Ireland’s interests lie in strengthened EU after Brexit

State has vested interest in supporting EU negotiating stance on UK exit

A feature of some commentary on Brexit is the depiction of the European Union as a potential threat to this country's future prosperity rather than the ultimate defender of it.

The undoubted challenge posed by Brexit is routinely presented as if it was caused by the EU rather than by the calamitous decision of the British people to vote to leave.

Some long-time critics of Irish membership have managed to get traction in the current debate by peddling the premise that the EU as a whole is unconcerned about the impact of Brexit on Ireland when all the evidence is very clearly the other way around.

Leaving aside the incontestable fact that Ireland owes its current level of prosperity and place in the world to EU membership, the seriousness with which the impact of Brexit on Ireland has been taken in Brussels is a tribute to all that the union stands for.


Unprecedented campaign

The unprecedented political and diplomatic campaign by the Government in Dublin played a large part in framing that response but it was also due to the willingness of our EU partners and the officials in the European Commission to put Ireland at the top of the agenda in the Brexit talks.

That is not to minimise the potential negative consequences of the UK’s departure for Ireland but the scale of the damage will depend far more on decisions made by the British government than by our EU partners.

If there is a soft Brexit and the UK stays in the customs union, or comes to an arrangement that is effectively the same thing, then the impact on Ireland will be muted. However, that decision will be made in London by British politicians.

A necessary dose of realism was injected into the discussion this week by former Labour Party leader and chairman of the Institute for International and European Affairs, Ruairí Quinn.

“Brexit is an English problem being dealt with by English politicians who have not expressed the slightest interest in the rest of the UK, let alone Ireland,” he pointed out.

The British government still does not appear to have any idea of its negotiating strategy on the big issues, so it is impossible to judge whether it will ultimately end up crashing out of the EU or slinking back towards a soft Brexit.

As the British struggle to decide what they want Ireland has a vested interest in supporting the EU negotiating stance and ensuring that the union protects both its interests and fundamental values.

There have already been a number of heartening signs of growing enthusiasm for the EU and what it stands for across the member states. Apart from the victory of the pro-EU Emmanuel Macron in France the latest Eurobarometer poll shows a surge in pro EU sentiment across the union.

The notion that Ireland could somehow do a better deal if it was not tied to the EU 27 is laughable. The blindingly obvious lesson of history is that as a client state of the UK up to the time we joined the then EEC in 1973 we were an impoverished backwater.


As Prof Brigid Laffan has pointed out, the only reason we are negotiating as part of the EU27 is because it is the core judgment of the Government, the Dáil and civil society that it is in Ireland's interest to do so.

“We are not doing it to be good EU citizens. We are doing it in our own long-term interest,” she said.

Anti-EU commentators espouse the opposite argument, suggesting that Ireland’s only chance of getting a good deal from Brexit is to “stand up” to our 26 partners and somehow intimidate them into protecting our interests by betraying their own.

Apart from shown an absurdly inflated notion of our own power, that argument also betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of how a union of 27 big and small member states operates through negotiation and accommodation. At a deeper level it betrays a complete ignorance of what the EU is all about in the first place.

The EU bailout of 2010 is sometimes cited as evidence that the EU bullies smaller member states when in fact the episode demonstrates the exact opposite. The bottom line is that without the bailout the Government in 2010 would have had no option but to introduce massive cuts in public spending as well as the tax increases it did introduce.

The inevitable outcome would have been deep cuts in welfare payments as well as all sorts of public spending schemes which would most likely have led to serious protests and social dislocation.

Those who favour street politics and permanent revolution may well have thrived in such a situation. It may make sense for them to paint the EU as an ogre but anybody who believes in the fundamental values of parliamentary democracy and human rights should recognise that we were saved in our hour of need by the EU.

It is very much in Ireland’s interest that the EU comes out of the Brexit negotiations stronger and more united, whatever the short term downsides of Brexit.