Two tribes: Why Britain fell out of love with the EU and why Ireland didn't

With Britain set to exit the EU on Friday, economist Kevin O'Rourke argues that we need to stop congratulating ourselves for being progressive Europeans and start confronting the EU's many problems

United front: A group photo taken on January 22, 1972 at the signing by Ireland, Denmark, Norway and the UK of the Treaties of accession to the EEC in Brussels. Former Taoiseach Jack Lynch is front row, second from right. Photo: Getty Images

A very fine mess: Boris Johnson's personal ambition and lack of political scruples is just one factor why Britain is leaving the EU on Friday

Kevin O'Rourke's 'A Short History of Brexit'.

thumbnail: United front: A group photo taken on January 22, 1972 at the signing by Ireland, Denmark, Norway and the UK of the Treaties of accession to the EEC in Brussels. Former Taoiseach Jack Lynch is front row, second from right.  Photo: Getty Images
thumbnail: A very fine mess: Boris Johnson's personal ambition and lack of political scruples is just one factor why Britain is leaving the EU on Friday
thumbnail: Kevin O'Rourke's 'A Short History of Brexit'.

The past three-and-a-half years have been extraordinary. The spectacle of our nearest neighbours making a holy show of themselves has been both riveting and deeply worrying. It has also led many Irish people to reassess not only their view of Britain, but their view of Ireland as well. Once again, it seems, we are defining ourselves in terms of the differences between our own and the neighbouring island. And the difference that matters most today is our respective attitudes towards Europe. The British may be leaving the EU but we will remain enthusiastic members. This difference feeds into a national narrative of a progressive new Ireland, open and European, that is implicitly and explicitly contrasted with a backward-looking and populist United Kingdom.

There is something to be said for this perceived contrast. A recent survey found that 81pc of Irish respondents felt that their country's membership of the EU was a good thing. This made them, along with Luxembourgers, the most pro-EU of European citizens - the mean response across all countries being only 59pc. In sharp contrast only 42pc of British citizens felt the same way about UK membership, with 24pc - the highest figure across all member states - saying that it had been a bad thing.

This Irish enthusiasm can easily be explained by the impact that EU membership has had on the country. Irish economic growth during the quarter century following World War II was extremely disappointing. It was poor not only during the protectionist 1950s, but during the more open 1960s as well. This was a decade of strong convergence within Europe: poorer countries such as Italy, Portugal and Spain experienced economic miracles, catching up on richer, slower-growing countries such as Germany. Despite its Mediterranean income levels Ireland only managed to grow as rapidly as much richer countries like Sweden, falling ever further behind continental economies such as France. It was a truly dismal performance.

Membership of the EU in 1973 changed all that. Almost immediately Ireland stopped losing further ground to France, and while a series of domestic policy mistakes delayed it by 15 years our economic miracle came eventually. It was based on multinational investment using Ireland as a platform from which to export to the European customs union and - from the 1990s onwards - Single Market.

A very fine mess: Boris Johnson's personal ambition and lack of political scruples is just one factor why Britain is leaving the EU on Friday

Even better from an Irish point of view, these economic gains, made possible by the EU's pooling of national sovereignty in certain areas, did not come at the expense of effective political sovereignty - quite the reverse. From being an economic and political backwater Ireland became one of nine - later 28 - independent member states sitting around a common negotiating table. It could now engage with the UK on a far more equal basis than previously. It was able to leverage its EU membership to pursue Irish interests more effectively than they had ever been pursued before. This political benefit was illustrated in dramatic fashion during the negotiations with Britain about the future of the Irish land border: Ireland enjoyed the solidarity of its EU partners much to the surprise and occasional irritation of some in London.

Political sovereignty

As a bigger country, with its own independent nuclear deterrent, a permanent seat at the UN Security Council, and a former empire, the United Kingdom had less to gain from EU membership, and more to lose, when it came to political sovereignty. Or at least that is what many in Britain thought, and there was always in that country an allergic reaction to anything that smacked of supranational decision-making: what if the UK were to find itself on the losing side of a binding vote and had to implement a policy to which it objected?

