An Irish perspective on the UK’s EU referendum, Liverpool Hope University, 20 April 2016
It is a pleasure for me here today to offer you an Irish perspective on the upcoming referendum to decide on this country’s future in Europe. You may ask why the Irish Ambassador is commenting on a referendum in which the British electorate has an important choice to make about its own country’s future.
We are taking a position on this British debate because, as a friendly neighbour, we know that this decision will affect Ireland very significantly. Should the UK decide to leave the EU it would mean the disruption of a very productive 43 year partnership between our two countries as fellow members of the European Union. We do not have a say in the outcome, but we do have a view. We also have a stake in the future of the EU and of our relations with the UK within the EU.
In addition, we know that there are hundreds of thousands of Irish citizens who have a vote in this referendum and, while they will make up their own minds on how to vote, I am often asked what the Irish Government’s view is. My answer is straightforward. We want the UK to remain in the EU so that our successful partnership can continue into the future. We see many risks and uncertainties associated with a UK exit and we are keen to avoid these.
As I see it, a UK exit would pose challenges to the EU, to Irish-UK relations and with regard to Northern Ireland. I can see no upside for Ireland or for the future of our part of the world in a UK departure from the EU. It can only make us all weaker and less well-equipped to deal with the many problems that confront us.
The European Union:
Let me start with Europe.
In 1919, the great Irish poet WB Yeats, wrote:
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.
Developments during the 1920s and 1930s made it look as if Yeats had his predictions spot on. But, since the end of the Second World War, the situation has changed and the centre, very broadly defined, has held its ground to the benefit of our societies and peoples.
The point I want to make is that the European Union has been a big part of the success story of post-World War 2 Europe. It is not the full story of course, but it would be unwise to believe that challenges that brought the European project into being have disappeared completely and that rivalries could not be reignited if European countries decided to go their separate ways.
It would in my view be a shame if a UK exit from the EU were to damage this on-the-whole successful European venture and boost those who oppose our shared European values.
Let me also say a little about the nature of the European Union. I find it strange that so many people exaggerate the significance of the EU, seeing it as a voracious Leviathan eating up national interests and identities, and neutering sovereignty and democracy. This seems to me to stem from a major misunderstanding of the nature of the EU.
Let's look at the things the EU does not do. It has little or no role to play in many of the main areas of public policy – in education, health, justice, social welfare, taxation (other than VAT) and defence. The member States run their own hospitals, schools, defence forces and Embassies with little or no involvement by Brussels.
There is, of course, greater integration within the Euro Zone, but that does not affect Britain, which is also not a member of the Schengen zone within which the principle of passport-free movement applies.
For Britain, the EU is essentially an advanced free trade area not a nascent super State. It represents a unique form of international cooperation in pursuit of agreed objectives, but the member States retain control of the process and every deepening of EU integration requires a unanimous decision among the members of the EU.
It is true, of course, that EU membership does involve some pooling of sovereignty. This is done by us as a matter of choice because we consider that working together in close partnership with our European counterparts produces better outcomes than would be achieved by any country acting alone. This actually adds to our effective sovereignty. As I see it, sovereignty is not an abstraction to be admired, but something to be used in order to advance our interests as a nation.
As far as democracy is concerned, the fact is that all decisions are taken by elected Prime Ministers and Ministers with a democratic mandate to represent their governments, and by the directly-elected European Parliament, it is a mistake to overestimate the role if the Commission as critics of the EU habitually do.
Another indicator of the reality of the EU is the size of its budget. For most developed States, their annual budget is around 35% of national GDP. In the case of the EU the figure is less than 1% of our combined GDP. This, in my view, is a small price to pay as a contribution to the peace, prosperity and well-being of our European neighbourhood.
Ireland's European story:
Ireland's European story has on the whole been a very positive one. When we joined the EU in 1973, in economic terms, Ireland was an outlier among the then 9 member States. Our GDP per capita was around two-thirds of the EU average. Our economy was excessively dependent on agriculture and on the British market. This was not a good basis for a healthy relationship between our two neighbouring countries.
Ireland quickly began to see the benefits of membership, the CAP and later the Structural Funds, but it was the advent of the single market that made the key difference to Ireland, enabling us to bridge the wealth gap between Ireland and our European partners. Today, despite the adverse effects of the global financial crisis, our economy is back growing strongly, 7.8% last year, and our GDP per capita is well above the EU average. Moreover, we have made a significant contribution to the EU's development, especially at times we have held its rotating Presidency. Membership has also deepened our ties with our fellow member States to our mutual benefit.
