Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 31 August 2014

We have more to gain than lose from European links

Marcel Kittel of team Giant Shimano wins the second stage of the Giro d'Italia in Belfast
Marcel Kittel of team Giant Shimano wins the second stage of the Giro d'Italia in Belfast

Next weekend's media headlines are predictable across Europe even before people go to the polls on Thursday. Substantial gains for far-Right, Eurosceptic and nationalist parties will dominate the analysis of pundits at home and across the continent. Yet another wake-up call will sound in the vast bureaucracy of Brussels, but who will hear it?

All will depend on the balance of power among the members elected to the next European Parliament and the extent to which the protest votes cast in individual states will influence the future direction of domestic politics and persuade the established parties to reflect public antipathy.

Northern Ireland has done well out of the European Community. The financial aid may not be as generous as it once was in the immediate aftermath of the Troubles and birth of power-sharing, but in a small country as indebted as we are to the Whitehall Treasury, every extra euro counts for peace projects, agriculture or general regional development.

The greatest contribution our three elected MEPs can make is to ensure that the largesse of the European Community budget is shared with Stormont, the new super-councils, community organisations and worthwhile projects.

For most of the time, our MEPs seem out of sight and sound. We can only assume that they are beavering away in Brussels. Those elected on Thursday should be judged at the ballot box on their energy, willingness and ability to lobby on our behalf.

In this centenary year of the Great War, the unity of Europe is again under stress. The opening of frontiers between countries has brought millions closer together, but it has also led to inter-community tensions.

As we know only too well on this island, legislation alone cannot undo religious, ethnic and culture divisions which have existed for centuries.

Attacks on immigrant workers have become commonplace in European states, including the UK and the Republic. Conflict bubbles daily in Ukraine. Tensions rise as far-Right parties gain more political footholds. The years of recession have defined the rich and poor nations, the latter, including the Republic, dependent on huge financial bail-outs from the former, such as Germany.

On the experience of previous elections, the apathy towards voting this Thursday will lead more than half the electorate to stay at home even though European legislation impinges more and more on our daily lives.

Huge swathes of local social, legal and economic policies cannot be enacted without taking account of EC rules. The tipping-point is being reached in the UK.

Enough is enough is the message of Nigel Farage. Westminster has good reason to await anxiously his Ukip vote on Thursday. His anticipated success is likely to be mirrored by victories for far-Right parties elsewhere across Europe.

All of this suggests that these European elections signal the start of a defining debate. What will the future hold?

Even closer and more dominating European unity? Or, as the rise of nationalist, far-Right and Eurosceptic parties suggests, deadlock and retreat from where we are now?

Who in the Republic wants the country's annual budget approved in Germany, as it was recently during the south's recession crisis? Who in Britain, or Northern Ireland, wants more of the legislative bureaucracy of Brussels which we have already?

The reality is that the price of more European unity is a dilution of our independence. Striking a balance appears to be just about acceptable, which is why the local candidates for the European Parliament have the best chance of success if they argue from that perspective. Yes, by all means, get as much of the continental cake as we can eat but, no, keep Brussels' nose as much out of our daily lives as you can.

Meanwhile, the fruits of open frontiers and commerce lie in tourism, travel and trade across Europe.

A century on from one world war, almost 70 years from the ending of another, we live in relative peace as never before with our continental neighbours. For all its fault-lines, the European Community deserves credit.

And was there ever a better illustration of the benefit of being friends and neighbours across Europe than the sight of and welcome given to the Giro d'Italia cyclists on the highways and byways of Ulster this month?

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