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Why Ireland would like the UK to remain in the EU

Why Ireland would like the UK to remain in the EU, European Institute,
University College London, 26 February 2015


I am happy to be here this evening at UCL’s European Institute to offer an Irish perspective on the current and ongoing British debate on this country’s future in the European Union. I thank the Institute for offering me this opportunity and I thank you all for being here this evening.

You may ask why an Irish Ambassador is addressing a key British debate about this country’s future. The reason is that this British debate also involves other European countries because it concerns the future of a Union to which we all belong.

Moreover, by raising the banner of EU reform as part of Britain’s reflection on its future in Europe, the UK Government has acknowledged the stake that other EU countries have in your debate. Indeed, this British debate is seen by many people here as a debate about the reform of the European Union.

Silent on the Scottish referendum, but not on the European Union:

We in Ireland maintained a studious silence during the arguments surrounding the Scottish referendum. This was not because we were indifferent to potentially momentous political and constitutional developments on our neighbouring island. Certainly not! We maintain a close interest in all that happens here and are determined, come what may, to maintain close, productive relations with the UK, now and in the future.

There were, however, many good reasons for remaining silent on Scotland, the principal one being that, by contrast with the EU debate, the Scottish referendum was a domestic Scottish and UK matter. Your European debate is a different proposition.

I want to argue that the UK’s European debate has a special relevance and importance for Ireland, as we are likely to be affected more directly and significantly than any other EU country should this debate end, as we earnestly hope it will not, in a UK decision to part ways with the European Union.

Before I go on to outline our view of the current debate here on EU membership, let me say a few words about the Irish experience since 1973. Our recent Foreign Policy Review, The Global Island: Ireland’s foreign policy for a changing world, sums up our experience quite well.

Our membership of the European Union has shaped and amplified our foreign policy since 1973.

At the same time, the impact of EU membership is much broader than foreign policy, touching all areas of Government. In many areas, national and EU policy-making are intertwined.

EU membership has been central to the transformation of our economy and society over the past forty years. In particular, our economy has benefited immensely from the creation of the internal market, from the EU’s role as the world’s leading trading bloc, from the Structural Funds and from the Common Agricultural Policy.

I have served in our diplomatic service for all but 5 of our 42 years as EU members and I have witnessed the evolution of the EU, and of Ireland, during that time. When we joined in 1973, in economic terms Ireland was an outlier, our wealth levels being significantly behind those of our new EEC partners. Ireland was then the only Member State in that situation.

The reason for this was that we were a late developer as an industrial economy and remained excessively dependent on food production and on the British market.

EU membership benefited Ireland by enabling us to diversify our economy and by making Ireland more attractive for foreign investors, especially US multinationals seeking a welcoming, English-speaking base within the European Union. As a consequence, we now possess a competitive, export-oriented manufacturing and services sector, which could scarcely have evolved in the absence of EU membership. Our farming sector also derived great benefit from the CAP and our food industry is now far more diverse and productive than it could ever have been had we remained outside the EU.

The most dramatic change in Ireland’s circumstances came with the emergence of the European Single Market. This gave us unfettered access to what is now the largest market on the planet. At the same time, the EU’s increased commitment to economic and social cohesion provided financial wherewithal for the development of our physical infrastructure and our human capital.

In the years between 1994 and 2007, Ireland’s economic fortunes were transformed and our GDP per capita grew rapidly, narrowing and eventually eliminating the wealth gap between Ireland and our EU partners. By the time the global economic crisis hit us, Ireland’s per capita GDP was well in excess of the EU average, although that does not tell the full story as we do not have the same stock of wealth that exists in countries that have been economically advanced for far longer than Ireland.

The last 6 years have been extremely difficult for Ireland and there is not time this evening to dwell on that aspect of our national experience. Suffice it to say that we fell victim to a once-in-a-century global financial crisis to which Ireland, as a small, open economy that had overstretched itself in the years before 2008, was especially vulnerable. It is worth pointing out, however, that the economic reversals suffered in recent years have not significantly dimmed public recognition in Ireland of the advantages of EU membership, even if there are plenty of people who will criticise aspects of EU policy and performance. There is no meaningful body of opinion in Ireland that yearns for an exit from the EU, nor is there any serious public debate on the subject. No Irish political party has set out its stall around Euroscepticism and there has been no sign of any populist, anti-immigrant movement emerging in Ireland.

