Shared Island: How EU would react to Irish unity referendum

Former Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny eased the path for North’s re-entry into bloc in 2017

Thirty years ago, at a time when some European leaders were sceptical of German reunification, Ireland made an intervention to help it along that has never been forgotten in Berlin.

Dublin assumed the rotating European presidency in January 1990, shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall. At the time, Britain’s prime minister Margaret Thatcher and Italy’s prime minister Giulio Andreotti had reservations about the unification of east and west.

But Charles Haughey argued in favour, telling the Dáil that “as a divided country . . . we would have an underlying sympathy with the efforts of any other people who wish to achieve their reunification.”

He went on to chair a special European summit in Dublin that turned out to be a landmark, securing the backing of the member states for unification and the integration of the united Germany into what would become the modern-day EU.


The words of German chancellor Helmut Kohl to Haughey were: “Germany will never forget what you have done for us.”

And indeed it has not been forgotten. Ireland’s “significant contribution to bringing about German reunification” is mentioned in the second sentence of the German foreign office’s page on German-Irish relations.

Could Germany or another EU state play a similar role in the event of a referendum on Irish unity?

EU policy

The EU has not formulated a common policy towards the potential breakup of the UK, as there is no room for any such talk until the highly sensitive post-Brexit negotiations are concluded. All matters relating to Britain and Northern Ireland are handled by the Task Force for Relations with the United Kingdom, led by chief negotiator Michel Barnier, for now.

After the end of the transition period, the UK file will be handled by the bloc’s diplomatic, foreign affairs and defence ministry, the European External Action Service. This has directors for different global regions, under which work teams of desk officers dedicated to specific portfolios.

From January, a dedicated officer will cover Northern Ireland, Britain and the issues that overlap into the Republic, The Irish Times understands. Border issues will naturally be part of that remit.

“We are getting all these reports about dissatisfaction in Scotland, changing opinions in Northern Ireland,” a Brussels source said. “Of course we are following.”

When it comes to Irish unity, views are broadly benevolent across Europe, partly the legacy of decades of popular culture in which the Irish national struggle has been romantically portrayed.

“The Irish tend to be framed, to put it very crudely, as the good guys,” said Alexander Clarkson, lecturer in German and European and International Studies at King’s College London.

European political parties on the left tend to view unification positively, while in the wake of Brexit those that lean right have increasingly come to view it as pragmatic and more of a question of “when” than “if”.

Isolated unionists

Apart from anything else, unification is seen as simplifying the question of managing the EU’s external border, as bluntly acknowledged by French president Emmanuel Macron during Brexit talks when he remarked last year that unity “would solve all the problems, but it is not up to France”.

Unionists are politically isolated in Europe, the consequence of their adoption of euroscepticism, a failure to make links in continental political systems, and over-reliance on London to protect their interests.

This means that, ironically, it might be the Republic’s diplomats and leaders who end up explaining the unionist position and urging caution on the issue.

“I don’t think I’ve met a unionist politician who has really understood how other European political systems work and how they communicate. They just don’t have advocates for their cause,” Dr Clarkson said.

“You have this paradox that in order to understand how complicated this is, unionists are going to rely on Micheál Martin, Simon Coveney and Leo Varadkar to explain what the problem is from a unionist perspective,” he added.

“In the end, the unionists are going to rely on the Irish Government to communicate how complicated things are in Northern Ireland and that we don’t want to rush this, this requires community consent.”

Uncertainty is messy

Former taoiseach Enda Kenny smoothed the path for the North’s re-entry into the bloc in April 2017 when he succeeded in winning the unanimous agreement of the member states that the area would automatically join the EU in the event of a successful unity referendum.

When it comes to Scottish independence, which is seen as a closely linked issue to Irish unification, it is often noted that Spain might be reluctant to allow its accession to the EU for fear of setting a precedent for Catalonia.

But diplomats believe that as long as the vote was fully constitutional and agreed between London and Edinburgh, Madrid might grumble but would not stand in the way.

Defence ministries, however, are wary of the implications the break-up of the United Kingdom would have on Western security, given that Britain remains one of the most important members of Nato and has a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council.

France, which is geopolitically ambitious and is used to working together with Britain on ventures overseas, is likely to be particularly concerned.

Who would defend Irish airspace against incursions by the Russian airforce in place of the British RAF fighter planes that currently do the job?

What would happen to British military installations, particularly the Trident nuclear weapons system that is based in Scotland?

“None of us like uncertainty in all of this. Uncertainty particularly around common defence and security is messy,” one diplomat remarked.

But a key difference now is that these questions are being asked.

EU policy on unity

The EU can and has in the past formed common positions to support unification, as in the case of Germany and of Cyprus, which held a referendum on unity in 2004.

Common EU positions are initiated when the bloc’s diplomatic body or a member state raises an issue at one of the committees in which national diplomats meet to discuss policy, which can then be elevated to be adopted as a formal policy by meetings of national ministers.

On the unity question, member states and the European Commission would likely expect Dublin to take the initiative in bringing up the issue, and would pay close attention to the Irish position in forming their own outlook.

But while Dublin would be influential, other member states would also have to balance their relations with London when considering the issue, and the European Commission is highly wary of getting involved in border disputes that could bring trouble to its door.

Sinn Féin president Mary Lou McDonald has used the Cyprus precedent to argue that the EU should openly back Irish unity.

But the experience of 2004 may actually serve as a warning to Brussels to be more cautious in taking a position in future, as the EU was burned for its support when the Greek side of the island voted against unity, and continues to deal with the complex fallout.

Peace and cash

When addressing Northern Ireland, the European Commission usually focuses on the question of peace. The EU put the protection of peace at the forefront in Brexit negotiations, and there is a sense of responsibility for maintaining it following years of EU funding for border and community peace projects over the years.

In a budget agreement this summer, €120 million was set aside to continue such funding, irrespective of Brexit. If any vote were to arise, the reaction across the EU would depend upon the circumstances.

If a referendum occurred according to the Belfast Agreement, with consent on all sides and decisive results, there would likely be cheers across the continent. Many continental observers are unconvinced that even Conservative politicians in England remain unionist in regards to Northern Ireland, and a successful referendum would be likely to be broadly seen as a tidy resolution of history.

But until support for the idea is broad and formally declared, Brussels will likely hedge its bets.

“I think the EU would probably opt for a position of benevolent neutrality, set up the position that this is a matter for the island, but if Northern Ireland opts for integration in the EU in Ireland, the EU will not stand in the way,” Dr Clarkson said.

“I presume that they will smother Northern Ireland in EU cash to try to keep things quiet. A tried and tested EU method. And Northern Ireland’s integration into the EU system would be expedited. I don’t think that would be a difficult position to arrive at.”