The founding principle of the European Economic Community was “to preserve peace and liberty and to lay the foundations of an ever closer union among the peoples of Europe”.
In the centenary of the 1916 Easter Rising, it is curious that the Irish media is so submerged in tales of disaster when contemplating a UK exit from the European Union. The Rising sparked the movement for Irish independence. Since then, Ireland has struggled to maintain a healthy relationship with Britain. There remains deep-rooted resentment towards our neighbour, which is weakening with every decade, and an over-compensatory attitude towards it too.
Politically, Ireland seems committed to apologising to Britain for the actions of the IRA, and at times, for simply rejecting its imposition. Yet Ireland was imposed upon by Britain. And in times of territorial invasion, pride and nationalism emerge to protect borders, resources and domestic communities. It is perhaps the only instance in which national pride can be justified. In most other circumstances, it is a barrier to equality and freedom.
Yet in the debate about Brexit, the leave campaign is fuelled by national pride. By notions that Eastern Europeans are stealing British jobs (and simultaneously, British benefits) while the average Briton lies at the mercy of immigration. Yet the attack on the EU is unwarranted. The majority of immigration into the UK is non-EU. Thus, the discussion about EU immigration is misleading.
And the idea that Britain pays in more than it gets out is misguided too. Margaret Thatcher successfully negotiated a reduction in contributions to the EU in the 1980s, with France and Germany offsetting the loss. There are plenty of arguments to say the UK is over or underpaying its way in the EU but the reality is unclear. In economics, it is really only possible to discuss gains and losses in real terms, not hypotheticals.
For Ireland, the EU has been a huge advantage for opening up trade and employment. Prior to membership of the EEC in 1973, the country was heavily reliant on Britain. And indeed, Britain still gets a third of its food supply from Ireland. But despite what the media says, Britain is not Ireland’s most important market. The EU is. A closer look at the figures is needed. Ireland exports as much to Belgium as it does to the UK. So when commentators describe Britain as Ireland’s main trading partner, they are referring to imports, whether they realise it or not.
Ireland receives 34 per cent of imports from the UK. Why is this?
One reason is that Ireland is the only other country in Europe which drives on the left-hand side of the road. Among our main imports are electrical machinery and vehicles. So it makes sense that we would import these through Britain. These alone account for about a quarter of our imports. If the UK leaves the EU, Ireland would likely suffer a hike in prices for these goods. Or we could take radical action and actually renegotiate these contracts on our own terms. But in our post-colonial haze, we have been reluctant to look east without the support of Britain. Yet we have no problem turning west, to the US, to attract investors through tax subsidies that have incensed British policymakers. The Irish mindset is complex.
More broadly, there are legacy trading issues between Ireland, Britain and continental Europe. Before joining the EEC, our trading contracts were made in partnership with Britain. Our currency was pegged to sterling. There was a strong rationale for importing goods from Europe through the UK. But with the euro, greater diversification in Irish trade and politically divergent attitudes towards the EU, now is a good time for Ireland to demonstrate its autonomy by securing trade deals independently of the UK. In fact, this should lower our transaction costs. If we dealt directly with other Eurozone members, we should avoid the costs associated with currency conversions.
Ultimately, Irish hysteria over the potential exit of the UK from the EU stems from historical insecurities. It reflects a great unease about increased divergence between the two states. Yet Irish politicians persistently describe Ireland as “the best small country in the world” for business. This jars with our inability to evolve in our relationship with Britain. If we want a mature and respectful link with the UK then we need to embrace our independence. Ireland has achieved a considerable amount on its own merit from within the EU. As a nation, we need to depart from our psychological dependence on Britain.
The EU and the UK are stronger together. The continent has experienced its longest period of peace with the establishment of the EEC. Two world wars within 20 years of each other ignited a common commitment to peace. But as economies have recovered and thrived, and living standards have surged, Europeans have forgotten the tragedy of war. This is epitomised in the rise of far-right nationalist parties across the continent.
A breakdown in cooperation raises the risk of war and the return of historical animosities, including between Ireland and the UK. A levelling off of the increase in wealth is encouraging sections of European society to resent the EU – to view it as a constraint on prosperity. So we need to always return to the core aim of the union: peace. For no amount of wealth can purchase this privilege.