A bigger country had more to lose than a small one such as ours. But on the other hand it is striking that both France and Germany, the former just as powerful diplomatically and militarily as Britain, and the latter far more powerful economically, have always taken the view that EU membership enhances, rather than diminishes, their influence on the world stage. Why would it not? I can recall once attending a lunchtime event at the British Academy on the UK's soft power - this was well before Cameron's ill-fated referendum. There was plenty of talk of the BBC, and the British Council, and Britain's universities, but at no stage did anyone suggest leveraging Britain's membership of the European Union to enhance the country's influence outside the bloc. When the Irishman stuck up his hand and suggested that this was a little odd, people looked quite puzzled.

So there is a certain British exceptionalism that helps explain Brexit. It is also true that European integration was traditionally understood far more in economic terms, and far less in political terms, in Britain than in other European countries. This was true even among many British pro-Europeans, which helps explain why the Remain campaign in 2016 was so negative, focused almost entirely on the economic costs of leaving the EU, rather than on making the positive case for European integration.

But you can overstate the difference between the UK and Ireland. It is true that the UK joined the EEC for economic rather than political reasons - the 1950s and 1960s were disappointing in that country also. While politicians could claim quite truthfully that people had never had it so good, Britain found itself being overtaken by France and Germany. The contrast between cosseted and inefficient British firms, and their highly competitive German counterparts, eventually became too striking to ignore, and the hope was that by exposing the British economy to continental competition, its firms would eventually emulate their overseas counterparts.

But Ireland also joined the EEC for overwhelmingly economic reasons - primarily the fear of being excluded from the British market that was so important to us at the time. If it joined the EEC then we would have to also. EU membership may have ended up enhancing Irish sovereignty but at the time that was not the main consideration: indeed, the decision to join was a reflection of our limited effective sovereignty in an era when we were still very much in the UK orbit. And its economic benefits have surely been the major reason why European integration has been so popular in Ireland.

You can overstate the extent to which the UK is anti-European. The 2016 referendum was won and lost by a very tight margin: if just 635,000 people had voted Remain instead of Leave then Brexit would have faded from our vocabulary and I would not be writing this article. It took a complex combination of circumstances, including Europe's Eurozone and refugee crises, Chinese import competition, George Osborne's austerity, Russian interference, British imperial nostalgia, and Boris Johnson's personal ambition and lack of political scruples, to deliver the final result. It could very easily have gone the other way.

EU's Many problems

As for ourselves: we have decided that our future lies as an independent member of the European Union rather than as a junior partner to a deeply troubled United Kingdom. It is therefore in our interest that the EU work as effectively as possible. Responding to Brexit hubristically, focussing only on the many positive aspects of EU membership that the UK will miss out on, congratulating ourselves for being so much more enlightened than they, and ignoring the EU's many problems, would be the worst response possible. And the measure of our commitment to Europe will be the extent to which we play a constructive role in helping to solve those problems rather than defending the status quo.

Some reforms ought not be controversial, even in Ireland. Who here could deny that EMU requires a proper banking union? That we need proper rules to wind down failed banks and protect the taxpayer, and EU-level deposit insurance to help prevent bank runs in countries that get into trouble? But other much-needed reforms may be more difficult politically. The French are surely right to argue that in a monetary union some degree of fiscal union is important: it is what mainstream English-speaking economists have been saying for years. If there had been a fiscal union during the crisis, austerity would have been less severe: would that not have been a good thing?

Even more controversially: It is no longer morally or politically sustainable to argue that multinationals should be facilitated in their tax avoidance strategies. The result is overstretched public services in our partner countries, with labour being asked to pay a disproportionate share. Having argued for years that the OECD is the right place to sort out the issue, we now need to make sure that it is sorted out. And then there is the security agenda which neither Europe nor Ireland can ignore, given that the US is becoming an increasingly unreliable partner. Ireland received a lot of help during its Brexit crisis from our Baltic partners. We owe it to them to support any European efforts that may be made to provide them with the security that they deserve.

It is by our actions on issues such as these that our claim to be pro-European will ultimately be judged.

Kevin O'Rourke is Professor of Economics at NYU Abu Dhabi and the author of 'A Short History of Brexit: From Brentry to Backstop' (Pelican 2019)