Skip to main content

The main responsibility in the post-referendum era is to fashion a new agenda for Ireland that goes beyond the immediate but understandable reaction to Britain’s withdrawal from the Union. The task now is to fashion a strategy for ‘life without Britain’.

An Ireland within a Europe without Britain will be a novel situation for this country which will find itself primarily, if not solely, responsible for its own destiny. This is a somewhat chastening prospect given that the choices to be made will define what Ireland is to be throughout the rest of this century; choices such as the degree of involvement in the Eurozone, tax harmonisation, the Schengen Area, collective security, the protection of the Union’s external borders and the management of inward mass migration. All this ultimately boils down to choices about political solidarity with the other Member States based, as they will have to be, on a dispassionate calculation of what will best advance the national interest.

Solidarity is a two-way street

Throughout the past four decades, whenever the choice arose in Ireland, the decision taken was to participate willingly and enthusiastically in what the Schuman Declaration called “concrete achievements leading to de facto solidarity”, achievements such as the creation of the European Monetary System, the Single Market, Economic and Monetary Union, the euro, the Fiscal Compact and the Banking Union. This continuous commitment to the ‘core Europe’ was rewarded by the most concrete expressions of solidarity on the part of the other Member States, notably Germany. These expressions of solidarity also took the form of substantial transfers of funds, both current and capital, which at one point were the highest per capita receipts within the EU and which kick-started and then sustained economic growth. Senior Irish policy makers, such as Jack Lynch, Garret FitzGerald, Albert Reynolds and Enda Kenny, understood well that solidarity was a two-way street.

In the quarter century ahead, Ireland will need sympathy and support in greater measure than ever before for the simple reason that, in comparison to the impact on other Member States, Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union will have a disproportionally negative effect on Ireland. In economic terms, it will be an asymmetric shock for an economy that, due to reasons of history, is reliant on an unusually high level bi-lateral trade with Britain. Indeed, Irish trade with the UK is nearly six times higher than the EU average. In political terms, the UK withdrawal will pose a unique threat to the security of a society, which, again for historical reasons, is tightly entwined with that of its nearest neighbour.

These political threats to the political and economic well-being of Ireland can be overcome but only by concrete support from the other Member States in resolving what at first sight appears to be irreconcilable: the maintenance of an open border with Northern Ireland in the face of UK restrictions on the free movement of people, an unimpeded access to the British market despite trade barriers between the UK and the EU and protection from competitive disadvantages arising from the depreciation of sterling, the potential dilution of its labour and welfare standards and potentially laxer regulation.

The adaptation to a new economic and political environment will take considerable time; the psychological adjustment to new circumstances will take longer. That message needs to be conveyed to the Councils and Chancelleries of the Union. Common sense suggests that it will have greater force and effect when the “fusion of interests”, which Schuman foresaw as the fruits of solidarity, are given concrete expression by Ireland. In short, the more Ireland adheres to the core of Europe the more Ireland will be helped by its neighbours: a rather simple calculus.

The options are clear and so too are their implications. By a strange quirk of history the umbilical cord with Britain has been cut a century after the Rising. The period ahead will be fraught with the challenges usually associated with the passage of adolescence to adulthood, the options will be many and their implications difficult to assess. It will not be the time for getting things wrong.


Brexit and beyond: informed decision-making, and thinking the unthinkable

The Institute of International and European Affairs was founded to deal with the strategic implications of such options and to facilitate informed decision-making. Its founders, drawn from diverse backgrounds, put the pursuit of the national interest as its primary task and that has remained the organisational ethos these past twenty-five years. In light of the paradigm shift created by Brexit, it has never been more pertinent.

But the need for informed decision-making goes beyond Brexit. It derives also from political and social developments under way in the Union as a whole. One of the megatrends shaping Europe is the rise of new forms of nationalism which, despite apparent differences in ideology, are united in their intent to roll back both European integration and international cooperation and to build walls, literally and figuratively, between neighbours. Those forces have grown stronger since the financial crisis and were emboldened in their ambitions by the British referendum result, so much so that mainstream democratic parties stand in danger of losing out to nationalist populism, with the core tenets of European solidarity being systematically weakened and perhaps, ultimately, discarded.

