The authoritative source for independent research on UK-EU relations

23 May 2018


For reasons of both history and geography, Brexit receives more sustained attention in Ireland than any other EU member state apart from the United Kingdom. For Ireland, Brexit is a matter of high politics and ‘raison d’état’. The objectives of the Irish Government, backed by a strong societal consensus, are fourfold.

To ensure that Brexit does not undermine the hard-won normalization of the Irish border achieved with the Good Friday Agreement and the EU single market. To ‘Brexit proof’ – as far as possible – the Irish economy.

To engage with Irish society on what Brexit means for Ireland’s place in Europe. And, finally, to actively re-position Ireland in an EU without the UK. The Irish government has embarked on a comprehensive and cohesive EU level and domestic strategy to meet these objectives.

Ireland faces the numerous Brexit challenges with some real advantages. Being part of the EU, 45 years after accession, is the settled will of the Irish people.

A staggering 92 % of respondents in a May 2018 poll favoured Ireland’s membership of the EU, rising to 97% among 18-24 year-olds. There is no temptation to follow the UK out of the EU. Irish society understands that Ireland is a small state with limited political capital and influence, but with the ability to deploy that capital effectively in a targeted manner when the need arises.

This is built on a cohesive political, administrative and diplomatic culture characterised by short lines of communication between political and official levels and a high degree of trust. Irish society itself is resilient and adaptable. President Michael D. Higgins described Brexit as a ‘special delivery’, to which Irish society is capable of adjusting over time.

Over the last seven years, deliberative democracy has become a vital and energising element of Irish democratic politics. Citizen’s assemblies have led to major shifts in Irish public policy including on same sex marriage and, more recently, abortion.

They have enabled Irish politicians to move on what were controversial and highly contested issues and have provided space for genuine dialogue, participation and the shifting of opinion. Most issues were followed up in parliamentary committees which added a further layer of legitimacy and deliberation to the preparation of government policy and law.

When faced with Brexit, the government went into consultative mode to ensure that business and the wider society understood what was at stake. There was a layering of institutional nodes such as (a) a Brexit Stakeholder Forum, (b) an All Island Civic Dialogue and (c) the Future of Europe Citizens’ Dialogue. Thus, Brexit preparations involved a focus not just on EU level negotiations but also on domestic preparations.

The Stakeholder Forums were directed at key economic sectors and have acted as a two-way flow of information and opinion. The All Island Civic Dialogues provide an all island perspective and focus and provides for EU level input.

On April 30, the Head of the EU Brexit Task Force addressed the Forum in Dundalk. Michel Barnier took the opportunity to visit the border region to get grassroots input into the policy process and to demonstrate that the EU27 cared about the border issue.

The continuing dialogues on the Future of Europe are part of a domestic conversation concerning what kind of EU Irish society wants to be part of. Since the establishment of the Irish state and most notably after the Second World War, Ireland has remained outside military alliances. In other words, for many Irish people, their image of Ireland is that of a non-aligned, neutral country unsullied by the compromises of membership of large military alliances.

Because of Ireland’s benign geographical location in the late 20th and 21st centuries, neutrality is more about identity than defence. There is a sizeable group in Irish society ever vigilant to the threat of a European army.

That said, public opinion has moved, and Ireland joined PESCO – the EU’s new security integration structure – following a parliamentary vote of 75 in favour and 42 against. The Irish approach to EU defence co-operation is likely to follow a case by case assessment and engagement.

Ireland’s growth model has been extraordinarily consistent from the late 1950s, characterized by Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) and export led economic growth. FDI has brought growth, employment, a thriving export sector and has greatly enhanced the managerial competence in Irish society.

The big tech sector, for example, is in a leading position in the contemporary Irish economy. One of Ireland’s main attractions for FDI remains its low level of corporation tax, set at 12.5%, which has long been contentious and viewed as unfair competitive advantage in Europe.

This crystallised when the Commission concluded in August 2016 that Ireland’s tax benefits to Apple were illegal under EU state aid rules. The Irish government was requested to recoup €13 billion from Apple and, when it had not done so by October 2017, the Commission referred the Irish government to the European Court of Justice. There is an awareness in Dublin that it cannot be seen to assist the giant tech companies in evading tax.

But its preferred arena for this discussion is the OECD not the EU. The extent and depth of EU solidarity to Ireland during Brexit may well lead to a demand for reciprocity on tax. But there is no evidence that Ireland will give up on their effective veto on EU-level directives on taxation, given the current rules require member state unanimity.

More generally, Ireland is positioning itself as a small ‘Northern’ member state, a net contributor to the EU budget and liberal on trade. It is part of what has been called the new ‘Hanse League’ of small states extending from Ireland in the west to Finland in the north. The driving force behind this grouping is the Netherlands, fearful that the southern or eastern states will dominate the EU.

Ireland did not want Brexit and is determined to limit its damage to Irish society. But it is not afraid of an EU without the UK. The project for Ireland’s future is interdependence in Europe rather than dependence on the UK.

Brexit will be the severing of the umbilical cord that has joined these two states for good and ill. The Anglosphere holds little attraction as the primary anchor for Ireland, notwithstanding the ties that have bound these two islands over many centuries.

By Brigid Laffan, Director of the Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies, of the Global Governance Programme and of the European Governance and Politics Programme. This piece comes from our latest report ‘Brexit and the Island of Ireland’ report.


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