As a former colony with a strong sense of independence, Ireland’s willingness to pool its hard-won sovereignty in the European Union has most often been explained as a necessary trade-off between formal sovereignty and effective sovereignty. When Ireland joined the European Communities (EC) it had all the formal attributes of a sovereign, independent state but it was in fact an underdeveloped economic appendage of Britain. Over the course of the next quarter century, Irish policy makers took full advantage of EC membership – and the financial transfers associated therewith – to create one of the most successful economies in Europe. It delivered full employment, European chart-topping growth rates and a modern, internationally traded industrial and service-based economy grounded in the successful attraction of high levels of foreign direct investment.
That comparative economic success was achieved in the teeth of substantial reversals. The repeated recessions of the 1980s and the economic collapse of 2008 may have been triggered by external forces, but the associated damage caused to the Irish economy and society was largely a function of poor domestic public policy choices. Ireland’s experience is thus one which asks how smaller states can best deploy their limited effective sovereignty in pursuit of national interests and values.
The starting point to such an analysis is well understood; in a jungle, the big beasts prosper. Thus, if a small state is to succeed in the wilds of globalisation, its best strategy is to contribute to the strengthening of the rule of law and to subscribe to the governance provided by multilateral institutions. In an interdependent and globalised world, therefore, it makes sense for smaller states to find their anchorage in a well defended multilateral harbour. Here, the European Union is something of a poster child. The EU’s nature is characterized by its commitment to the rule of law underpinned by a strong, independent legal framework.
Set against that legal equality of course is the fact that the Union is also a polity. While that polity is ruled by law, the power of its constituent political actors – states – still matters. While courts defend the law of the Union, member states have a central role in the writing of that law. Small states must, therefore, define and pursue strategies giving them maximum influence in making that law. To this end, Irish policy makers are said to have developed an EU policy style which is ‘consensual, collegial and pragmatic’ (Laffan and O’Mahony 2003:13) while also positioning themselves politically at the heart of European construction. This has been designed – over several decades of trial and error – to marry Irish political tradition to the practice of European diplomatic politics. Policy prioritisation, too, has been key with the three key government departments (Finance, Foreign Affairs and the Department of the Taoiseach) working closely to set key objectives and marshalling institutional resources to those ends. A broad cross-party policy consensus on most of those key issues has entailed limited deviation from government to government.
While the style of Irish politics – informal, accessible, personalised – has been successfully transposed to the European stage, the substance of the strategy is also key. Something of a mantra in Ireland’s EU membership has since developed: that Irish interests are best defended in the equal application of EU law, in the use of the ‘community method’ of decision-making (in most, but not all policy areas) and in the defence of the central role of the European Commission as guardian of the treaties and initiator of legislation. By the same token, Irish policy-makers have been cautious about the development of the European Council, generally sceptical about the utility of the national veto (again, with notable and specific exceptions) and cool towards additional powers being granted to the European Parliament.
This approach has not gone unchallenged and public attitudes have been more nuanced. Irish opponents of EU treaty change for example, have insisted that moves to towards greater qualified majority voting (QMV), the associated loss of national policy vetoes, the reweighting of national voting strengths in the Council and diminished representation in the European Parliament were all inimical to Irish interests (O’Mahony 2009). The proposed loss of the automatic right to nominate a member of the European Commission in the 2007 version of the Lisbon Treaty was an issue of particularly high public salience for voters in deciding initially to reject its ratification. The retention of that seat was a significant part of the package leading to a positive second vote on that treaty in 2009.
On the core institutional debates, Ireland has been described as ‘a constructive and communautaire EU member state’ (O’Mahony 2009:439) and ‘a model member state…close to the heart of the European project’ (Hayward 2013: 131). At the same time, Irish policy makers have never been starry eyed idealists. Their commitment to European construction is core to Irish political and economic self-interest. Irish policy-makers have also been tactically adept at translating political capital generated within European institutions into policy deliverables such as long derogations from problematic legislation, special consideration for Irish policy idiosyncrasies or simply general support for a free trading state at the European periphery, most especially in the context of Brexit. For EU policy makers, Ireland has proven to be an adept pupil and one whose successes (and its more recent failures) offer apposite lessons for other peripheral states seeking successfully to leverage their EU membership.
The Irish European policy model has been less adept at marrying its European ambitions with domestic politics. So long as Ireland was a net beneficiary from its EU membership, domestic European debates remained shallow and narrowly focused. Tangible economic self-interest rested at the heart of European debates. The executive-centred nature of Irish central government (O’Brennan 2012) and the exceptionally weak nature of local government were both worsened by European policy structures. As one of the most pro-European populations, however, it is striking the extent to which Irish popular support remains transactional and on two occasions has resulted in the failure of proposals for treaty change.
Ireland’s EU membership has delivered tangible and remarkable returns in both material prosperity and national self-confidence. It has done so though a strategy of positive political engagement, commitment to core institutional principles, sharp tactical focus and a consensus on key policy priorities. On the other hand, Irish policy-makers stand accused of lacking strategic vision and playing to the short term while the Irish public remains semi-detached and only passively engaged in their European journey. Brexit will undoubtedly shape the next chapter in Ireland’s European story and test whether the ‘island behind the island’ can transcend its geography to define its future.
Hayward, Katy. “Irish nationalism and European integration: the official redefinition of the island of Ireland.” (2013).
Laffan, Brigid, and Jane O’Mahony. “Managing Europe from home: the Europeanisation of the Irish core executive.” Report of the Irish Case Study (2003).
O’Mahony, Jane. “Ireland’s EU referendum experience.” Irish Political Studies 24, no. 4 (2009): 429-446.
This blog is published in the context of SCER’s 2019-20 research programme on ‘small states in the EU, lessons for and from Scotland’. This is a project with, and supported by, University College London’s European Institute, within their Jean Monnet Centre of Excellence Programme 2019-2022, co-funded by the Erasmus+ programme of the European Commission.