Britain and Europe: “The Hope Still Lives”

Bobby McDonagh / May 2021

Image: Shutterstock

This is an edited version of the Julian Priestley Memorial Lecture delivered by the author on 7 May 2021

Julian Priestley had a distinguished career in the European Parliament, including as its Secretary General from 1997 to 2007. When he died in 2017, some of his close friends established an annual Julian Priestley Memorial Lecture. I was delighted to be invited to deliver this year’s lecture. I had great affection for Julian as a friend and great admiration for him as a colleague. I am grateful also to Paul Adamson for inviting me to provide this edited version of my lecture for publication in Encompass.



It has been argued, with some justification, that Julian Priestley’s Europe was not one of “diplomats and technocrats”. However, I believe he would be happy enough that a former public servant should be invited this year to do justice to his memory. For Julian, even if he had a superb instinct for politics, was himself a public servant. If his Europe was not one of diplomats and technocrats, that is because he rightly recognized that the work of officials must be under the direction of elected politicians and ultimately in the service of a higher cause. It was to the service of such a higher cause, namely the construction of a decent and democratic European Union, with Britain at its heart, that Julian dedicated his immense talents as well as his distinguished career.

I believe that Julian, having witnessed the start of both Trump era and the Brexit fiasco, would today insist more strongly than ever on the crucial role of public servants and professional expertise. It is not by chance many admirable public servants have recently been pilloried in the stocks of self-interested populism. In the UK Brexit debate, for example, the explicit rejection of all experts and expertise was a key step in advancing a cause that depended on the pretence that there are simple answers to complex problems. Nor is it a coincidence that, in recent years, several exceptional British senior civil servants have found themselves side-lined or moved on for such heinous offences as speaking truth to power, insisting on respect for the ministerial code on bullying, or standing by the rule of law.

In an era in which science, experience, knowledge and even basic facts have been increasingly sacrificed on the altar of superficial soundbites, objective professional analysis and advice are more vital than ever. The crying need to deal with the Covid threat has at last begun to make welcome inroads into the casual triumph of amateurish insouciance.

Had Julian lived, he would have graced the British European debate of recent years with his intelligence, judgement and passion. Nobody would have made the case for Britain in Europe more effectively than him. Nobody would be more disappointed with the largely insular path on which, for the moment, Britain is now set.

I was fortunate that my path crossed with Julian’s three times. First, through our Oxford college, Balliol. Second, when we were colleagues in the European Parliament Secretariat in Luxembourg. Then, finally, when Julian was Secretary General of the European Parliament and I was Ireland’s Permanent Representative in Brussels.

I might add that we both belong to the small “club” of Balliol ex-Presidents of the Oxford Union. It was a club to which, for many years, I was unreservedly proud to belong. Alas, in more recent times, for some reason I can’t quite put my finger on, that pride has inevitably taken something of a hit.

Julian would have graced either the House of Commons - for which he stood three times as a Labour candidate - or Downing Street where Tony Blair offered him a very senior position. However, his career in European Parliament offered him a perfect opportunity to deploy his immense personal and political talents, and to shape significantly the Europe that he loved. His personal impact was a powerful reminder that the European Union has been shaped, above all, by outstanding individuals, many of them proudly and passionately British.  


The Hope Still Lives

I have chosen an upbeat title for my lecture, as I have no doubt Julian would have wished. When Teddy Kennedy failed to win the Democratic nomination for President in 1980, he spoke not of his regret but of his hope for the future. In a similar vein, the theme for my lecture, fifteen months into Brexit, echoes Kennedy’s rallying cry of forty years ago: “Britain and Europe: The Hope Still Lives”.

I do not argue that the UK is set to re-join the European Union, at least within any foreseeable time frame, or indeed that it necessarily will. Still less to I believe that now would be the appropriate moment to launch any foolhardy and counterproductive campaign to that end. Reversing Brexit is far from being the only way for the UK to re-establish a closer relationship with the EU than the minimalist one chosen by the present British Government that points a deep historic friendship along a narrow and doleful road.

