Paul Gillespie: Ireland must not let Brexit affect position in EU

The referendum on UK membership will be a rollercoaster ride with long-term implications

British prime minister David Cameron must  spell out the  major fields of EU reform he seeks. Photograph: Carl Court/Getty Images

British prime minister David Cameron must spell out the major fields of EU reform he seeks. Photograph: Carl Court/Getty Images

 

Ireland is learning how to live with the uncertainty and instability of a changing United Kingdom as that state decides whether to remain a member of the European Union.

Consequently, it must also decide whether it can hold together as a single political entity if Scotland wants to stay in as England votes to leave. It is a dual sovereignty crisis, both externally and internally.

Managing this fallout, which has so many implications for Ireland North and South, is a difficult task. But at least the referendum called on EU membership by the Conservative government seems to promise a resolution of the question one way or another.

If voters decide to stay in the European Union, this would allow the agreements now under negotiation to be implemented in the context of a presumably deepening euro zone, of which Ireland would be a member while the UK stays outside.

If there is a vote for withdrawal, there would be a sharply divisive and turbulent period of transition as that was negotiated. Ireland would have to look after its own interests – and so too would the Scottish.

However, another perspective is emerging, with uncanny resemblances between the Scottish and EU questions. This is the strong possibility, given the unsettled and volatile state of British politics and public opinion, that the result of the referendum – whether held next year or more likely in spring 2017 – will be a close 55 to 45 per cent decision in favour of staying in, which fails to resolve the question definitively.

Cost-benefit basis

It would be a grudging, surly and appallingly bad-tempered victory, according to Anand Menon, director of the UK in a Changing Europe project at London University, who was speaking in Dublin this week (see iiea.com).

This is because it would have been won not on a positive agenda for change, but on a cost-benefit basis confirming the British understanding of the EU as a market and not a political community. That would keep the question open for a second or third referendum in Eurosceptic eyes.

Alternatively, a close No vote might see the question reopened by an improved offer from a Brussels anxious to keep the UK in, recalling Ireland’s Nice and Lisbon record.

UK prime minister David Cameron said immediately after last year’s Scottish referendum was won by a small margin that that question was settled for a generation, only to see it reopened by the EU debate and the extraordinary consolidation of the Scottish National Party afterwards. The SNP leadership is happy to rely on the EU vote to legitimise another independence referendum.

Otherwise, it is playing a longer game, relying on the ever looser union that is the current UK not meeting Scottish expectations, just as the UK itself grapples with the consequences of an ever closer union in the euro zone.

Both perspectives would make the UK an uncertain partner bilaterally or multilaterally in the longer term. The UK’s ingrained role as an “awkward” or “reluctant” EU partner would continue – to borrow academic Stephen George’s classic description or the one the Economist used this week.

As Financial Times columnist Janan Ganesh puts it: “ A vote to stay is a vote for decades of loveless, defensive diplomacy on Europe’s sidelines.” He commends such a continuing blocking strategy on the EU’s development (drawing on precedents of the single market and EU enlargement): “This is perfidy – and it works.”

Menon emphasises the role of domestic politics in all of this. Cameron has valued party unity over EU terms but must now spell out the four major fields of EU reform he seeks: on non-euro members, competitiveness, migration and opting out of ever closer union. This risks ridicule from the sceptics and a bidding-up of succession stakes from figures such as Boris Johnson.

Labour under Jeremy Corbyn fears being drawn into a cross-party consensus that would cede working-class votes to Nigel Farage’s Ukip.

High turnout in the referendum is a key factor, which is not helped by Corbyn’s indifference to the issue.

Concessions

From an Irish or other European point of view, such attitudes are a wake-up call concerning the concessions that should be made to keep the UK in the EU. Despite its relative decline, delusions of continued great powerdom suffuse the British approach, alongside a determined pursuit of its own interests.

This is all the more reason for Irish policy-makers to define Irish interests in a more integrated EU in a more hard-nosed fashion – with and without the UK, rather than being tempted to slip-stream it on this opportunist rollercoaster for fear of it leaving.

pegillespie@gmail.com

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