Britain too big to be our equal, EU best defends Irish interests


The embrace of the Anglosphere has never been better but EU co-operation a safer bet

IS BRITAIN Ireland’s closest and most dependable ally and is involvement in the EU still in our interest? Recent developments in relations with Britain and the crisis afflicting the euro raise questions over this State’s place in the world and how it should position itself.

Identifying, defining, prioritising and pursuing national interests is never easy. States, and the context in which they define their interests, change constantly.

To say that Ireland has changed over the past three years would be something of an understatement. From being perceived as one of the most successful economies in the world, and one others sought to emulate, it has undergone one of the severest economic shocks ever suffered by a developed country and endures the ignominy of being a ward of the international community. Gone are the prestige and influence that come with being a model for others. They are not coming back. Economic sovereignty has also been lost. It will be some time before it is regained.

The world has changed too. The ongoing financial crisis is the most significant negative development for the rich world in recent decades, and is much more far-reaching in its implications than, for instance, the dawn of the era of hyper-terrorism a decade a go.

The financial crisis has, among other things, caused strains between and among states. Nowhere are these strains greater than in the euro area. Many participants in that project now feel an acute sense of grievance towards other participants. Ireland is but one of many.

This has raised questions here about the costs and benefits of being involved in an integrating Europe. Many people who voted in favour of the Lisbon Treaty did so because they felt assurances had been given on corporation tax.

Those instinctively suspicious of European entanglements feel that the crisis of the euro and the manner of its attempted resolution prove that they were right all along to have been wary. Those who feel a greater affinity to the English-speaking world see the balance tipping ever further away from Berlin and closer to Boston. With Britain voluntarily contributing to Ireland’s bailout and the recent successful visit of that country’s head of state, the embrace of the Anglosphere has never been less awkward.

That relations with Britain are now so good is excellent. The two countries share many interests, from peace and stability in Northern Ireland to deep dependence on each other’s economies.

But recent developments may have caused perceptions of the relationship to move on to shaky foundations. One example is the claim made frequently during the Queen’s visit that the relationship was now of two equals.

This is wrong – the relationship between Ireland and Britain has never been, nor will it ever be, one of equals. Britain is a far more powerful country. It has the sixth largest economy in the world; nuclear weapons, one of five permanent seats on the UN Security Council and a diplomatic corps that is not bettered anywhere in the world.

Relative power matters more than anything else in international affairs. Though there are advantages to being small – nimbleness of action and fewer responsibilities, for example – when interests clash smaller, less powerful countries tend to lose out to bigger, more powerful ones.

Iceland is an example. It is on the sharp end of the assertiveness of bigger countries over monies one of its banks owe to British and Dutch savers. Although the amounts involved are massive relative to Iceland’s economy, tiny relative to the economies of Britain and the Netherlands and non-payment poses no risk to anyone’s financial stability (unlike the case of Irish banks’ debt), the two bigger countries want every penny and cent back, with interest to boot.

Having good relations and strong alliances with other countries is a central objective for all countries. But relations can quickly sour if interests clash. If they sour between a big and small country and a spat ensues, the former will come out on top more often than not. For this reason the priority for small countries is to have strong rules which bind everyone regardless of size. This is a better bet in the long run than depending on the goodwill of big countries – goodwill can evaporate quickly if the context changes. Though they are not mutually exclusive, multilateralism is more important in the long run than bilateralism for small countries.

It is for that reason that involvement in the EU remains in Ireland’s long-term strategic interests in theory. For all its flaws, the EU is by far the best comprehensive rules-based system ever devised by sovereign states.

But the successes of Europe’s model of co-operation, which have been partly copied from Latin America, to Africa, to east Asia, have led many Europeans to believe that widening the range of things they do together will always lead to better outcomes for everyone. That, alas, has proved wrong. In some cases, doing things together has generated frictions that would not otherwise have existed.

The Iraq war was the first big example. Attempts to have a common foreign and security policy led to expectations of unity in that policy area. When countries took different positions, tensions resulted that would not have come about if each country had retained full independence on foreign policy.

But the differences over Iraq are trivial and transient compared to the crisis of the euro. The tensions and resentments among its participants are the most serious and difficult to solve of any in more than a half a century of European integration.

No previous crisis threatened to break the mechanism. This one does. It would be a supreme irony if the biggest single step towards an integrated Europe ended up causing its disintegration.