Seamus Allen explores Irish Euroscepticism, and whether ‘Irexit’ is a viable option
Since Britain’s referendum on EU membership, there has been a dramatic surge in the questioning of Ireland’s EU membership within Irish public discourse. Irexit- that is, Irish exit from the European Union- has been advocated by a motley collection of characters ranging from Gay Byrne and the Irish Times’s Harry McGee, to the economist David McWilliams; and across a disparate political spectrum including radical right-wing neoliberals to far-left TD’s of People Before Profit and the Socialist party. The Brexit referendum seems to have provided impetus for Ireland’s Eurosceptics to become increasingly vocal.
The UK-Irish trade relationship
A new argument Eurosceptics invoke is that British exit from the European Union could detrimentally affect Anglo-Irish trade and thus seriously harm the Irish economy. However, it is quite a leap to suggest that this means Ireland should follow Britain out of the EU.
If Brexit harms the Irish economy this would be because the existing free trade agreements between Ireland and the United Kingdom via the EU would no longer be in force. But this would not necessarily be any different if Ireland left the EU. A new free trade agreement between Ireland and the United Kingdom would be needed. From the viewpoint of Anglo-Irish trade, leaving the EU and failing to achieve such an agreement with the UK would be entirely pointless. Anglo-Irish trade would still be just as adversely affected, and, even worse, Ireland would simultaneously undermine its trade with the rest of the EU.
If Ireland ‘Irexited’, could an Anglo-Irish agreement be reached which would maintain the existing nature of Anglo-Irish trade? At first glance, the answer would seem to be yes. After all, Britain and Ireland enjoyed a free trade agreement with each other prior to joining the EU. With Britain’s government desperate to prove the viability of Britain’s post-Brexit economy, and its attractiveness as a trading partner, it’s hard to imagine Ireland being turned down.
However, firstly, it is not at all clear what the UK’s future relationship with the EU is going to look like. The situation remains quite volatile. While the UK will almost certainly leave the EU, its highly possible it will remain effectively – if not officially – a member of the European single market, through an arrangement similar to the European Free Trade Association. This Association allows countries like Norway to participate in the EU’s Single European market. If Britain were to remain linked to the single European market, it is highly possible that this would entail restrictions on Britain’s ability to negotiate trade deals with those outside the bloc. An Irexit Ireland could thus find itself in the catastrophic position of leaving the single market to find that Britain effectively remains a member, and finding itself shut out from both the UK and the EU. An Ireland that Irexits in order to maintain its trading status with the UK would be in the unviable position of attempting to decipher and follow all the continuously alternating policy directions London might set. And Britain has much more important priorities than saving Anglo-Irish trade. There can hardly be any doubt the EU economy is far more important to Britain than Ireland is.
Secondly, even in the scenario that a post-Irexit Ireland secured a comprehensive free trade agreement with the post-Brexit UK, it is very likely that the character of Anglo-Irish trade would nonetheless change.
For Brits trying to make the most of Brexit, one of the key silver linings is that Britain will be free to pursue free trade agreements with the rest of the world. This will inevitably alter Anglo-Irish trade, probably for the worse from an Irish perspective. Consider the Agricultural sector. Agricultural produce makes up a very high proportion of Irish goods exports to the UK. On the Common Agricultural Policy, Ireland and Britain often have diametrically opposing interests. In particular, Ireland generally lobbies and support high EU tariffs against agricultural produce from outside the EU, in order to help Irish agricultural exporters. Britain has long opposed these tariff walls, which prevent it from purchasing much cheaper agricultural produce from outside the EU. Therefore, Ireland’s agricultural exports to the UK could be in jeopardy after Brexit. Ireland’s trade with the UK will likely be detrimentally affected, no matter what happens in UK-EU negotiations.
A third thing to note: if UK-EU trade is detrimentally affected by Brexit, the British economy will be much worse hit than the EU’s. The EU is by far the UK’s most important trading partner. Proportionally, the UK is of much less importance to the EU. Thus, if all other things were kept equal, Ireland’s trade with the UK will likely be more adversely affected than its trade with the EU, as the UK economy will suffer more.
