There is an array of tubes leading all the way from Kazahstan, a difficult and turbulent place in the middle east not far from the border of China which leads across Asia through Russia into Europe and onwards to Britain and Ireland and finally to Mayo in the west and Kinsale to the south. This pipeline carries energy, in the form of explosive natural gas, transported under high pressure.
This complex and extraordinary energy-moving machine is the backbone of much of our economy, especially here in Ireland where we are largely dependent on it for electricity generation and heat production.
But it is a delicate and complex network. It is built upon decades of peace-building cooperative efforts and international investment. But it works. The energy network we have built, an extraordinary achievement, results from the success of this peace. It also brings peace, through increased prosperity for all the countries along its length.
The pipeline needs to be maintained of course, and millions are invested in it every year by the various countries and corporations that are responsible for the different bits of it. They get paid back for that investment through shipping fees which are levied on users, and these are ultimately passed on to the the end customers, that is, you and me.
But even more important than the steel and concrete is maintaining the peace. Peace, like steel, is something that you have to constantly maintain and reinvest to keep in working order. You can’t assume that just because you built something, that it will still be there in twenty years time. You have to work at it. Maintaining and growing often seems to get more complex over time.
It seems to me like Britain, which was instrumental in the hard-won peace that ended the War in Europe, is now taking that peace for granted. Britain assumes that it can benefit from free trade, without having to pay into it and without having to deal with the work that is needed to build it and maintain it.
Unfortunately, you cannot build or maintain anything, pipeline or peace once there are free riders. Free riding is something we associate with the small guys – people who leech small amounts of electricity from the grid, or use other people’s wifi, or who don’t buy a ticket for the train. It is not something that we expect a great political entity like the United Kingdom to be doing.
The real problem with not investing and maintaining the peace is that there is a chance that we, and the UK, could lose everything that we have fought for and built in the last 75 years. The European Union is at the heart of the peace and by leaving, the UK is tugging at the threads that hold the whole structure together. It’s like pulling on the thread of your favourite jumper. You might not do any obvious damage now, but over time, you are weakening the framework.
And the framework, like the gas network is inherently delicate. It looks safe, but given a change in conditions, it can become explosive. The UK has to decide whether and how it is going to continue to support the peace. As a continent, we need to figure out how to secure the peace and make sure that what we have built is not allowed to collapse under its own weight.