Noel Dorr: Arguments for Ireland leaving EU do not add up
For all its faults, the European Union is a worthy project with many benefits
Enda Kenny and Angela Merkel: “The EU has brought peace, human rights and the rule of law to a continent with a history of conflict and conquest.” Photograph: Fabrizio Bensch/Reuters
The decision of the United Kingdom to withdraw from the European Union could mean that the two most important external relationships of this State, which reinforced each other for 44 years, will now pull us in opposite directions. As one of many people who worked years ago in foreign affairs to promote both sets of relationships, I find this deeply disturbing.
In the present preparatory phase, the approach of the Government and its officials worked well: Ireland’s concerns are explicitly recognised in the draft EU guidelines and in British prime minister Theresa May’s formal notice of withdrawal.
Now, several years of complex and difficult negotiations lie ahead. Taoiseach is Enda Kenny is clear: we want the closest possible economic and trading relationship between the UK and the EU; however, when negotiations begin, we will be one of 27 on the EU side of the table.
Some recent public discussion now calls this into question. With so much at stake, should we begin to set ourselves apart explicitly from the other 26? One step would be to demand a separate seat at the negotiating table. Another would be a readiness to use a threat to withdraw from the EU as a negotiating tactic.
More radically still, it is suggested that we might even consider leaving the EU. We could then try to negotiate a free trade agreement or membership of the single market from outside. A related suggestion is that we could then control our own currency, interest rates, migration and fisheries. A far-out variant, which has also suggested, is some kind of north Atlantic anglophone free trade area.
In the face of difficult choices it is always well to consider whether there are other options. But I wonder if those who now favour a radically different approach by Ireland have seriously considered the full consequences of what they advocate.
Let me first get something out of the way. As a citizen, who long since ceased to be a “mandarin” – if I ever was one – my own belief is that Ireland must remain part of what John Hume once called the greatest peace project in history. Indeed, it also contributed greatly to our own peace project on this island.
It is a new kind of institution, unique in international life. Our membership was the context for Ireland’s growth and its social and economic development over two generations.
The European Union today has faults and failures, not least on matters of finance and migration. But it has brought peace, human rights and the rule of law to a continent with a history of conflict and conquest; it has helped consolidate democracy in several of its member states which, even in recent memory, were under autocratic rule; it is still today a pole of attraction for troubled countries in the Balkans.
For all its faults, it remains a source of hope and support for its member states in an era of globalisation, as the skies darken internationally and relations between the major powers to the east and the west – Russia, China and the United States – grow increasingly uncertain and unpredictable.
But all that, you may say, is simply the stuff of high-sounding speeches and now is a time for realism. So let us consider some of the ideas I mentioned: are they practical? And would they advance Ireland’s interests?
One suggestion is that we should seek a separate seat at the table. A 26-1-1 formation would complicate an already complex negotiation; it would weaken the unity of the EU and put in question our own position within it; other member states with their own national interests might seek similar representation, which would weaken it further. It is also hard to see how it would strengthen our case to fight it on our own rather than as part of a united 27-member EU which has explicitly endorsed it as part of its negotiating mandate.
Another view is that, as a negotiating tactic, we should be ready, if necessary, to threaten to leave the EU. How persuasive to others would it be for a small state to threaten to take a radical step into an uncertain future if it did not get its way? And what if, in the extreme case, other member states were willing to accept that both the north Atlantic islands should leave together?
A more radical suggestion is that, with much at stake in our relationship with the UK, we would indeed do better outside the EU; we could have either a trade agreement or still have membership of the single market.
But how would this work, supposing the EU were to agree to it? If the UK is no longer a member of the single market or the customs union, and we remain in one or both, would there not then have to be between us and the UK, including Northern Ireland, precisely the kind of customs Border and movement controls that we do not want to see established?
Nor is that all. For a small state in today’s world, it is said, true sovereignty is a seat at the table where decisions which deeply affect its interests are taken. Leaving the EU would mean giving up that seat. It would presumably also mean leaving the euro zone. We would then have to re-establish our own currency or rejoin the sterling area, neither of which is an appealing option.
We would cease to benefit from the Common Agricultural Policy (Cap); we would have to meet farm subsidies exclusively from the exchequer; we would be back into to virtual economic dependence on the UK and in as weak a negotiating position as we were before 1973; and outside the EU, we would surely cease to have any great attraction for foreign direct investment and the employment it brings.
All in all, it is right not to approach a major negotiation with a closed mind. But a country should understand, too, where its interest lies and not put it at risk without fully assessing the consequences.
Noel Dorr is a former Irish diplomat. He served as Irish ambassador to the UN and was secretary general of the department of foreign affairs, among other roles