I GAVE a talk to a London audience recently on the subject of Ireland, the UK and the EU. In my remarks, I explained the positive impact four decades of EU membership has had on Ireland’s relations with our nearest neighbours and explored the challenges the UK’s departure from the EU will pose for Ireland. I took questions from the audience on a range of issues including the implications of the UK’s exit for the border in Ireland and its impact on the prospects for Irish unity.
One audience member asked about what he called ‘the elephant in the room,’ by which he meant the possibility that Ireland might decide that, with Britain leaving, Ireland’s interests might no longer best be served by membership of the European Union. This issue has come up from time to time since the UK’s referendum and here is my response.
I can see no sense whatever in Ireland considering following the UK out of the EU and I see no swell of opinion in Ireland pointing in that direction. It is hard to envisage circumstances in which such a move might come to be seen as a viable or an attractive option for Ireland.
I have three main reasons for strongly favouring continued Irish membership of the EU—historical, economic and political.
Looking back at the historical record, there is no doubt that our accession to the then EEC in 1973 was a watershed for Ireland. We have been a far more prosperous country in the decades since we joined than we were in the period before 1973. At that time, our per capita GDP was less than two-thirds of the European average. Today, despite the economic setbacks encountered since 2008, we are comfortably above the EU wealth average. This cannot, of course, be attributed exclusively to the effect of membership, but membership has undeniably been a factor in our economic ascent.
In 1973, we were unhealthily dependent on the British market, whereas in the past four decades we have diversified our trading links to the point where Britain now accounts for less than 20 per cent of our exports—with the other members of the Euro Zone providing markets for 40 per cent of what we export. It would be highly unwise for us to put our access to EU markets at risk and to return to an over-dependence on a single neighbouring market, however important that market might be.
Looking to the future of our economy, it seems likely that we will continue to want to be an export- oriented country and an attractive destination for foreign direct investment. On both of those fronts, it makes sense to be an EU member. In trade negotiations, we have the weight of the EU behind us so as to ensure that we get the most advantageous possible agreements with third countries. Whatever about the UK’s capacity to carve out beneficial free trade agreements, it is difficult to credit that a smaller country of our size could do so successfully. Our position within the EU single market has served to make us attractive to companies seeking a European base and this will continue to be so in the future. We would not be as attractive a location for foreign investment if we were to put ourselves outside of the 450 million-strong market that is the European Union.
Politically, Ireland benefits from participating in a club of nations and within a rules-based environment in which we have say in framing the rules. EU membership gives us a strength on the international stage that we could not hope to enjoy as a relatively small country acting alone.
The alternative to EU membership would be to enter into a de facto economic union with the UK in which we would, I am afraid, have little or no say in shaping our economic policy environment.
A further benefit of EU membership is that it has helped improve our ties with the UK and contributed to the peace process in Northern Ireland. We have felt far more comfortable dealing with the UK over the past 40 years on a range of issues as fellow members of the EU than would have been the case when we encountered them on a bilateral basis. The closer ties that developed between us as EU members contributed to our ability to work together in promoting peace and political progress in Northern Ireland.
I for one would be loath to go back into a more exclusive bilateral relationship with the UK where our concerns would inevitably count for little in comparison with those of their much larger and more powerful state. This is not a criticism of the UK, rather a reflection on the different circumstances applying to large and small states in international affairs. Ireland and the UK will, of course, continue to be co-guarantors of the Good Friday Agreement and will always need to work together bilaterally as good and friendly neighbours.
In summary then, I can see no sense in Ireland flirting with a departure from a tried and trusted national policy of active EU membership that has served us well for more than four decades. The alternatives available to us, such as they are, all seem to me to be far less attractive if not downright disadvantageous and likely to damage our national wellbeing.
EU membership commends itself to 27 very different countries throughout Europe. The UK is, sadly from our point of view, an exception to that rule. That is no reason why we should spurn the advantages of EU membership for Ireland and consider following the UK down a very uneven path; one that would be certain to be even rockier for us than for it is likely to be for them. I do hope that everything works out well for the UK when it leaves the EU, but their bid to ‘get back control,’ even if it works for them, would not work for us. It would leave us with less control.
Daniel Mulhall is Ireland’s Ambassador to Great Britain in London