Rather the hope still lives, the strong hope, that the hard Brexit delivered by Prime Minister Johnson is not the last word of the British people on their country’s relationship with its European neighbours. The present Government has, for the moment, an unassailable parliamentary majority. It cannot be prevented from continuing to prioritise the narrowest interpretation of “sovereignty” over other considerations, including common sense. But politics always move on eventually. If, as they say, a week is a long time in politics, five to ten years is a veritable age. Already some voices are calling for a more sensible deal with Europe. Someday, undoubtedly there will be a British Government and parliament of a different political hue.

Moreover, Brexit realities are already proving to be wildly different from the Brexit promises. Many may, for now, understandably want to move on from the bitterness and boredom of the Brexit process. But, over time, many will not be so willing to move on from the lost opportunities, the diminished rights, the truncated identity, the waning of national influence or the obstacles to prosperity.

Needless to say, as an Irishman I have no particular claim to be able to predict the future of Britain’s relationship with Europe. I therefore offer my thoughts with some hesitation. However, nobody can confidently predict that future. Whether Britain will someday seek a closer relationship with the EU, or possibly even re-join, will not be decided by the present Government alone or by any future British Government. It will not be decided by the tabloids or commentariat. It will be decided by the British people in all their diversity and evolving wisdom, including by the young people who voted overwhelmingly for Britain to remain in the EU and the millions of other young people who have since reached voting age or will do so in the coming years.

In memory of Julian, no one should be intimidated or silenced by those who argue that Brexit has been done, that all debate is foreclosed, that Britain’s relationship with its neighbours has been set in stone.


Six Battles Ahead

Julian’s book, Six Battles that Shaped Europe’s Parliament, is a powerful testament to his political judgment and impact. It seems to me that there are six other battles ahead that could shape the evolution of Britain’s relationship with Europe. No one can say for certain what the outcome of those battles will be. What is certain is that those battles must be engaged if hope and history, in fulfilment of Heaney’s promise, are once again to rhyme.


The First Battle: Challenging the Brexit Narrative

The first battle is to challenge the underlying Brexit narrative, namely that the “people” have had their say and can never express any other opinion forevermore. Political defeat must not be allowed to become political defeatism.

The idea that the 2016 referendum was a cut-and-dried, once-and-for-all, never-to-be-reversed political event is taking significant hold:

  • Despite the fact that some Brexiteers had campaigned relentlessly for more than four decades to overturn the earlier British EU referendum;
  • Despite the inevitability that Leave campaigners would themselves have insisted on another referendum if their side had lost by a few percentage points;
  • Despite the witches’ cauldron of untruth at the heart of the Leave campaign.

Now is obviously not the time to start any half-baked campaign for another referendum. However, there is a real opportunity - indeed responsibility - to challenge the underlying narrative, namely that Britain’s relationship with Europe has been settled for good. It is past time to move on from licking wounds to licking some arguments into shape. Three underlying arguments in particular seem important.

The first argument relates to a dangerous view of what constitutes the British people. Since the 2016 referendum, a casual mantra has been deployed about what the so-described “British people” voted for. The harder the Brexit, apparently, the more the “British people” voted for it. The simple fact is that the British people, who were not presented with the glimmer of a prospectus for Brexit, were deeply divided on Europe in 2016 and remain so today. The fact that one side won the referendum, narrowly, does not justify repeated claims to know and represent what the so-called “British people” voted for, as Prime Ministers May and Johnson have relentlessly done.  

More recently, it has been suggested that the British general election in December 2019 further settled the matter by confirming the British people’s support for a particular hard form of Brexit. This is, of course, utter nonsense. The first-past-the-post electoral system delivered a significant victory to the Conservative Party. However, although the subject of staggeringly little media comment, the majority of British voters in December 2019 supported parties that favoured a second Brexit referendum.

Winning a referendum or a majority of seats in the House of Commons is an important democratic event. But it does not give the victors the right to talk grandly about what the “British people” want when what they mean is what, at most, approximately half the British people want.

It is important - and urgent - to keep alive the legitimate alternative narrative that there is nothing remotely undemocratic or improper in working for a deeper relationship with Europe than the current settlement; or even in seeking, in the fullness of time, to reconsider British EU membership. It is both reasonable and wise to begin now working gently to ensure that the terrain of British public debate on Europe is not, like the land of defeated Carthage, sown so comprehensively with the salt of self-righteous triumphalism, that any flowering of a return to rational multilateralism in Europe would struggle to take root even when a more favourable climate someday returns.

