Island Politics

Fifty years after Sean Lemass opened negotiations with the European Union’s predecessor, Matt Gregg explores Ireland’s continental relations.

Ireland is facing a potentially pivotal moment in its relatively short history, as it seeks to balance national interests with attempts to find its place in a European Union struck by crisis. Years of incredible Irish growth and development, no doubt boosted by European integration, have come to a grinding halt, to be replaced by austerity measures and re-emerging questions concerning the legitimacy of outside interference.

Paul Gillespie, former Irish Times European correspondent and UCD lecturer in Politics, says that Ireland’s approach to the European Union, under its various guises, has always been governed by both Anglo-Irish relations, as well as “a European dimension to Irish nationalism.” Gillespie believes that Sean Lemass’s opening of negotiations for European membership in 1962 was motivated both by a desire to avoid becoming isolated from Britain, who had opened negotiations in 1961, and also from a natural tendency to look to Europe as a “counter-balance to Britain.”

Political motivations behind Ireland’s involvement in European affairs cannot be ignored yet, then as now, economic concerns were also a key driver towards integration. Daniel Thomas, Director of UCD’s Dublin European Institute, outlines Ireland’s reliance on trade with Britain as the overriding concern for the Irish government. “[Ireland] had political independence decades earlier but there was still economic dependence on Great Britain, and joining the economic community was a way to diversify Ireland’s markets,” he says, while also pointing out that, if Ireland had not followed Britain’s lead in joining this European market, Anglo-Irish trade could have suffered significantly. “In terms of the economic welfare of Irish citizens, there is no question that being a member of the EU was a huge consideration for all these multinational corporations that have been investing in Ireland for the last twenty-five years.”

The primacy of economic reasons and Anglo-Irish relations is echoed by Anthony Coughlan, former lecturer at Trinity and director of the National Platform for EU Research and Information Centre, a non-governmental, openly ‘Eurosceptical’ organization. However he, in contrast, believes that the levels of integration today go far beyond what Lemass could have envisaged, and are at the root of Ireland’s current financial woes. “Lemass was in a difficult position as we were heavily dependent on Britain at the time,” he says. “But I am fairly certain that he didn’t envisage that the EU would develop the way that it has, into running most of our policies and now proposing the exchange of intimate details concerning national budgets in the context of a monetary union.”

Predicted by Coughlan and many others who have taken a consistently Eurosceptic stance, the current Eurozone crisis has been used to suggest that membership of the European Union is not in Ireland’s best interest. Coughlan argues that the loss of control over monetary matters is the most evident manner in which European policy has hurt Ireland.

“Our extremely competitive independent Irish currency prior to joining the Eurozone gave us the Celtic Tiger. The loss of control over our interest rate made our Celtic Tiger boom and turned it into a bubble which burst and caused the consequent slump,” he says. “The European Central Bank forbade us to let any Irish bank go bust and therefore required us to pass on the bad debts to the Irish taxpayers. This was the result of European Central Bank policy and an independent Irish government would not have gone down that road.”

For Thomas, national governments are just as culpable for the current crisis as any supranational interference. “For years, national governments took credit when things went right and blamed Brussels when things went wrong. That pattern is now coming back to haunt us because people don’t see the way in which Europe is useful,” he says, pointing to the manner in which Irish government officials often misrepresented and, arguably, mismanaged Ireland’s economy during the boom years.

Gillespie also highlights national government policy as a contributing factor to Ireland’s precarious position, particularly the effect neglecting alliances with similarly sized EU states had on negotiations within the EU. “The network of alliances that are necessary for a small state to be heard in a European setting fell away during 2001/2002, coinciding with the property boom really,” he says. “This is a big problem because [these alliances] ensure that, if you’re getting deeper integration, there is a balance between the institutions that suited the smaller states and the emerging system.” Regardless of who is to blame, the Eurozone project is teetering close to collapse. Negotiations concerning a fiscal pact continue but it remains unclear if the Euro can survive into the next year.

The prospect of a Eurozone collapse is welcomed by Coughlan, who views the loss of monetary controls Eurozone membership enforced, no matter its affects on the economy, as symptomatic of the manner in which membership of the EU conflicts with Irish democracy. He argues that with Irish law increasingly initiated at the EU level, an arena where “Irish people make up only a tiny handful,” the EU suffers from a democratic deficit that de-legitimises the structure.

