Attitudes to EU Membership

There was rarely any evidence that Irish enthusiasm for European integration could be taken at face value as an expression of a European identity, but rather that it was essentially pragmatic and related to how much money Ireland could get out of membership. In 1997, political scientist, Tom Garvin, had argued that “Ireland has become a rather well plugged-in periphery of Europe and America rather than a periphery of Britain. She probably prefers it that way”. A Eurobarometer in 1994 revealed that 79% of the Irish surveyed responded positively to the question as to whether they viewed membership as a good thing, compared to 58% in the Community as a whole. That same year, Dermot Scott, an official in the EU Parliament, suggested that in Ireland, “for want of information, public opinion has not understood the EU and has therefore not genuinely taken the EU to its heart, having a somewhat semi-detached attitude, willing to go along, but having little knowledge or conviction about the goals of integration, little vision of what a European Union might become. The corollary is also true: that there seems to be little enough genuine opposition and that each dose of integration, however balefully received is swallowed and ingested, though the patient may scowl at the next spoonful.”

But that was to change, and by 2001, turnout for the Nice referendum was only 35% which resulted in the rejection of that treaty. In reacting to this, political commentator Dick Walsh suggested: “It has taken us 30 years to hold our most thorough debate on Ireland’s role in the EU and what Europe means to us.” The re-run of that referendum in October 2002 resulted in the passing of the Treaty after many pro-Europe heavyweights were drafted in to hammer home the message that Ireland was doomed if it was rejected again. Some on the No side had been consistently drawing attention to the undermining of Irish autonomy due to accelerating European integration. Anthony Coughlan argued in 1999 that with the embrace of the Euro and “by ceding to Brussles and Frankfurt the power to control credit in the economy, decide interest rates and the currency exchange rate, the politicians of our main parties are abandoning fundamental interests for advancing the Irish people’s welfare.”

There were certain trends and sentiments that were clear from the Nice campaigns and subsequently the referendums on the Lisbon Treaty, which was rejected in the first referendum in 2008 but passed in another referendum in 2009. Accusations of a ‘democratic deficit’, the deliberate marginalisation of smaller states by arrogant EU officials and an alleged undermining of Irish neutrality resulted in the assertion in 2008 by those campaigning against the Lisbon Treaty, that ‘The New EU Won’t See You, Won’t Hear You, Won’t Speak for You.’ The main political parties struggled to confront these sentiments effectively, while the no campaigners, though they made exaggerated and sometimes disingenuous claims, marketed their message much more effectively.

The longer Ireland was a member of the EU, the more questionable it became as to whether membership was a foreign policy issue at all; Irish interaction with the EU seemed to mark the blending of foreign and domestic policy making, a development further underlined by the acceptance of a severe austerity programme in return for EU/ECB and IMF support (see below, section 6). In 2010, Irish dependence on the EU was clear in terms of financing the state, but there was much confusion and uncertainty about Ireland’s status in the midst of domestic bankruptcy and international credit fears. In 2011, a leading historian of Irish foreign policy, Patrick Keatinge suggested: “‘among the major political and bureaucratic actors in this drama is an exotic mix of finance ministers and their officials, bankers both public and private, external institutions, as well as more remote and menacing entities, such as markets and investors…it is necessary to get to grips with the story of negotiations of a highly technical nature, conducted in terms of a grotesque mix of euphemism, denial and apocalyptic threat…it is a sobering realisation that in such an environment, the European Union itself is on the defensive. This is a crisis for the Euro as well as for Ireland’s financial and economic credibility. Amidst this confusion, positive attitudes towards EU membership- arguably the most significant Irish policy strategy of the past 50 years or so- can no longer be taken for granted. Adaptation to this situation in the short term has already involved negotiations from a position of great weakness in the context of a formal suspension of full economic sovereignty. Beyond that, there will be a need at the very least to restore a severely damaged international reputation …There are many imponderables in all this”.


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