UK engagement with EU is central to Irish interests


OPINION:Developments over the past two weeks have highlighted the very different roads travelled by the Republic and the United Kingdom regarding European Union affairs.

Recent UK opinion polls show large majorities favouring a referendum on continued EU membership, and greater numbers wanting the UK to exit rather than remain.

Noticeably, British prime minister David Cameron last week declined to rule out such a potentially calamitous vote taking place. Cameron, a self-described “practical” Eurosceptic, has the unenviable task of reining in a party with virulently Eurosceptic elements.

He advocates renegotiating Britain’s relationship with the EU, but has declined to indicate what he would do if he fails to achieve this. Last week, right-wing Tory backbencher and former defence secretary Liam Fox, declared breezily: “Life outside the EU holds no terror.” He advocated a referendum rejecting anything less, followed by departure from the EU.

Cameron – caught between, on the one hand, the economic desirability of continued membership (and hence the need to avoid a highly risky Yes/No vote on membership), and, on the other, the need to retain the loyalty of such Eurosceptic backbenchers (as well as fend off the increasing UK Independence Party threat to marginal Conservative seats) – weakly informed parliament that it would be “wrong to rule out any type of referendum in the future”.

His problems are partly ones of circumstance. The UK – although wedded to European integration since 1973 – has nonetheless frequently conveyed the discontented impression of a well-born bride compelled by economic necessity to marry unsuitably.

The UK was late in joining the communities and subsequently slow in signing up to (then leaving) the European Monetary System and in adopting the 1992 Maastricht Treaty’s social policy chapter. It has rejected euro zone membership, border controls and full justice and home affairs co-operation.

Even a UK government that wants to maximise British influence in the EU is now confronted with enormous difficulties:

First, public hostility to the union, exacerbated by a Eurosceptic press and by the confrontational public approach to relations pioneered by Margaret Thatcher. And now the dominant Conservative party approach;

Second, the UK’s long-term strategic error of having failed to join the euro zone, which has left it largely an outsider in negotiations that will determine the future of European integration;

Third, the short-sighted adoption of the European Union Act 2011 – a statute that requires an (unwinnable) referendum on each occasion the UK transfers any sovereignty at all to the EU. This now ensures that in negotiations on additional European treaties, the UK has little with which to bargain, other than threats to obstruct everyone else.

What if the unthinkable were to happen? As a major trading nation, Britain would survive outside the EU. The examples of Switzerland and Norway offer guidance on how its relationship with the union might potentially be governed. But – away from the controls of the trading giant that is the union – UK prosperity would be less securely protected. British influence in a world dominated by economic giants like the United States, China and Brazil would also decline.

How ought this State react to the gradually increasing risk of British detachment? As regards our attitude to the UK, while our influence is clearly limited, the suggestions of Ambassador Bobby McDonagh on Monday that Ireland can (a) offer some reassurance to Britain about membership of the union; and (b) should argue for maximum British EU involvement, clearly have merit.

There are at least five reasons for this. First, the Republic has a stake in an optimally-functioning union – and an EU that includes the UK is a more economically and politically powerful one than one without it.

Second, the Republic shares many policy objectives with the UK and thus benefits from shared union membership. Third, safeguarding the Republic’s major trade relationship with the UK is obviously important. Fourth, economic links with the UK make a long-term weakening of its economy that might follow any union exit undesirable. Finally, there is some danger that Irish popular support for integration might be affected by the turbulence of a UK exit. British newspapers and television have, after all, considerable influence in this State.

As regards the Republic’s policy, this State, unlike the UK, has generally put itself in the vanguard of integration and there seems little reason to change this approach now. The Republic’s euro zone membership offers an opportunity to maximise Irish influence on further integration rather than merely being swept along by economic developments without the power to influence them.

Recent days have arguably seen this approach pay off. The recent euro area summit was marked by evidence of this Republic taking the route of maximum integration and demonstrating itself to be a competent and trustworthy partner carefully choosing precisely the moment to intervene in negotiations, so as to get what it needed.

The extent of the summit commitments regarding sustainability in the banking sector and regarding similar cases being treated equally should not be exaggerated. However, neither should their significance be underestimated. This agreement to agree, as Martin Wolf has pointed out, may transform the Republic’s position.

This was a dividend available only to a State that had committed itself to the solidarity involved in full economic and monetary union, and that was perceived as having fully met its legal and moral commitments to fellow participant states.

Irish negotiators – supported by the European Central Bank – could justifiably claim that with direct recapitalisation of Spanish banks now being facilitated, it would be entirely inequitable to treat any differently a state with similar problems that had behaved impeccably throughout the sovereign debt crisis.

This summit outcome also implicitly vindicated the Yes vote on the fiscal treaty. Had the Irish electorate opted for the reckless confrontationalism promoted by Sinn Féin and Declan Ganley during the referendum campaign, this deal would never have happened.

The summit result suggests the Republic is far from entirely bereft of useful ideas on the conduct of EU affairs and provides a textbook example of how to go about securing a crucial strategic objective.

Dr Gavin Barrett is a senior lecturer in the School of Law, UCD, specialising in European Union law.

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