The second argument is that the specific hard form Brexit now in place bears no resemblance to what leading Brexiteers promised - insofar as their promises had any content - during the referendum campaign. It would have been possible to leave Europe on the sort of terms Boris Johnson himself vaguely dangled in front of the electorate in 2016. It would have been possible to explore a relationship with the EU similar to the more balanced one Theresa May was seeking. It would have been possible, at the very least, to seek a deal with Europe along the lines of the so-called oven-ready deal, set out in the EU/UK Joint Political Declaration last year, which the British electorate were implicitly invited to endorse in December’s general election, that held the promise of better trading arrangements in return for what the agreed Political Declaration called “robust level playing field conditions”, a sensible trade-off agreed but subsequently disowned by British negotiators.

The third argument to be advanced with a view to shaping a more truthful long-term European narrative in Britain is that the hard-line stance of the Johnson Government, prioritizing so-called “sovereignty” over everything else, including the aspirations of at least half the population, has not only ignored their point of view but has essentially disrespected it. Repeated assertions of a wish to “unite the country”, if they are to mean anything at all, must surely take some slight account of the views of the large part of the British population that still aspires to a close relationship with Europe. The pursuit of a minimalist deal, followed now by an ongoing policy of distancing the UK from its European neighbours, can only deepen divisions between and within the constituent parts of the UK.

A number of recent decisions reflect the working through of the narrow understanding of “sovereignty” that so excites the true believers of Brexit. But at some point, surely, some minimal account needs to be taken of those, in every constituent part of the United Kingdom, who do not celebrate every slap in the face proffered to the European Union or cheer when Royal Navy ships, in a pre-election stunt, are dispatched to Jersey.


The Second Battle: Shaping the EU’s future

The second battle ahead concerns the future direction and success of European Union itself, the chosen front line of Julian’s career. The European debate in the UK will be significantly influenced by how the EU itself copes with the challenges ahead.

The EU’s two long-term priorities are well chosen: the greening of our societies and the digital agenda. The EU is demonstrating significant leadership in those areas, even if progress will necessarily be halting, uneven and dependent on others.

However, everyone’s best laid plans have been disrupted by COVID. The EU is no exception. It has no claims to covering itself in particular glory in the context of COVID and has made significant mistakes. But then the same can be said of every country in the world, including the UK. Dealing with COVID will be a long and complex challenge, of which vaccines - on which Europe is now getting up to speed - are only one important dimension. Comparative judgements about overall performance, in which mortality rates will be the most important metric, can only be made in the fullness of time.

Amongst the vast array of other challenges facing Europe, three in particular are likely to impact on British public opinion when it returns, as some day it surely must, to a political serenity that allows it to reflect rationally on the UK’s interests and place in the world.

First the EU must work to develop further the single market, to a significant extent a British conception, and to protect the integrity of that market. The single market has significantly enhanced the prosperity of Europe, including the United Kingdom. However, there is much more to accomplish both in terms of the market for services and the digital single market. That work must continue, sadly without the advocacy of the UK which would have continued to be a prime mover and prime beneficiary of that work. Success with that agenda, important for Europe itself, will also further increase the attractiveness of the single market for British businesses, workers and voters when the populist tempest subsides.

Preserving the integrity of single market was the EU’s principal red line in the Brexit negotiations and will remain so as its relationship with the UK evolves. Ironically, it is a racing certainty that if any Member State other than the UK had decided to leave the EU, the strongest defender of the integrity of the single market today would not be the infidels in Paris but rather God’s elect in London.

A second European challenge that could impact, in the longer run, on perceptions of Europe in Britain will be Europe’s response to the challenges posed in Poland and Hungary to the independence of the judiciary and the wider institutions of democracy. This is a sensitive, complex and strategic issue to which there is no simple fix. But, in the longer run, finding a way to bite that bullet more decisively will be important not only for Europe itself but would, I believe, have a positive impact on British public opinion.

The UK has, of course, faced populist challenges of its own, with attacks on the judiciary as enemies of the people and an attempt to prorogue parliament. However, I’m certain that the decency of the vast majority of British people and their deep attachment to democracy will ride out the populist wave and that the UK will, one day, not only fully reaffirm the European values which it has done so much to shape, but will once again take a lead in asserting them.  

