British debate seen as creator of friction in union

Thu, Jan 24, 2013, 00:00

IRISH REACTION:David Cameron’s manoeuvre is seen in Dublin as increasing the strain on the EU as it faces an immense challenge to overcome the debt crisis.

This is the Government’s prime concern for now, even though the push for a referendum is seen as a matter for the next British government and a question that will not be settled for years to come.

Indeed, Mr Cameron’s campaign for a renegotiation of the terms of Britain’s membership is not an agenda item for Ireland’s EU presidency.

However, it is readily acknowledged in official circles that the British debate and uncertainty over its EU membership have clear potential to destabilise European politics and create friction with other member states.

Further uncertainty surrounds the response of other British parties as they head into the next general election.

Despite relative calm in the euro zone, all of this is seen as a big distraction at a time when the debt debacle is still not settled. That said, Mr Cameron’s willingness to make a strong case for Britain maintaining active EU membership – if sufficient powers are returned to London – is seen on its own terms to be positive.

Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore told reporters in Dublin that the EU was “better with Britain in it”, adding that the Government wanted to see Britain as fully engaged member.

Special relationship

Later, at the Oireachtas foreign affairs committee, he stressed Ireland’s special relationship with Britain and added that “Ireland’s position and Ireland’s relationship with the EU is not in question”.

The matter was ultimately one for the British people to resolve, Mr Gilmore said. “The priority for the EU at this time is to grow the European economy, to create jobs and particularly to address the issues that are urgent for Europe.”

Among Irish critics of the EU, Socialist Party TD Joe Higgins said the initiative was “risky for British capitalism” as it could lead the country out of the union. The EU was seen in Britain as the “capital of austerity”, he said, and a referendum could play into huge disenchantment at fiscal retrenchment.

“I would say that it’s a cynical ploy by Cameron to try and placate both wings of British capitalism and, more importantly, their political representatives.”

Veteran anti-EU campaigner Anthony Coughlan said the initiative was good news in general but he was not too excited about it: “2017 is an eternity away.” Still, he said the move might encourage debate about the direction the EU and euro zone were taking and “the folly” of Ireland joining the single currency in the first place.

With Dublin under pressure to go along with federalist-type initiatives like banking union, a British exit would send the Republic and Northern Ireland in opposite directions, he said.