Themes in the study of Ireland and European Union membership

The following is the introductory summary of a forthcoming article in the EU Politics and Comparative Regional Integration series for the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Politics on “Ireland and the European Union”. This series is designed to be a dynamic, on-line source for researchers, teachers, and students throughout the world. Articles are expected to provide insight, not just information, and are intended to be authoritative and scholarly, and peer-reviewed. Because the OREP is “born digital,” it is a dynamic and constantly evolving research tool that over time will provide global coverage of the study of politics. The goal is to become an international hub for the discipline, covering the many areas of study that make up the field of politics. Comments on this outline are warmly welcomed.

Ireland and the European UnionIreland and EU

Ireland joined the European Communities – as they then were – in 1973 alongside the United Kingdom and Denmark. In many ways that membership was defined by the bilateral British-Irish relationship. Ireland was, to all an intents and purposes, an underdeveloped appendage of the British economy and membership alongside the UK was deemed by most of the Irish political and economic establishment as virtually axiomatic. Irish policy makers, however, took full advantage of the opportunities offered by membership; in particular the Common Agricultural Policy, the direct transfers that derived from cohesion, regional and structural funding and the opportunity of presenting the country as a successful location for Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) with access to the entire European market. Irish policy makers also positioned themselves rhetorically close to the heart of European construction which had the added value of creating an Irish antithesis to Britain’s ongoing European discontents.

There are perhaps four key themes to be analysed with respect to Ireland and its membership of the European Union. The first is the question of a small state and its sovereignty. As a former colony, with a bitter experience of imperialism and a strong sense of independence, Ireland’s surrender/pooling of sovereignty with its European partners has most often been presented as a desirable trade-off between legal/formal sovereignty and effective sovereignty. Having a seat at the main table – alongside the former imperial hegemon – was deemed to be a major advance and one which allowed the state more effectively to pursue its interests – including the resolution of conflict on the island of Ireland. The 2008 financial collapse, and Ireland’s experience of the EU-led ‘troika’ has profoundly challenged that narrative, with concerns often now expressed at the loss of political and economic autonomy to technocratic multilateral institutions rather than a democratic, transnational European polity. The prospect of Brexit and its consequences for peace and security on the island is also a contemporary challenge in that regard.

A second theme of inquiry is that of Irish economic development within the European Union. In contrast to other similarly under-developed states and regions in the EU, Ireland is seen by many as something of a poster child for making a success of EU membership. In the run up to the 2004 enlargement and shortly thereafter, Dublin was a magnet for central European and Mediterranean states looking to replicate the success of the so-called ‘Celtic Tiger’. Debate however persists on the precise balance of costs and benefits deriving from the model of economic development pursued by the Irish state, the role of Irish government policy therein and the precise added-value of EU membership.

A third theme of inquiry is the intersection of local, national and European democracy. Once membership was secured, the European Union became a central and largely uncontested fact of Irish political life. Early constitutional referenda authorising ratification of EC and then EU treaty changes, while vigorously contested, were overwhelmingly won by coalitions of the mainstream political parties and sectoral interest groups. With both the Nice and Lisbon treaties, however, ambivalence, antagonism and complacency combined initially to thwart ratification. The gap between popular opinion on EU treaty change, which ultimately divided roughly 60/40 in favour, and the near unanimity among political elites and sectoral interests, opened a conversation on the relationship between local, national and European democracy, which is as yet unresolved but which many see as having further centralised policy making and distanced it from effective democratic control.

A fourth theme is that of Ireland and Europe in the world.  Ireland joined the European Communities with no expressed reservations on its further political integration but as the only non-member of NATO. During those initial debates, economic arguments overwhelmingly predominated, but the political issues were aired and the implications for Ireland’s traditional neutrality were robustly discussed. The subsequent membership of other non-aligned states ought, on the face of things, to have made Ireland’s position all the more secure. Thus, with a long and popular history of UN peacekeeping and active international engagement, the development of European foreign, security and defence policies should not have proven to be problematic. In fact, neutrality, security and defence remain neuralgic issues for Ireland within the European Union and have contributed in a very modest way to the challenges faced by the Union in its attempts to craft a coherent and credible common security and defence policy.  This speaks to debates surrounding Ireland’s proper place in the world, the lessons of its own history and the capacity for smaller states to shape the international community.

These four themes underpin much research and analysis on Ireland as a member of the European Union. In an unstable contemporary climate, with many well-established expectations under threat, they also serve to identify the pathways available to navigate beyond political and economic instability both for Ireland and the wider European project.

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