Ciara Kenny

The Irish Times forum by and for Irish citizens living overseas,

Does a sense of identity influence migration patterns?

Terence Dunne asks why so many Irish people move to countries outside Europe

Thu, May 30, 2013, 00:01


Terence Dunne

How does membership of the EU affect our sense of identity as Irish nationals? Is there a feeling of pan-European identity? Can you be Irish-European or even European-Irish? These questions are germane to the debate surrounding the Eurozone crisis and the current wave of emigration that Ireland is experiencing.

As part of my degree I had the opportunity to spend a year studying abroad in Belgium and Germany. This experience would have been unimaginable without the EU’s free movement policy and support for the Erasmus programme. This was a rewarding educational experience but also foregrounded the cultural differences that are visible across the member states. I was surprised at the number of people who were not aware of Ireland’s inclusion in the Eurozone. This seems rather ironic in light of the current Euro crisis. However, this raises deeper questions about integration on an EU-wide scale.

Despite the numbers of people migrating (or should that be transgrating?) within the EU, it seems that European integration has not been a priority. This is made clear by British prime minister David Cameron’s call for a referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU. As I am currently located in the UK, I am hearing both sides of the argument on Britain’s place in the EU. One of the arguments against membership surrounds supposed ‘health care tourism’. Yes, people from the EU can avail of free healthcare in Britain, this is offered by the British government and free emergency healthcare is guaranteed under the European Health Insurance Card (EHIC) scheme, but it is disingenuous to suggest that people will migrate to other parts of the EU with the sole purpose of receiving free health care. If this were the case Northern Irish hospitals and GPs would be overrun with patients from the Republic. Some EU countries even follow a policy of compulsory health insurance which points to the illogicality of ‘healthcare tourism’ argument.

What underlies this current trend of Euroscepticism is a feeling that people are getting less out of the Union than they are putting in. However, this completely flies in the face of what membership of a union means. Unions call for unity with richer states helping poorer ones out – especially at times of crisis. What would happen to the United States of America if Oregon decided that too many Washington residents were crossing its borders? Of course, Europe and America have radically different histories, not to mention languages, and America is a federal state.

However, Americans are citizens of the United States of America and the citizens of the twenty-seven member states are also citizens of the European Union. Just take a look at your shiny burgundy passport. European Union is printed on it. It has been there the whole time. There is no contention between the juxtaposition of European Union and a member state’s name on a passport, yet there is a disconnect between some member states and the EU. The roots of this discord stretch back to dual issues of national and European identity. The EU is young and its citizens lack a shared sense of identity; national identities often win allegiances based on the legacy of history. This is an issue which the EU needs to face up to in order to ensure its survival as a union and not merely an economic trading block.

The latest CSO statistics show that over eighty thousand people have left Ireland between 2011-2012 with popular destinations being the UK, USA, Australia and Canada. The trend points to English-speaking countries as the most sought after. Furthermore, there is a historical link with emigration to many of these countries. Does this historical link influence the decision of emigrants? It is difficult to answer this question, but it seems that the linguistic barrier may be prompting emigrants to favour countries with English as a national language.

Identity is, after all, a social construct, albeit a powerful one. Emigration acts as an impetus for questioning our sense of identity. However, if such feelings of identity can influence migration habits then the future of Europe depends on its citizens asking themselves how European they are, as this will ultimately decide the course which Europe follows.