I ENTERED the Irish diplomatic service in 1978, just five years after the UK and Ireland joined the then European Community in 1973. This means that, throughout my entire professional life, our two countries have been partners within what is now the European Union.
EU membership has been very positive for Ireland. It has also brought us closer to Britain. That might come as a surprise. In fact, the experience of sitting together around the EU negotiating table has drawn attention to the many areas where we see eye-to-eye with each other.
Britain and Ireland have cooperated well with each other on a range of EU issues, and have contributed, for example, to the development of the European single market, something that has benefited both our economies.
We would like this productive British-Irish partnership in Europe to continue into the future. And this is why we hope that the UK will remain firmly within the EU, so that we can face the challenges of the coming times together as close, friendly neighbours, and as fellow EU members.
In Ireland, it would be greatly regretted if the UK were to leave the European Union. We like the influence that British ministers and officials can bring to bear on European discussions, in favour of a more open and competitive European economy in which the full potential of the single market can be realised, and in which Europe’s full weight is also brought to bear on the world trade system.
Among EU countries, Ireland has a unique relationship with the UK. In proportion to our population, we trade far more with our nearest neighbour than any other EU country does. Britain is Ireland’s most important market, while the UK currently exports more to Ireland than to China and India combined. Two-way trade between us amounts to almost £1bn each week.
All of this means that a British exit from the EU would pose particular challenges for Ireland. We would, of course, seek to mitigate the impact on us, but there would, at a minimum, be a period of uncertainty pending the negotiation of a new economic relationship between the UK and the EU.
Some suggest that there are some advantages that might accrue to Ireland in the event of a British exit. Companies based in the UK could decide to transfer part of their activities to Ireland in order to have a guaranteed base within the EU. But we consider that any such potential benefits would be clearly outweighed by the drawbacks involved.
Another concern for Ireland in the event of a British exit relates to Northern Ireland, where our two governments have worked together for decades, and with considerable success, to promote peace and reconciliation. During this time, the EU has consistently played an important, supportive role. Whatever happens, we will continue to prioritise our responsibilities with regard to Northern Ireland. Nevertheless, a British exit from the EU could have potentially unsettling consequences and these are best avoided.
We understand that there is a real demand in Britain for EU reform, which can probably be accommodated to a significant degree. Our government is sympathetic to many parts of Britain’s reform agenda. Where we can, we will be helpful, but we will also be honest in advising our British friends about the likely limits of what is achievable by way of an agreed reform package.
For example, we like the focus that is being placed by the British government on lessening the burden of regulation, on completing the single market, and on taking decisions at the local, regional or national level whenever this makes sense. There is also sympathy in Ireland for moves to prevent abuses of national welfare systems.
But I need to stress one key point. We see Ireland’s future as a member of the EU and of the Eurozone. While we welcome moves to boost EU competitiveness and make the Union fit for purpose, we do not see a need for a period of constitutional debate and Treaty change. For us, the absolute priority is to promote economic recovery across Europe.
The Irish economy is strongly on the mend at present. We expect GDP growth of between 4.5 and 5 per cent this year and with positive prospects for the coming years also. We want to see the whole of Europe move onto a recovery path, and hope that Britain will continue to make itself heard as an advocate for reform and economic openness – within the European Union.