A third challenge at European level that will impact on Britain’s view of Europe is the need for the EU to redouble its efforts to defend multilateralism, to strengthen international institutions and to provide our deeply challenged world with leadership in bolstering the interdependence of nations. In a world in which insularity has made something of a comeback, in which for some patriotism and selfishness have become more intertwined, the EU has both an opportunity and responsibility to assert the values that underpin and inspire it. Multilateral organizations are under threat because those who would undermine them falsely preach that simple, winner-takes-all, take-back-control answers are possible.

It is regrettable that the UK decided to leave the most important and influential multilateral organisation to which it belonged. The underlying psychology of that decision raises inevitable questions about the UK’s approach to wider international engagement.

However, it is to be welcomed that the UK - despite Brexit - is in principle standing by most other aspects of its commitment to multilateralism, including the United Nations.

It is also important that, notwithstanding the its earlier explicitly announced intention of breaking international law in relation to the Northern Ireland Protocol, and its subsequent decision to act unilaterally in relation to its provisions, the Johnson Government has now stated clearly that it intends to abide by its legal obligations and appears to be acting in good faith in working with the EU to find practical solutions.

However, the recent leaking by London of its intention to break previous agreements on the prosecution of serious crimes in Northern Ireland, timed for short-term electoral advantage, is further disturbing confirmation of an increasingly unilateral mindset.

The US and the EU are set to be the two main pillars of western democratic interests and values. It is essential that they find optimal ways to work with the UK as with their other international friends and partners.

It is certain that, in shaping its own future, the EU will have successes and make mistakes. I hope that, by further strengthening its market, its democratic values and its constructive global role, it can in due course provide fertile ground for a renewed debate in Britain about its relationship with Europe.


The Third Battle: Explaining the EU Truthfully

The third of the six battles to shape Britain’s future relationship with the European continent is the battle to explain the EU truthfully to the public. This is a challenge in the 27 Member States, but it is particularly acute in the UK, a country in which the seeds of Brexit took root in the soil of frivolous drivel about square bananas and prawn-flavoured crisps: a fairy tale to scare the children, conjured into a believable reality by a mendacious tabloid media. The great lie about Europe in Britain became so pervasive that, in truth, those who voted for Brexit in 2016 did not vote to leave the European Union at all but rather to leave a figment of popular imagination. A fictional drama: directed by Nigel Farage, screen play by Dominic Cummings, based on an original story by Boris Johnson.

It is no more than a statement of the obvious to say that many media outlets in the UK continue systematically to misrepresent the EU’s nature, ignore its successes, and exaggerate its faults.

As the costs of Brexit become more evident, the advocates of Brexit will opt for the Bart Simpson defence: “I didn’t do it. No one saw me do it. You can’t prove anything”. Severely constrained access to the single market is already being portrayed as the result of European cussedness rather than the direct consequence of Johnson’s choice. Bad outcomes, deliberately and consciously chosen, will continue to be blamed on the purported bad faith of others.

It will be a steep uphill battle to counteract all the misinformation.

It is vital to ensure that legitimate and, where necessary, robust, criticism of the EU does not translate - as it so often does in Britain - into a questioning of the EU’s existence or purpose; and that healthy scepticism does not morph into deep-rooted cynicism about its value or the possibility of the eventual return of Britain to a closer relationship with it, whatever form that may take.  


The Fourth Battle: The Global Assault on The Meaning of Words

The fourth related underlying battle is the global assault on truth that extends well beyond Brexit and Europe. It is a struggle these days to try to ensure that words have any meaning at all.

When the world’s greatest purveyor of fake news can spend four years in the White House describing reality as “fake”, presenting fictions as “alternative facts”, the size of the problem is evident. The connection between words and truth has become increasingly tenuous.

The corruption of language in the context of the Brexit debate has been staggering. One thinks, for example, of the comparisons of the European Union to the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany and the sustained language in the House of Commons about traitors, betrayal, surrender bills and collaborators, including Winston Churchill’s grandson.

Nowhere is the challenge of language more important than to lay the groundwork for a serious future debate about Europe in Britain.


