European Disunion


With the possibility of Britain leaving the European Union on the cards, Laura Woulfe examines whether Ireland should tighten connections with Great Britain or proceed with further European integration

British Prime Minister David Cameron’s recent announcement that he plans to renegotiate the terms of the UK’s involvement in the European Union is less than surprising considering Britain’s long-standing ambivalence towards EU involvement in British affairs. In fact, as a direct result to the eurozone crisis, Britain’s scepticism has only increased with one commentator even coining the term “europhobia” to describe the overwhelming apprehensive attitude of the British public.


Ireland on the other hand, has only become increasingly embedded in the European Union over the past decade, fuelled in no small part by our decision to adopt the single euro currency. Yet we have never had a stronger relationship with our neighbouring state of Great Britain. Britain’s departure from the EU could cause major implications, both economically and socially for our Emerald Isle and may even demand a choice when it comes to our nation’s loyalty.

With a momentous €1 billion flowing between the Irish and British economies each week, trade between our two nations is of the utmost importance to our already struggling economy. As mentioned in the document “Towards an Irish Foreign Policy for Britain” issued by The Institute of International and European Affairs, Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Prime Minister David Cameron issued “a joint statement that sets out a programme of work to reinforce the British-Irish relationship” with particular emphasis on the importance of trade relations in order to “accelerate economic recovery” for both Ireland and Britain.

However, despite indicating that this programme is to take place over the next ten years, if Britain leave the EU, Irish-Anglo trade can only deteriorate. Considering Ireland will remain a member of the EU it will be unable to make a trade agreement with Britain separate from that negotiated by the European Union. Therefore, it seems likely that Ireland would be forced to consider the ex-communicated Britain as a separate trade market and would be required to pay increased trade tariffs.

Implications on the trade of goods between Ireland and Britain will certainly be a huge concern for our country’s leaders, yet for our nation’s students and recent college graduates the biggest impact may indeed be curtailed travel between the two countries. For more than a century Irish people searching for work and new opportunities have been graced with the freedom to live in Britain as well as Ireland, yet if Britain leave the EU, it is possible that new restrictions will be established between member and non-member countries.

Yet, the strongest connection between our two nations may also be the cause of the most drastic complications if the British public decide to turn away from the EU. The peace in Northern Ireland remains very unstable and any shift in the relationship between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland is likely to lead to unrest. Not only could it cause a repeat of the Troubles, any recent developments in an all-Ireland Electricity Market could be eradicated, or at least any further progression is likely to be hindered.

As it currently stands, any break in the connection between Ireland and Britain could have drastic consequences and therefore it appears to be vital for our country’s future that we maintain a close connection with our neighbouring state. It seems plausible that if Britain decide to depart from the European Union that they would endeavour to establish tighter connections with America. Ireland, if it was independent from the EU, would be able to maintain current trade systems with Britain while also increasing its ties with the world’s current superpower.

The possibility of Ireland developing as its own independent state however seems unlikely when considering this hypothesis. In fact, as stated by the IIEA: “Ireland’s commitment to European integration runs deeper than trade.” When Ireland joined the EU in 1973, the country was liberated from its overwhelming economic and political dependence on the UK. Membership of the European Community (EC) transformed Ireland’s relationship with the UK by constraining Britain’s ability to exercise its sovereignty to Ireland’s economic disadvantage and by making the two states equal members”. If Ireland left the EU and aligned itself with the UK, it may leave the country increasingly dependent on our former oppressor. In contrast, as an equal member of the EU, Ireland is given the confidence to develop independently.

Over the last four decades the European Union has been monumental in making Ireland the country it is today, and despite the current economic downturn, this is a country considerably more developed than Ireland in the seventies. As noted by the Irish Times: 40 years ago, no woman could get married and keep her job in the public service or a bank. The removal of the marriage bar in 1973, a condition of our membership, was one of the first major results of the EU’s equality legislation.” In more recent years, Ireland’s adoption of the single euro currency has left the country more attractive to foreign investors and indeed for students, as the “EU will have most resonance in the Erasmus programme, through which thousands of Irish students have been able to study abroad”.

As a nation, we can only hope that an agreement can be established between the European Union and Great Britain which will allow Britain to remain a member of the EU under its required terms or at least that Britain will remain a member of the EU market. If, however, Britain leaves the EU completely, the only route for Ireland may be to engage further with fellow EU members and leave our comfy alliance with Britain behind.