“This is not democracy,” he says. “Democracy requires a demos, a people who can identify with the community and communicate with each other. The most obvious point is that there is no common language to communicate through [at a European level]. This creates the fundamental flaw of the European project in that there is no European demos and there therefore can be no European democracy.”

The issue of democracy is problematic and is certainly worth exploring, particularly at a time when Irish citizens are being asked to make substantial sacrifices. Thomas does admit that “there are certain ways in which European decision-making is far removed from democratic input and democratic expression.” Nevertheless, he does not believe that this pooling of sovereignty necessarily equates to a loss of sovereignty. Highlighting that the EU is democratic in many other regards, he argues that the EU also has the potential to be far more democratic, if member states and their citizens become better acquainted with the system.

“I think the most important thing is to make European citizens, including our citizens, better informed about the EU, because they often do not realise how voters have influence,” he says. “Irish citizens are represented directly through the European parliament, they are indirectly represented through the government of Ireland in the two most important institutions for EU decision-making, but the average Irish citizen, just like the average French or German or Spanish or Polish citizen, see the EU as a collection of Eurocrats [who are] overpaid, faceless and tell us the shape our cucumbers should be.”

Concurring, Gillespie argues that Ireland requires greater involvement at a European level than ever before and, in contrast to Coughlan, believes that common politics at a European level can help create a genuine European identity. “The relationship between Europeanisation and national identity is terribly important. If you look closely at Ireland, there is a tension between the sovereignists and those open to multiple identities. Part of the conflict we have over integration is between these two political cultures.”

As Ireland looks to establish its future EU position, Gillespie is keen to emphasise that this crisis cannot be combated without more “common politics at a European level. I think we’re in a major shift … we need more capacity at a European level because, arguably, bureaucratic structures have been created without political ones.” Although not suggesting that Europe become a federal construct, Gillespie feels the EU must “be made more politically accessible if you want to be a democrat. You really encourage democratic participation by enabling people to have a more common politics.”

Common politics are not a possibility according to Coughlan, who maintains that the EU can never truly be democratic and is a product of a bygone era. “Essentially, it should be seen as a Cold War creature and a result of the situation after World War Two, where the larger continental powers tried to recover prestige they lost by joining together to become a big noise in world politics that they could not be individually,” he says. “That’s all out of date and irrelevant now, and so is the European Union.” He continues, “There is a totally fallacious argument that, for people to matter in the world, they need to belong to a large state” which drives European integration and, in turn, leaves European states open to exploitation by their larger neighbours.

Thomas disagrees and instead argues that state size does matter. He believes that European states “recognise they are better off operating through a European structure than going it alone. Who listens to Luxembourg or Croatia or Ireland in global politics? They are listened to because they are key players within the EU.” This becomes even more important due to Ireland’s geographic location. “Participation in European integration has been very good for Ireland and it doesn’t have good viable alternatives,” Thomas says. “A small island in the Atlantic somewhere between Europe and the United States is not a place you want to be. It may be a place you want to go to on holiday but in terms of economic welfare and political influence, that’s not a place you want to be.” The consequence of this is that, even were the EU to collapse under its current guise, he argues that “it will be re-invented.”

Although sharing Thomas’s confidence of the EU’s ability to ride out the current crisis, Gillespie offers some words of warning. “If the euro fails, you’re in for a period of very toxic politics in Europe,” he muses. “I’m not saying that there will automatically be a return to 1930s type of politics but there will be large scale instability, which is dangerous for small states, including us. We’re better to stay with this and argue our case through it, but argue it more vocally and openly, and help to create a better political framework, within which this kind of common politics can emerge.”

It goes without saying that the legacy of British rule guarantees an Irish aversion to outsider interference. Nevertheless, the truth of the matter is that Ireland, by virtue of its small size, cannot cocoon itself from the outside world and its policies will always be shaped externally to some degree. Whether it must look to Britain or Europe, Irish policy choices will be constrained to a large extent by matters beyond national borders. As the EU approaches its next major crossroads in the form of a fiscal treaty, Britain is taking an increasingly sovereignist position and resisting deeper integration. Ireland must now decide whether it follows suit.