheless, it is unimaginable that any EU politician would make a similar speech.

Commemorating the events of the Irish war of Independence helps to bind us together as a nation but I like to think that it doesn’t define us. We need to make room for evolving and emerging ideas of Irishness and the way our young people identify themselves.

The divisions in the US revealed by the recent election are profound despite having a common language, common history and a very clear demos.

And so to the question about what, if anything, binds us together as Europeans. Martyn Rady’s history of the Habsburgs is worth a read. It is a stretch but if the EU had a royal family, the Habsburgs would have been it. They had an identity that transcended nationality and for seven centuries tried to lead a loose confederation of European royal households, the Holy Roman Empire.

It was in the conclusion of Rady’s book that I discovered that Otto von Habsburg (1912-2011), eldest son of the last Emperor, was a Member of the European Parliament from 1979 to 1999. He was described as the best Emperor that the Habsburgs never had.

In the second world war, Otto helped thousands of Austrian Jews to escape from Nazi rule and was a life-long campaigner for European unity. To the extent that he was known at all in Ireland, it was based on his shoving Ian Paisley out of the European Parliament chamber in 1988 as Paisley interrupted Pope John Paul II’s speech with cries of ‘antichrist’.

In his entry on Wikipedia it states that, “as a newly elected MEP Otto had an empty chair set up for the countries on the other side of the Iron Curtain”, anticipating that they would all eventually take their seats in the European Parliament which he lived long enough to see.

He spoke seven languages fluently and his nationality was given as Austrian, Hungarian, German and Croatian.

In later life, he acknowledged that for the European project to hold together it needed cultural ties and a common identity based on fundamental rights and democratic freedoms.

These ties are fraying very badly particularly in central and eastern Europe.

Today, what binds us together as Europeans is not a messy history or characters from the past but shared values. It matters not just because we have to agree a way to make Member States adhere to the rules; it matters when the EU is surrounded by Trump, Xi, Putin, Erdogan and Bolsonaro. A community of values, committed to a free press, the separation of powers and free assembly, really matters when democracy, the rule of law and human rights are in retreat in so many parts of the globe.

That is why it is so important that the next EU budget reflects a renewed commitment to those values.

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