Our country has come through the challenging crisis years and our economy is now growing strongly, by almost 5% last year, which was the strongest performance in the Euro Zone. We expect our economy to grow by around 4% this year and the prospects for the years ahead appear very encouraging. In December 2013, we successfully exited from the EU-IMF programme and returned to market borrowing.

There are, of course, still many challenges ahead. Unemployment remains high at 10.4%, although it is declining steadily. Our Government debt has peaked and is dropping as a percentage of GDP (110% last year), but it remains elevated compared with the low levels that prevailed before the onset of the crisis and will be a drag on our Government budget for years to come, even if we are now able to access funding from the financial markets at record low interest rates (now for the first time in our history 10 year Irish Government bonds attract an interest rate of less than 1% for).

The UK and Ireland as EU members:

Ireland and the UK joined what is now the EU on the same day in 1973. It has been a good journey for Ireland and for our previously, periodically-fraught relations with the UK. I have an early memory of seeing Irish Ministerial delegations on television, travelling to London to seek trade concessions under the Anglo-Irish Free Trade Area Agreement. This was not an entirely satisfactory arrangement given the disparities of size and economic clout between Ireland and the UK at that time.

Around the negotiating table in Brussels, Irish and British Ministers and officials discovered that they had more in common than they might have imagined. It was refreshing for our bilateral relations for us to discuss a wide range of EU issues, and in the company of other EU politicians and officials. Even for Irish and British Ministers to be involved in exchanges on issues other than Irish-UK bilateral ones was a novelty.

I would not want to claim that EU membership was the only factor in the gradual warming of relations, for clearly the need to deal with the problems of Northern Ireland ultimately played a paramount role in ushering in the current highly positive era for relations between our two countries. It is, however, obvious that our shared EU membership has been a positive factor.

Moreover, the EU has exerted a fruitful influence with regard to the Northern Ireland peace process. As our Foreign Policy Review puts it:

Our shared membership of the EU has been important to the Northern Ireland peace process and to North-South cooperation, and has helped change the context of the British-Irish relationship.

The EU institutions and our European partners provided encouragement, expertise and financial support that played a part in delivering the success of the peace process. During critical phases of the process, it was often convenient and productive for Irish and British leaders to be able to meet in the margins of European meetings thus helping to build up the mutual confidence that paid dividends with the Good Friday Agreement and its subsequent implementation.

The upshot of our efforts in working together in the EU and on the Northern Ireland peace process has brought relations with Britain to a positive plateau never before experienced during a century of Irish independence.

Why does Ireland want the UK to remain in the EU?

It should not come as a surprise that Ireland is keen that the UK should remain an active member of the European Union. There are a number of reasons for this strong preference.

First, Ireland has a unique relationship with the UK founded on intensive engagement across the policy spectrum and is therefore likely to be affected more than others by any British disengagement. This gives us a special interest in the current British debate. Our ties with the UK stem from a long history of interaction, the possession of a shared language and from the very sizeable community of Irish birth and descent in this country.

Second, we want the current, positive vein in British-Irish relations to continue to generate benefit for Ireland. This has brought our partnership to an new level as exemplified by the hugely successful exchange of State Visits in 2011 and 2014. Anything that threatens to put a cloud over this very positive achievement would naturally be unwelcome to us. It is not that we fear a deep freeze in relations if the UK were to leave the EU, but any obstacles that might come between us are clearly best avoided.

Third, we have a mutually-beneficial economic partnership with Britain, with more than €1 billion worth of goods and services crossing the Irish Sea every week. Britain is our most important economic partner, while, more remarkably given the respective size of or two economies, Ireland is the fifth biggest market for UK exports.

I do not mean to suggest that a British exit would eliminate or seriously reduce that trade. Of course not, but anything that creates uncertainty and potential obstacles with regard to this volume of business is clearly an unwelcome prospect, an unnecessary risk to run. 

Fourth, the role played by the UK within the European Union is very important for us. The contribution of the UK, as an influential member State with a range of priorities often similar to Ireland’s, to the evolution of the EU has been critical. We want that contribution to continue being made.