Finally, the clincher point: the rest of the EU is already a much more important trading partner for Ireland than the UK. In 2014 Ireland’s total trade with the United Kingdom – both imports and exports- amounted to 52 billion. Ireland’s trade with the Eurozone was double this figure- amounting to 109 billion.
In 2016, according to the Central Statistics office, Ireland exported 15.03 billion worth of goods to the UK and 44.9 billion to the rest of the EU. Thus, Ireland exported three times more goods to the rest of the EU than it did to the UK. In terms of services, Ireland in total traded 34 billion worth with the UK, and 88.5 billion with the rest of the EU. Thus, given a straight-out choice between the UK and the rest of the EU, there can be no question of who is more economically important to Ireland.
The issue of Sovereignty
Of course, there is far more to this than just Economics. For many people the major concern about Ireland’s EU membership is the fact that EU membership imperils Irish Sovereignty. Certainly, EU membership elicits official constraints and infringements upon Irish sovereignty. However, Ireland arguably enjoys more sovereignty inside of the European Union than it would do outside. Indeed, Irish governments have continuously been asserting this ever since Ireland became a member. This is obscured, as it is much easier to recognise the official,formal constraints on a nations’ sovereignty, as enshrined in EU treaty obligations, than to identify the invisible, all pervasive, informal threats to the sovereignty of small nations. Those who advocate Irexit as a policy which will allow Ireland to ‘take back’ its sovereignty, are imagining a fantasy of Irish sovereignty which never existed.
For instance, Ray Kinsella has written in the Irish Times that Ireland should consider leaving the EU to avoid becoming ‘marginalised, peripheral and dependent.’ Kinsella’s choice of words is deliciously ironic. Few European countries were as ‘marginalised, peripheral and dependent’ as Ireland was prior to its joining of the EEC. Ireland was one of the few European countries, referred to as ‘the forgotten five’ by academics, who were deemed to have been completely left out of significant European developments.
This unviable category included two nations virtually beyond Europe’s borders – Turkey and Iceland – and two nations under the rule of brutal, reactionary dictatorships – Greece and Portugal.
Ireland was also overwhelmingly dependent on the UK economically. When in 1961 Ireland learnt that Britain was planning to apply for EC membership, alarm bells began ringing in Dublin. Irish politicians knew the economic consequences would be catastrophic should Britain join the EC while Ireland remained outside. They realised they had no choice but to follow the UK into the EC. This was considered so humiliating to the idea of Irish sovereignty that the government engaged in some interesting theatrics, racing to submit its “membership application” ahead of the British. Ireland’s so-called ‘application’ consisted of a one-page letter expressing Irish interest in EC membership, in contrast to the formal and extensive British application. This was merely a face-saving gesture for Irish domestic consumption, enabling the government’s application to look independent of Britain’s. Likewise, when the British application was vetoed, the Irish government misleadingly portrayed this as effectively vetoing the Irish application. In fact, Ireland was too economically dependent on the UK to enter the EC without it. Ireland’s freedom to choose how to interact with the rest of the world- and thus its sovereignty- was effectively, if not officially, limited by British policy.
As a test case, take the greatest demonstration of Irish sovereignty– Irish neutrality during World War II. Irish assistance to Britain during the war was often coerced by extreme pressure from Britain. From the war’s beginning, De Valera warned that Ireland would be forced to show a ‘certain consideration’ to British interests, due to ‘economic necessity.’ Indeed, during the war Britain regularly applied severe economic pressure to Ireland- curtailing Ireland’s trade, reducing or threatening to cut off Ireland’s supplies, reducing Irish access to shipping, so as to try and force Irish compliance with British demands. To give merely one example, Ryle Dwyer notes that on one such occasion ‘the British representative had issued an ultimatum that unless Dublin released the remaining Allied internees, Britain was going to tighten the economic screws.’ De Valera- who was described as ‘badly shaken’ by the threat- duly complied with London’s demands.