Were the European Union to unravel it would call for a completely new national strategy on the part of Ireland, which would perforce be more focused on political survival than on economic development. Simply put, it would confront Irish policy makers with a range of challenges not faced since the breakdown of the international order in the 1930s and 40s. Self-evidently, those challenges would be all the greater if the British withdrawal, for whatever reason, proved to be a bitter divorce. The collateral damage to the Irish economy and to the Northern peace process would be immense. These scenarios may seem improbable but, as events have proven, it is wise to think the unthinkable.

New systems, new thinking

It is equally feasible, of course, that more benign scenarios will unfold. A new political system may emerge in Europe based on a realignment of the political parties that previously held sway. The main political cleavages would no longer arise from class, religion, language or regions but be based on values: between those who believe in, and live by, democratic values and those who don’t. There is nothing sacrosanct in the political system born of the nineteenth century, and there is nothing permanent in human affairs. Democracy based on universal suffrage and the rule of law is, after all, less than a century old and there is no reason why any party system can’t take on new forms (such as has happened in Ireland).

This sort of reflection suggests it would be wise to think through the repercussions of a 21st century political system in which those who believe in liberal values and open societies coalesce together to form new political organisations in opposition to populists who espouse authoritarianism and nationalism. For some time now it could be claimed that a fundamental realignment along these lines was well under way, as evidenced in the emergence of two grand coalitions in the European Parliament which are almost certainly the precursor of what will happen in national politics throughout Europe. The centre may well hold, having withstood the onslaught of the extremes. However, a period of contestation lies ahead and it will not be a comfortable one.

In stormy seas the wisest course is to head for the nearest haven. For a small country like Ireland, where so much lies beyond its control, the reconfiguration of European politics would create a “new normal” in which the strategies for survival would be limited to being part of a supra-national entity (such as the European Union), becoming the satrap of a large neighbour (such as the UK) or opting for splendid isolation (like Iceland).

Isolation has been rejected by Ireland since the 1950s when Seán Lemass who, as Taoiseach, first submitted Ireland’s application to join the European Economic Community. It is an uninviting prospect, as he strongly believed. Allying with the UK would herald a return to what many would regard as a form of neo-colonialism, from which he wanted to escape. The options narrow down, it would seem, to continuing on the course the Irish people chose in 1972 with its inevitable strategic repercussions. Having made that decision the alternatives would then reduce to a choice between moving to the core of Europe, and all that it entails, or maintaining some form of semi-detached membership of the Union, and accepting the consequences.



A continuous evaluation of these options would be the most relevant, and logical, agenda for the quarter-century ahead.

But that will not be the complete agenda. It will have to encompass global developments that did not figure too prominently a quarter century ago, such as the return of China to the world stage, the rise of Asia and the emergence of Africa. But these developments matter now and will only grow in prominence over the quarter century to come. The corollary is that the pre-eminence of the West will gradually come to an end this century, particularly so in a Europe which is still too fragmented (and in danger of further fragmentation as the UK referendum result suggests).

Ireland, if it chooses to remain at the core of Europe (and if the Union survives) can play a part, however small, in working out a new global strategy for the EU or can, alternatively, elect to be passive and silent. Activism has been the deliberate choice since Ireland first entered the UN and then took up membership of the EEC. It could be said that activism is now the Irish international tradition, especially on issues like human rights, peace-keeping, nutrition and economic development. The continuation of that tradition will undoubtedly be up for debate given the attraction of a lower profile in terms of savings on time and money.

One way or the other, it is a choice that cannot be avoided. Climate change, international security and mass migration will ensure that no nation can remain indifferent to global affairs or immune to their implications and Ireland’s past experience as a pro-active participant in many international fora will undoubtedly lead policy-makers to stay on the same path.