Ruadhán Mac Cormaic: Who will be our friends now at the European table?

In the negotiations that will soon begin on the UK’s withdrawal from the EU, the Irish Government will attempt to strike a delicate balance

When European leaders gathered in Milan in June 1985, both Ireland and the European project were on the brink of dramatic change. The Anglo-Irish Agreement had not yet been concluded, but negotiations were entering the final stages; it was at the fringes of the Milan summit that then taoiseach Garret FitzGerald and his British counterpart, Margaret Thatcher, would have their final meeting before the signing of that landmark accord.

The tensions accompanying the dénouement to those drawn-out negotiations between Dublin and London were not far from the surface when the leaders of the European Community’s 10 member states sat around the table in Milan to decide how to proceed on a proposal that seemed every bit as momentous an advance for the European project: the creation of a single market.

The proposal for a free-trade zone had gained broad support among member states, but they differed on how to go about creating the new market. The six founding members, led by Paris and Berlin, wanted to amend the treaty so as to allow for the unanimity requirement to give way to qualified majority voting at the European Council. Others, led by the British, strongly disagreed. Instead of treaty change, London proposed a looser 'good behaviour' code, where states would eschew the national veto when it came to the single market.

The tensions came to boiling point in Milan, where François Mitterrand and Helmut Kohl, argued for the calling of an intergovernmental conference – the first step to treaty change. Thatcher resisted. The row looked to be breaking down as a battle between the Old and the New – Italy and the Benelux states lining up with the Franco-German couple against the four newest member states: the UK, Denmark, Greece and Ireland. Except for one thing: Ireland was wavering. When a vote was called, Thatcher was furious.

During a short break in the meeting, she marched up to FitzGerald and said, "Garret, I hope you're going to oppose this: remember our negotiations on Northern Ireland, " referring to a tense meeting between them earlier in the day, during which Thatcher had sought more from Dublin to reassure unionists. According to Brendan Halligan, who recounts the incident in his 2014 essay, A Small State in a Large Union, others recall Thatcher saying: "Garret, you can't do this to me."

FitzGerald unhesitatingly voted with the six founding members. “I was delighted to show in the most definitive way where Ireland stood,” he said many years later.

It was a decision perfectly in harmony with FitzGerald's view of the European Union (as it became) and Ireland's place within it. Power in Europe lay with the Franco-German motor. If Ireland was to carve out a place for itself in the bloc as something other than an adjunct to its larger neighbour, its task in the early days of membership was, he said, "to convince the Germans of our commitment to European integration and the French of our independence of British influence".

Breaking with London came naturally on many issues. On the Common Agricultural Policy and the European budget, Ireland and the UK have always been on opposing sides of the argument. Whereas the British have tended to regard the European Commission with wary suspicion, Ireland – in common with most small member states – has championed its role as a locus of institutional power.

More generally, Ireland has approached the broad integration agenda with a level of enthusiasm that can be found in Britain today only on the comparatively eccentric outer reaches of the political spectrum.

These Anglo-Irish differences showed where our interests diverged, but they were also tied to how the EU made each country feel about itself. For Ireland, EU membership was linked to the country's modernisation, with a process of opening up to outside influences. It amplified our voice on the international scene and, as Douglas Hurd once observed, it marked "a decisive shift away from the embrace of Britain".

For the UK, the EU was always more purely transactional. "As the UK was never occupied, our sense or our fear of another European war is less visceral," British ambassador to Ireland Dominick Chilcott remarked earlier this year. "The European Union didn't modernise us, it doesn't guarantee our democracy . . . The EU has to prove itself to the Brits on more prosaic grounds."

For Ireland, however, one of the paradoxes was that a club whose immense appeal was closely bound up with its potential to get the country out from under the UK’s shadow turned out to be a place where Dublin and London came to realise just how similar their views were on many issues. Moreover, many diplomats are convinced that the Northern peace process could not have succeeded were it not for the relationships that developed at European level.

“Ministers were meeting frequently. Civil servants were meeting frequently. They were getting to know one another and working on issues which had nothing to do with Northern Ireland or the bilateral issue,” says Dáithí O’Ceallaigh, a former Irish ambassador to London. “People began to trust one another. They began to respect one another. Then, when it came to Northern Ireland, that trust and respect that had built up is what enabled us to do the job.”

In time, notwithstanding the differences in size and power between the two countries, their politicians and officials have become staunch allies across a range of European policy questions, their shared experience of the common law (as opposed to the European civil code) and a shared faith in a lightly regulated Anglo-American style of capitalism bringing them together. In recent years, the two states have found common cause in resisting attempts, pushed by France and others, to harmonise corporate tax across the union.

A similar pattern emerges consistently in debates on trade, competition, financial services and justice and home affairs.

And so Brexit means the State is set to lose a valued ally at the European table. "Ireland could be forced to consider what elements of Irish economic policy could be defended and what may have to go in a less liberal post-UK European Union," wrote Tom Arnold and James Kilcourse of the Institute for International and European Affairs last year.

To some, this would be no bad thing. From the left, James Wickham, emeritus professor of sociology at Trinity College Dublin, argues that losing the UK as an ally at the European table would ultimately force Dublin to shift its economic positions. "What [the Government] have consistently done is let the Brits make those arguments and hidden behind them. . . If Britain was not in the EU they would have to come out and make those arguments themselves, which means that the political voices at home that don't want Ireland to make those arguments . . . would push for a different Irish position."

In the negotiations that will soon begin on the UK’s withdrawal from the EU, the Government will attempt to strike a delicate balance. First, it wants to ensure the EU finds an accommodation with London that will not threaten the close economic and social ties that connect Ireland and Britain.

In effect that will mean advocating for the best possible deal for the British. But at the same time it will set out to make clear that Ireland sees itself as belonging at the heart of the EU.

In 2000, in the days long before Brexit had gone mainstream in the British Tory party, FitzGerald warned that Ireland could one day find itself facing a serious problem if ever tensions arose between its relationship with Britain on one hand and with France and Germany on the other. "As we move into the new century, maintaining a balanced relationship simultaneously with all three of our major European partners may pose a challenge to Irish diplomatic ingenuity," he said. We're about to see if it can be done.