Sunday 26 January 2020

No more clinging to coat-tails of our bigger neighbour in Europe

Two men dressed as customs officers during a protest at Stormont yesterday. Photo: Getty
Two men dressed as customs officers during a protest at Stormont yesterday. Photo: Getty
John Downing

John Downing

A good decade before Ireland even joined the European project, we were already the meat in the EU-UK sandwich.

On January 19, 1963, French President Charles de Gaulle announced that he was vetoing Britain's application to join the then-European Economic Community (EEC). General de Gaulle, perennially suspicious of London, had taken serious umbrage at Britain's decision to forge a nuclear alliance with the US.

Mr de Gaulle reasoned that if Britain wanted to be a "US satellite" it could not be European as well.

Ireland had formally applied to join the EEC in January 1962 and the modernising taoiseach Seán Lemass had visited Brussels and all the capitals of the six founder-member states. Months after the formal application, the Irish journalist Desmond Fisher interviewed European commission president Walter Hallstein. He showed him Ireland's formal application dossier, which remained unopened in a drawer.

Mr Hallstein did not put a tooth in the matter. He did not need to read Ireland's application. If Britain got in, Ireland followed; Britain could perhaps join on its own - but Ireland could not.

So Mr de Gaulle's 1963 veto automatically sank Ireland's application. And that meat in the sandwich scenario would repeat itself many times.

Ireland, Denmark and the UK joined the EEC in January 1973 after the retirement and death of Mr de Gaulle. The British historian Tony Judt later noted the economies of the two smaller nations were "umbilically linked to that of the UK".

There are strong grounds for the arguing that the UK's heart was never really in the EU project. But Britain soldiered on, as a sort of internal loyal EU opposition, for over four decades. Opinion was heavily divided about whether it should be so involved. Now it wants a definitive "opt-out".

While Britain was often an ally with whom we could make common cause in Europe, we also had to make tricky decisions when the EU road forked and Britain took a different course.

The first real stand-out dilemma came in 1979 when the European Exchange Rate Mechanism was launched. Britain stood aloof from the project - but Ireland joined.

That choice meant a break in the link with sterling, which had existed since the foundation of the Irish State, leading to the creation of the so-called 'punt', which had a different value to the British pound. It caused much debate and repeated tensions as values fluctuated, impacting on imports from and exports to Britain.

It was not all negative stuff from Ireland's point of view. In 1991 EU leaders agreed the Maastricht Treaty, which made huge advances on several fronts.

Britain opted out of the so-called social chapter of the Maastricht document which was signed up to by the other 11 member states. The Dublin Government was suspicious of the social provisions, fearing they would deter multinational investment and job creation.

But Britain's hard-bargaining before they opted out diluted the provisions enough to allay Irish fears.

Entry into the euro was again another major staging post. In the mid-1990s Ireland did not implement the abandonment of systematic passport controls under the so-called Schengen initiative. The explanation given at the time was that Britain's refusal to take part risked impacting on the common travel area with Ireland, now a huge issue for these Brexit negotiations.

It is the fate of small countries to be pulled this way and that by the bigger ones. They must forge alliances, assert their position, and shamelessly coat-tail the bigger beasts to achieve what they want. It is the daily realpolitik of many EU negotiations.

Ireland has done all that successfully on many occasions. It has often been tricky and unpleasant - but up to now it worked.

But as these Brexit negotiations finally kick off, we are in uncharted waters.

Irish Independent

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