Tony Connelly, RTÉ’s man in Brussels, talks to Dearbhail McDonald about the European Union’s need for a narrative to stay united in the post-Brexit landscape.
At Future Human 2020, Tony Connelly said of the role of a European correspondent in Brussels: “A lot of your job is explaining the news as well as reporting it, because it is so technical.” And indeed Connelly has been a welcome and necessary guide over the past few years, explaining the rocky landscape of the European Union pre and post-Brexit referendum.
In October, the Europe editor for RTÉ sat down with fellow broadcaster Dearbhail McDonald (albeit in safe and separate locations) to discuss the Brexit journey to date and the future of Europe.
“When I first came to Brussels, the first five or six years were great because the world wasn’t consumed with one big particular story,” said Connelly. For him, his beat became mainstream news first during the financial crisis in 2008, followed by terrorism across the region, a refugee crisis that continues to this day and, of course, Brexit.
“The Eurosceptic constituency in the UK had been growing ever since the Maastricht Treaty. And once UKIP appeared on the scene, that meant the Conservative Party was constantly being outflanked or in danger of being outflanked,” Connelly recalled.
“So the Conservative Party had to move to the right on Europe and there was just this momentum which built up. And lo and behold, we had Brexit.”
‘All these people from all over Europe who would never have given Ireland a second thought were suddenly up to their knees in hedgerows and volumes of milk that would cross the border 5,000 times a minute’
– TONY CONNELLY
Connelly recalled how disinformation about the European Union seemed to light a fire under the debate in the UK ahead of the Brexit referendum. “There was a certain distortion of the way the EU works, which I think just got set in and got so much traction,” he told McDonald.
Connelly described reporting on Brexit as “unscrambling a huge omelette”. There was a lot of learning on the job, and he wasn’t the only one.
“All these people, officials who work for the European Commission or the European Council or the Parliament, from all over Europe, who would never have given Ireland a second thought beyond perhaps a holiday destination, were suddenly up to their knees in hedgerows and volumes of milk that would cross the border 5,000 times a minute. And then to get into the politics of it and the 800 years of history. And then also to get into the really boring technical detail about the Customs Union, the single market, sanitary and phytosanitary checks and controls – and of course nobody had really thought about this during the referendum, certainly on the UK side,” said Connelly.
“Then when Brexit happened you had the Irish and British government saying in tandem, we’re not going back to the borders of the past. And it was like, OK, there’s a bilateral understanding that we’re going to deal with this Irish question – but actually then people saying, well how?”
Still, to this day, that how remains unanswered. All current arrangements of the transition period will end on 31 December and, per Connelly’s latest reporting, time is running out for a deal to be reached.
‘Europe is trying to present itself as holding on to the torch of the rules-based liberal global order, but that’s under attack from within’
– TONY CONNELLY
Without any clarity on what comes next for Brexit, Connelly and McDonald turned to the question of the European Union’s narrative.
“The creation myth of Europe is the Second World War and bringing peace to the continent after centuries of conflict, and that has perhaps outlived its purpose,” said Connelly.
According to Connelly, there have been attempts to modernise the story in the context of unity in the face of the climate crisis, or the European Union as a bastion of human rights values in a world increasingly dominated by “big hostile monoliths like Russia or China and, under Trump, the US”.
“Europe, I think, is trying to present itself as holding on to the torch of the rules-based liberal global order, but that’s under attack from within. There are countries in Europe which don’t have any time for that kind of vision at all.”
Despite this divisive environment, Connelly sees the opportunity for deeper unity and cooperation in Europe post-Brexit, proving the European Union’s necessity in the process.
“It’s very hard for the EU to land on a particular stable vision of what it’s there for. But the funny thing now with Brexit is that I think perhaps the EU might be less defensive on having a big broad vision because you don’t have the UK constantly putting the brakes on any sort of federal ideas.
“And if you’re getting into things like the Green Deal having a binding target for Europe to be the first carbon-neutral continent by 2050, again that’s going to require law that member states will have to follow. And people say, well that’s an infringement of sovereignty. The EU will say, well, we can’t tackle these global problems just one country after another doing it by themselves. You need to have this big get-together to do it. So the raison d’être of Europe does keep shifting but it keeps going as well.”