Of course, in the age of globalisation many new threats have arisen for national sovereignty. In an age where cars, computers, mobiles, and life-saving medicines are essentials, all small nations must participate in international trade. But international trade has a darker side. Powerful multinational corporations are often capable of wielding unwarranted political influence on the politics of small nations. This has led to predictions of what economists call the ‘Race to the Bottom.’ This scenario envisages multinational corporations using their economic and political clout to undermine profit reducing legislation– be it regarding working hours, minimum wages, environmental or consumer protection laws, or higher corporate taxes. Major multinational corporations will simply threaten to pack their bags and relocate to another nation to face down national governments. Allegations of such a spectre have been raised in Ireland often enough. This supposedly will precipitate the race to the bottom as countries are forced to compete with each other to attract the multinationals- leading to falling wages, rising working hours, loosening regulations, worsening pollution and health standards etc. Nations that refuse to compromise with such diktats will find themselves abandoned. Supernational regulatory organisations – such as the EU – are part of the reason that a race to the bottom has never occurred. This is part of the reason it is the European Commission who is tasked with battling politically and legally against multinationals such as Google, Microsoft or the Oil Companies-something that small nations are often unable to do so on their own. This is particularly important for Ireland, as a small country that is heavily and disproportionately dependent on multinational corporations.
Irexiteers who wish to save Irish sovereignty, often view a new reliance on multinationals corporations as a post-Irexit Ireland’s economic salvation. In doing so, they risk the Irish sovereignty they seek to save.
Finally, the structuring of the European Union helps facilitate small state sovereignty. For instance, small states are disproportionately represented in the European parliament. Compared to Germany, twice as many MEP’s are allocated per person in Ireland, and twelve times as many in Malta. ‘Sovereigntists’ often decry the supernational dimension of the EU, as is represented in organisations such as the European Commission. However, as the Irish Foreign policy expert Noel Dorr writes, an enduring theme in Ireland’s EU policy, -as is typical amongst small EU states-was to ‘stress the Community method’-through use of supernational,pan-European institutions. They are considered ‘an important safeguard for the interests of smaller Member States.’ Meanwhile, at all costs, Ireland, like other small states, opposed ‘any drift toward inter-governmentalism which would favour larger states.’ Most EU member states are small states, with populations below 10 million. When these states assert that they possess more sovereignty inside the EU than outside, they are not being delusional. Rather, they are well aware what the ‘Sovereignty’ of small nations can look like in the real world.
Small nations, may officially possess total sovereignty without any legal constraints on paper, but often find themselves subject to the policy whims of their larger neighbours, leaving them with limited sovereignty in reality.
Participation in the EU means less official sovereignty on paper- but with greater real sovereignty overall. This is what small state politicians call ‘Pooled Sovereignty.’ Furthermore, all EU decisions must be approved by a qualified super majority of member states. Even this makes the influence of small states in the EU disproportionately greater than their real-world influence. Furthermore, the great majority of decisions are usually made by consensus; states know if they force a vote through today, a vote could be forced through against them tomorrow. Small states are particularly aware of this- and no decision can be made without them. EU membership has enhanced the position of small states vis-à-vis larger states. Consider that, prior to EC membership, the UK long adamantly refused to recognise that Ireland had a right to a voice on Northern Irish affairs. Not only did EU membership help change this, but today the diplomatic imbalance has been shifted. Regarding the status of the Northern Irish border in Brexit negotiations, the EU has granted Ireland veto power. ‘Let me say very clearly’ remarked EU Council President Donald Tusk, ‘if the UK offer is unacceptable for Ireland, it will be unacceptable for the EU.’
To recap: even in a best case Irexit scenario, Anglo-Irish trade would likely be detrimentally affected. In any case, the rest of the EU is a far larger trading partner for Ireland than the UK. Economically, there is little to be said for Irexit. With regards to sovereignty, Irish politicians, even from the beginning, viewed EC membership as a means of increasing Irish sovereignty and escaping British domination. But today, it is easy to forget how isolated and limited the sovereignty of Ireland really was prior to EC accession. Irexit would likely entail the sacrificing of Irish sovereignty, not its salvation – whether to Britain or to multinational corporations – and for an expensive economic price.