Impact of membership on Britain and Ireland:
One of the unexpected benefits of EU membership has been the positive impact on Irish-UK relations.
The transformation of our economy due in large part to EU membership has made Ireland an increasingly important market for British exporters. Ireland is currently the UK’s 5th most important export market, more important than China or India.
I want to argue that Ireland and the UK have contributed positively to the evolution of the European Union during the decades of our membership. This leads me to conclude that continued UK membership of the EU is important to Ireland and to the European Union as a whole, which is why our Government has been quite vocal on this issue during the past year.
Being partners in Europe has helped us to understand how much we have in common. We tend to see eye-to-eye on a wide range of EU issues. Every day in Brussels there are about 25 meetings at all levels and at each of these, Irish and British officials will meet and cooperate.
Membership has been good for our trading relationship. Goods and services to the tune of €65 billion were traded back and forth across the Irish Sea last year.
We naturally fear the impact of a UK exit on our trading ties with the UK. No one can tell what that impact might be, but it is hard to believe that the UK’s ability to trade with EU member States would be completely unaffected by leaving the EU. Even a small reduction in trade would impact heavily on us.
Of course, it is true that Ireland’s relations with the UK predate our EU membership, but the fact is that they have never been in better shape than they are today. The Common Travel Area is part of the unique relationship between us and it is important that we do not turn the clock back.
We naturally worry, however, when we hear calls from those who favour an EU exit for the UK ‘to regain control of its borders.’ Given that Ireland will remain a member of the EU, we have to wonder what that might mean for free movement between Ireland and Britain and for the border in Ireland.
EU membership has had a helpful impact on Northern Ireland, which has benefited from the effects of EU funding for SMEs, research, the green economy and education, not to mention agriculture, sectors that all have a cross-border dimension or potential. EU membership also brings with it the valuable cross-border PEACE programme and the Interreg programme.
I doubt however if the mutual confidence required to facilitate the peace process would have come about without the experience of working together as partners within the EU. The first in a series of productive personal relationships between Taoiseach and PM developed between Albert Reynolds and John Major, whose friendship was forged around the Ecofin table in Brussels when they were both Finance Ministers.
The potential impact of a UK exit from the EU:
It is an irony, 100 years after the events of Easter 1916 and with the relationship at an unprecedented peak of friendship and cooperation, the UK is considering the option of leaving the EU. This concerns us deeply. We are staying in the EU and we hope that our nearest neighbour will continue to be our closest partner in Europe.
My fear is that a UK exit from the EU would have negative effects in three areas.
First, Ireland and the UK, after more than forty years working together successfully within the EU, would no longer be partners in this unique European family of nations. Ireland will remain an EU member and we would like Britain to be there with us in the future. It is likely that our enormous two way trade with the UK, currently worth €65 billion annually, would be reduced as a result of a UK exit. This would be bad for jobs and prosperity in both our countries.
Second, I would have concerns about the impact of the UK leaving the EU on North-South ties in Ireland. At present, we enjoy the benefits of an open border with Northern Ireland without any customs or immigration controls. This means that people can move freely across the border to work, visit families, do business and as tourists. Companies from both parts of Ireland can now trade with each other within the European single market and this is something that benefits both our economies. There is also a possibility that a UK exit from the EU could affect the longstanding right of Irish and British citizens to move back and forth between our two countries.
Third, a UK decision to leave the EU would be a blow to the European Union, which has helped maintain peace and prosperity in Europe since the 1950s. A British decision to leave the EU would be the first time that any member has left the Union and such a decision would make waves across Europe and around the world.
The International Monetary Fund and other authorities have pointed to the risk of damage being done to the British, European and world economies on the back of a UK exit. Anything that threatens to damage the EU would be most unwelcome to Ireland as we see our future firmly within the European Union. We earnestly hope that the UK will continue to be with us around the EU table in Brussels, working to make the Union more effective and trying to do the best for our two peoples and our overlapping interests.
There is a sense in which Irish-UK relations have come a full circle since 1916 - from conflict to cooperation, from friction to friendship. What we want for the future is a continuation of current arrangements that have served relations between us so well this past four decades. It would be a misfortune if Ireland and the UK were to find themselves separated, even to a limited degree, by virtue of no longer being close partners within the European family of nations.
Daniel Mulhall is Ireland's Ambassador in London