Successive Irish and British Governments have been partners on issues such as competitiveness and better regulation. We both want to see the completion of the Single Market, in particular for services and in the digital sector. As open, outward-looking nations we both enthusiastically support new trade and investment agreements between the EU and third countries - above all with the US, but also with Canada, Japan and other nations. Ireland and other like-minded countries hugely value the weight added by the UK to our side of the argument around the EU negotiating table.

Fifth, as a country that has committed itself to a place ‘at the heart of Europe as an active and constructive EU member State,’ we naturally want the Union to be as effective as possible. A British exit would inevitably weaken the Union, which is something that cannot be in Ireland’s interests. Such a weakening would be felt, in particular, in the field of the Union’s external relations. Losing a country of Britain’s size, global reach and international profile would inevitably damage the Union’s credibility. This would be especially unfortunate at a time of turmoil and upheaval on the Union’s eastern and southern borders.

Sixth, when it comes to a potential British exit, Ireland stands in a unique position among EU member States because of our land border. It would be very unwelcome if the Irish border were to become an external EU border. I am not suggesting that border or customs controls would be introduced, but even the prospect of decades of increasing North-South interaction being interrupted or made more complicated is something that naturally would be very worrying from an Irish point of view.

Four decades of Irish and British membership of the EU has placed issues of identity in a broader, and I would say altogether helpful, European context. It has accustomed Irish people, North and South, to the complexity of identity and to the possibility of multiple identity strands.

Lessons for Britain from Ireland’s experience:

From what I have already said, you will understand that Ireland will do all that we can to ensure that the UK remains an active member of the EU. I am loath to draw precise lessons from our experience as each country’s circumstances and requirements are different. We do, however, have experience of negotiating an accommodation of Irish concerns with our EU partners and I will say something about that situation.

I refer, of course, to the situation after the No vote in our referendum on the Lisbon Treaty in June 2008.

At that time, we were not in the position to ratify the Treaty and needed to secure a set of concessions from our EU partners. I was involved in those negotiations and my assessment on the strength of that experience is that the EU is an arena where a spirit of compromise and accommodation invariably prevails. What is required in a political will to arrive at an agreement that all Member States will find acceptable.

The initial response to our situation in 2008 was comparatively unrelenting on the part of those who were unenthusiastic about tampering with the delicate balance struck by the Lisbon Treaty. Nevertheless, we eventually prevailed upon our EU partners to agree to a Protocol in response to the concerns of the Irish people as identified in research commissioned after the June 2008 vote.

This experience suggests to me that, whenever a Member State is faced with a political difficulty, they will eventually get satisfaction provided aims are pursued in a pragmatic fashion with a political will to find solutions.

My expectation is that it will be within Britain’s capacity to achieve satisfaction on a reasonable set of reforms. Everything will depend, of course, on the nature and extent of any reform agenda that emerges after the May election. We will seek to be helpful to the UK if it decides to go down the road of negotiating a package of measures to meet your needs. As our Foreign Policy Review puts it:

Where the UK seeks reasonable and achievable adjustments in how the Union operates, or in in its own relations with the EU, our instinct will be to be sympathetic and supportive. Where, on the other hand, we believe that a UK proposal would be unrealistic … we will be candid, but always in the context of our close relationship and our overall objective.


As a neighbour and friend, we will do all in our power to encourage continued UK membership of the EU. We know, of course, that the UK’s future engagement in Europe is something that will be decided by the Government and people of this country. As a concerned, friendly neighbor, it would be remiss of us to stay silent on this issue of major importance to the UK, to Ireland and to the whole of Europe.

We will therefore seek opportunities to make known our views on this topic. As our Foreign Policy Review states, continued UK membership of the EU ‘is a fundamental Irish national interest‘. Furthermore, as our review states:

The EU remains fundamental to our interests, to our security and prosperity, and to the well-being of the Irish people.

In summary, Ireland has committed itself to EU membership as a matter of vital national interest. We want the EU to function more effectively in delivering benefits to the people of Europe which means that we have something in common with the UK. Ireland approaches this issue, however, as a country that has no intention of ever taking the exit door. Instead, we will argue for a more effective Union from within, and without any threat that we will contemplate departure. We want a strong EU that can help us face the challenges of the future. The UK is a key European country and we hope that it will remain an active member of the Union alongside Ireland and the other Member States.

Thank you for your attention.