Euroscepticism has always coloured Britain's relationship with the EU. But Ireland saw membership as a way to take a new role on the world stage—one they won't relinquish lightlyby Patrick Thompson / December 7, 2017 / Leave a comment
Has Britain ever understood the EU? It’s a question which is both fascinating and frustrating.
There are a range of reasons for Britain’s lukewarm engagement with the European project: British exceptionalism, a fixation on the relationship with the United States, poor timing, domestic realpolitiks and arrogance have all played a part. Over forty years ago, when the campaign to join was at its height, pro-European politicians from Ted Heath to Dennis Healey found themselves talking up the economic argument and ignoring, for the most part, the political one.
Prior to Brexit, the most serious public discussion about the EU since joining concerned the economics of the single currency, not wider issues of European integration on ideological grounds.
While the UK’s future is unclear, what is certain is that our tendency to view membership as little more than an economic convenience has blinded us to how our closest European neighbour relates to the EU.
The Republic of Ireland joined the EEC, as the EU was then, at the same time as Britain in 1973. Over 80 per cent of Irish voters were in favour.
In many ways the British move—which would result in the six counties of Northern Ireland joining the European community—encouraged the Irish government. Indeed, an earlier Irish bid to join the EEC had been shelved when Britain’s application was dropped. There is, however, a deeper relationship between Ireland and the European Project which Westminster would do well to realise.
After a tumultuous first half of the 20th century, the Irish Republic within the EEC was more confident than it had ever been. Membership of the EEC made Ireland economically independent from Britain—a reality that British Eurosceptics seem blind to even now—and was a driving force in giving women independence through European directives on equal pay.
The European framework was also an important part of the Peace Process, a fact that has been highly relevant but largely ignored until recently.
It has even been argued that Ireland’s application to join the wider European community marked the end of a particular tradition of nationalism and helped birth a new, outward facing nation.
In Britain, on the other hand, the EEC was seen too widely as an ending. The decidedly shrunken metropole was being shackled to countries of lesser standing, and from the moment of membership there were British demands—that never went away—for a renegotiated settlement.
This isn’t to suggest that the Republic has benefited empirically more than Britain from the EU—or that Ireland’s social problems in the early 1970s were solved in an instant. Far from it.
But Ireland has benefited in more profound ways than Britain has. It was certainly no longer the case, to paraphrase Desmond FitzGerald, that Ireland’s “only external affair” is the UK.
Whatever the Eurosceptic right in Britain might say, the EU is not a collective of weakened states, moving inevitably towards federalisation. Ireland, along with the rest of the EU 27, can make its own choices. It could even veto a proposed Brexit deal.
The Republic’s historic relationship with the EU makes Westminster’s current approach all the more disjointed. Not only are we treating Ireland like a subordinate rather than a sovereign state, we’re forgetting that its feelings about the EU run deeper than our own; that the disdain for the European project that colours much of British political discourse is not shared by our cousins over the Irish Sea.
Instead of serious engagement with Ireland, we have condescension: a cabinet minister and prominent Leave campaigner, who once wrote about Ireland as “John Bull’s vulnerable flank”; the suggestion that Ireland will quickly follow the UK and Leave a Brexit Secretary who appears uncertain as to how the border works; a national newspaper calling for the Taoiseach to “shut his gob”; an assumption that he can be easily dealt with because he is ‘young’, new to his role and needs Britain on side.
In the early years of the 20th century, the ‘Irish Question’ was viewed as simply another dimension of Westminster power politics by both Liberal and Tory leaders alike. Yes, it was an issue to be carefully managed, but primarily because of the risk of rebellion within the House of Commons.
Today the modern Conservative party has adopted the same approach. Relations with our closest European neighbour are a factor in political calculations rather than a pressing concern for foreign relations. One suspects that, if we could “make a success of Brexit” without giving much concern to the knock-on effects in the Republic of Ireland, let alone in the counties of the North, we would.
Yet the statesmen of the early 20th century at least engaged seriously with Irish politics, however cynically. The current crop of would-be history makers is blind to everything but their own ambition—and the UK, lead by them, is heading off into unknown.
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