The Fifth Battle: Scotland and Northern Ireland

The fifth battleground concerns Scotland and Northern Ireland.

No one can predict, with confidence, the future of those nations. It lies primarily in the hands of their own people. There will be complex debates in which different views of sovereignty, economic interests and political identity will be asserted. Scotland and Northern Ireland may indeed choose different paths.

But we know already that Brexit will, in both cases, play an important role. Most Scottish and Northern Irish people would prefer still to be part of the European Union. Indeed, Brexit has strengthened the hand of those who favour Scottish independence and Irish unity.

The majority in both nations know what their aspirations counted for in the impulsive scramble for Brexit. Precisely nothing. In Northern Ireland, the unionist community, some of whom are understandably now angry, understand that as well as the nationalist community.

Identity will play a central role in the debates ahead. Most Scottish people remain comfortable with multiple identities. In Northern Ireland, respect for different identities lies at the heart of the Good Friday Agreement which acknowledges the right of each person to choose to be British or Irish or both, and all that under the umbrella of a shared European identity that provided the overall context for the peace process.

Into those china shops of delicate, interwoven identities strode the great bull of Brexit, asserting the purity and superiority of one single identity on its triumphant rosette: Englishness.

Either Scotland or Northern Ireland, or both, could opt to leave the United Kingdom in the years ahead. If not, they will remain within the UK, disaffected and unhappy to be deprived of their European identity and determined one day to reclaim it.


The Sixth Battle: Keeping the Spirit of Europe Alive

In conclusion, let me turn to the final battle: the battle to keep the spirit of Europe alive.

The UK witnessed, a few years ago, perhaps the most enthusiastic and well attended demonstrations of European enthusiasm that the EU has seen. The immediate aim of those events has been stopped in its tracks. Beyond that, the more modest ambition of a majority of British people to have a closer relationship with Europe than that in place has been side-lined for the moment.

But if the short-term ambition of British pro-Europeans have run into some buffers, their aspirations remain as valid, their values as legitimate and their cause as important as ever.

Although in Ireland we know a few things about keeping flames alive, I would be hesitant to prescribe how British European hopes might best be nurtured with a view to their ultimate vindication.

However, the process could usefully start by reflecting proudly on the immense contribution that the UK has made to shaping the European Union over the last half century, including the input of many individuals like Julian Priestley. It could involve recalling the achievements to which EU membership has contributed: the personal friendships it has made possible across the continent; the remarkable improvement of relations between Britain and Ireland; the delicate peace itself in Northern Ireland; the vast array of educational, cultural and employment opportunities for young people; the enhanced stability and prosperity on our shared continent; the decent values on which the EU continues to give leadership; and the creation of complex European institutions which, for all their imperfection, have shown that they have some potential, in the words of Aeschylus, “to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of the world”.

Above all, pro-Europeans in the UK should not be intimidated by the assertiveness of compatriots who have long wanted to turn back the clock to an imaginary past or by the belligerence of those who mistake swagger for patriotism.

They should remember that Britain and its people have very many friends in every corner of Europe.

I look forward one day to a reassertion of Britain’s unqualified openness to other people, backgrounds, beliefs and ideas, including friendship with neighbouring countries; to a restored recognition that true sovereignty is something sometimes to be shared; to an awareness that many of the great issues faced by our societies transcend the borders with our neighbours; to the knowledge that we are infinitely stronger when we address those issues together.

Julian Priestly believed in openness and engagement. Indeed, it is no exaggeration to say that they shaped his life. That the United Kingdom has, for the moment, turned inwards is not the end of Julian’s life’s work. On the contrary it is reminder of the ongoing importance of it. Julian believed, as the title of his book reminds us, in political battles. His message to us today would be that the struggle for Britain’s soul must continue - gently, judiciously and respectfully.

If I may adapt slightly the final words of Teddy Kennedy’s address to the Democratic Convention in 1980, in which he transformed his concession of defeat into a stirring call to arms:

For Julian, a few years ago, this campaign came to an end. But for all those whose concerns were his concerns “the work goes on; the cause endures; the hope still lives; and the dream shall never die.”

Bobby McDonagh

Bobby McDonagh

May 2021

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