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Column: What would it mean for Ireland if the UK left Europe?

The British Prime Minister hopes to negotiate fundamental changes in his country’s membership of the European Union, but this would have profound consequences for this island, writes James Kilcourse.

James Kilcourse

THE UK AND Ireland joined the European Economic Community at the same time in 1973. Now, on the 40th anniversary of their membership, the possible withdrawal of the UK from the European Union is a matter of debate in Britain and across Europe.

While the UK has often been regarded as an “awkward partner” within the EU, its membership has not been called into question since the 1970s – the current state of affairs is therefore a dramatic deterioration in the country’s relationship with its EU partners.

One of the reasons for this crisis in the UK’s relations with the EU is the changing nature of the Union itself. The UK does not wish to participate in deeper European integration. As members of the single currency move towards banking, fiscal and economic union in order to overcome the Eurozone crisis, the UK is increasingly isolated within the EU and faces the prospect of being sidelined by a strengthened Eurozone.


This feeds into a second, domestic issue: unprecedented levels of Euroscepticism among the British public. The British media and Eurosceptic politicians feel vindicated and emboldened by the Eurozone crisis and have been increasingly assertive in calling for a change in the UK’s terms of membership of the Union, including outright withdrawal. Calls for a public vote on EU membership have become so loud and so widespread that it has become almost impossible for the Government to avoid the issue of a referendum.

Prime Minister David Cameron does not want to see the UK leave the EU and is opposed to a simple in/out referendum. His strategy is therefore to renegotiate the terms of Britain’s membership of the EU and, in doing so, to “repatriate” powers from Brussels in particularly contentious areas like employment law, justice and policing legislation, immigration policy, and financial regulation. This strategy assumes that Britain’s European partners will be willing to grant the UK significant treaty opt outs from the areas it dislikes. If they do, there is a risk that other Member States would demand similar treatment and this could cause the Union to unravel. If they do not, then the UK could make good on its threat to withdraw from the Union.

Implications for Ireland

The changing nature of relations between the UK and the EU poses a particular challenge for Ireland, as explained in the paper Towards an Irish Foreign Policy for Britain (IIEA, August 2012). With a trade flow of €1 billion per week between the two economies, the UK is Ireland’s largest trading partner. The economic, social and political ties that bind the two neighbouring states are further strengthened by the need to maintain peace and stability in Northern Ireland (this problem has not featured at all in the UK’s debate on the EU). The political situation in the North remains fragile and any big shift in the bilateral UK-Ireland relationship could generate complications in Northern Ireland and in North-South relations. Ireland’s relationship with the UK is therefore a priority for this state.

However, active membership of the EU is also a priority for Ireland. As a small, open economy that is heavily dependent on foreign investment, Ireland’s national interest is situated within the European single currency and single market. The Government has made it clear that Ireland is committed to being a member of “core Europe”. The key question then for Irish foreign policy is how it will balance relations with its two increasingly divergent partners: the UK and Europe.

If the UK decides to disengage further from the EU, or withdraw altogether, it would negotiate some sort of new relationship with Europe. For Ireland, the ideal outcome would be unhindered trade relations between the UK and the EU’s single market. However, if London seeks to opt out of areas like social and employment policy, which are seen by other Member States as intrinsic to the single market, this would be very difficult to achieve.


In a worst case scenario, this raises the possibility of tariffs being collected on the trade of certain goods between the UK and Ireland. As a member of the EU, Ireland would not be able to negotiate a bilateral trade agreement with the UK. Moreover, since immigration from new Member States is a key driver of anti-EU sentiment in Britain, it is possible that the movement of people between the UK and the EU would be curtailed. Any restrictions to the free movement of goods and people between the UK and Ireland could see the return of border controls between the Republic and Northern Ireland.

Aside from the fundamental issues of the free movement of goods and people, other important areas of cooperation between the two states could also be affected. For example, the UK is already considering an opt-out from a large number of the EU’s police and justice measures in 2014. This would have an impact on the efficiency and effectiveness of valuable police cooperation and would risk undermining the fight against cross-border terrorism. A UK outside of the EU could also undermine efforts to develop an all-island approach to areas like energy, environmental policy, health and tourism.

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Reaction in Europe

No EU Member State wants to see the UK leave the Union. As a strong supporter of free trade, the single market and enlargement, the UK has had an enormous impact on the development of the EU. Moreover, as a major economic and military power, it contributes significantly to the clout of the EU on the world stage. The reaction on the continent to the ongoing British debate has been one of exasperation and regret.

As a close partner of the UK with an unmatched level of social and cultural ties, Ireland could play an important role as a bridge between the UK and other EU states. Ireland could explain the UK’s concerns to countries that are less familiar with the terms of the British debate on Europe. Adopting such a role could help to improve the increasingly difficult relations between the UK and the rest of the EU at a time of great change and uncertainty.

The question of the UK’s membership of the EU will not be put to rest by David Cameron’s major speech on Europe. No matter what he promises, the Prime Minister cannot satisfy both his Eurosceptic backbenchers and his EU partners. This issue is set to run on for the foreseeable future and it is impossible to predict the outcome with any certainty. One thing, however, is certain: a British withdrawal from the EU would have profound consequences for this island.

James Kilcourse is a researcher at the Institute of International and European Affairs.

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James Kilcourse

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