Our place in the new European pecking order is now clear

Dublin is a prisoner of Europe’s unwinnable battle with Britain

In the end it took barely a month for Ireland’s true position in this new EU to be revealed. The chorus of ‘solidarity with Europe’ which was Ireland’s entire Brexit negotiating strategy now seems oddly out of date. Because what the events of the last week have shown is that the EU - in effect the French and German governments - will act in their own self-interest when they deem it necessary to do so.

And what can be more necessary than trying to salvage the credibility and relevance of the European Commission itself?

The political fallout from the European Union’s self-inflicted vaccine debacle should not be underestimated in Ireland. While Brussels may argue that any consideration of filleting the Brexit Agreement was short-lived, and ultimately withdrawn, the realisation in Dublin that such an action was even deemed remotely credible should afford food for thought about Ireland’s future engagement in Europe.

And while Brussels’ vaccine hari-kari will pass it is, in reality, only a harbinger of Ireland’s much bigger problem. Namely, that Dublin is now a prisoner of Europe’s unwinnable battle with Britain.


Like the naughty younger brother with a penchant for pulling hair and breaking toys, Britain now dominates the EU’s strategic thinking. Unable to tie Westminster down to the constraints of the Single Market, Britain now looms as a serious economic threat. And, to Brussels decision makers, a constant source of annoyance and aggravation.

But the EU is not secure enough to rise above the bait. It continues to fall for every little provocation.

Britain remains nimble economically, a pre-eminent centre of global finance and will, no matter how hard the EU imagines, be impossible to paint as a failing state in the years ahead. Indeed, some of Britain’s underestimated strengths - a penchant for risk, embedded links between industry and academia, self-belief mixed with blind panic - are reasons for its success in implementing a relatively speedy vaccination programme.

Lacking the centralising (and often suffocating) state control prevalent in the EU, Britain is already proving more agile than Brussels would have ever imagined. In part, Europe’s vaccine breakdown is driven by its constant comparison to Britain. Comparisons that will spread to almost every conceivable policy area in the decade to come.

That is not to say that Brexit Britain will be a great success compared to the EU. Or to suppose that Brexit is not damaging to the future constitutional position of Scotland and Northern Ireland. Nor is to imagine the EU as a giant, German propelled Titanic. Far from it.

But Britain will be successful enough to draw occasional flattering comparisons with an EU-27 increasingly dominated by its biggest members.

In the middle of this unwinnable battle stands Ireland. Grown used to the EU limelight afforded by Brexit, the Emerald Isle doesn’t know in what direction solidarity blows in 2021. Taoiseach Michael Martin’s view that ‘mistakes were made’ by the EU in threatening to invoke Article 16 of the Northern Ireland protocol is the nearest Dublin has ever come to substantive criticism of Brussels in its near fifty year EU membership.

But it should not be Ireland’s last word on the matter.

Because rather than falling back on its traditional subservient attitude to the EU, Ireland needs to get critical, and credible, if its success in the EU is to be maintained.

And while Ireland has long been regarded as one of the EU’s most ‘pro-European’ members, this sentiment, and its universal and unquestioned acceptance in Irish public discourse, has given rise to a fawning attitude towards EU decision making.

No doubt propelled by a crushing desire to appear distinctive from Britain, it has, unfortunately, also protected the EU from any serious constructive debate within Ireland. Brexit just seemed to reinforce the stereotypes of ‘bad Brits’ and ‘good Europeans’.

But rather than viewing recent events as blip in post-Brexit realities, Ireland should use them as an opportunity to engage in a more realistic, less deferential relationship with Brussels. A relationship shorn of the naïve view of Ireland as ‘lucky’ and ‘grateful’ to be participating in the European integration process.

Such views have distorted Ireland’s EU agenda for far too long.

But this will not be easy.

For all its dreams of Europe, Ireland’s physical presence in the EU’s institutions is at historic lows. No coherent plan exists for improving foreign language learning in Irish schools. While central to Brexit negotiations, Ireland’s domestic political debate has become increasingly detached from Brussels realities (as the forced resignation of Commissioner Hogan in 2020 showed).

But Ireland needs to double down to protect its vital interests. And this involves more than just the EU. Ireland has deep cultural and political links with Britain that Brexit has compromised. They should not be allowed to go so easily fallow. They should be invigorated to provide ballast to a more realistic Irish relationship with Brussels.

The economic battle between the EU and Britain is only beginning. The only viable strategy for Ireland is to play both sides.

Eoin Drea is a researcher at the Wilfried Martens Centre, the official think tank of the European People’s Party of which Fine Gael is a member