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Post-Brexit, who are Ireland's biggest allies in Europe?

There’s been a realignment – but what does that mean for Ireland’s future?

french-president-emmanuel-macron-meets-irelands-prime-minister-taoiseach-micheal-martin-in-dublin-ireland-august-26-2021-reutersclodagh-kilcoynepool On a recent visiting to Dublin, Emmanuel Macron pointed out that France is now Ireland's closest EU neighbour. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

WHEN IRELAND JOINED what was then the European Economic Community (EEC) in 1973, the Irish punt was still linked to the British pound.

It was only later during that decade that the link was seriously questioned, with Ireland joining the European Monetary System at its inception in March 1979.

The UK stayed outside the system and Ireland went on to join the Euro. Not only did the UK not join the Euro, Brexit ultimately ended its membership completely.

The tale is an example of how Ireland and the UK’s journeys within the European Union started from a similar point before diverging dramatically.

Brexit has thrown up all manner of complex questions for Ireland, among them how Ireland’s EU alliances could change in the absence of our nearest neighbour.

There are other questions too, such as the extent to which Ireland will actually miss the UK as an ally and to whom the country may look to instead. As with most things Brexit-related, the answer to the first question is that it’s complicated.

The UK was an important EU ally to Ireland in certain areas but not so in others. The two had much in common in their strong support of trade and the single market but, when it came to agriculture, the two were almost diametrically opposed.

The Common Agricultural Policy, which for years was perhaps Ireland’s central concern, saw the country align much more closely with the likes of France.

During the 1990s, as London began to distance itself from Brussels, Ireland and the UK were also at different ends of the spectrum as the UK tried to rein in EU budget spending. 

There was common ground of course, with the two countries often sharing a similar hesitancy to increased EU integration on defence. Ireland was keen to maintain its neutrality, with the UK suspicious of anything that might undermine its commitment to Nato. 

More practically, joint membership of the EU also assisted with the improved UK-Ireland bilateral relationship that led to the Anglo-Irish Agreement and, of course, the Good Friday Agreement. 

irelands-most-senior-brexit-negotiator-rory-montgomery-speaking-at-a-brexit-conference-at-the-aisling-hotel-in-dublin-to-examine-how-local-authorities-and-their-areas-may-be-impacted-by-brexit Rory Montgomery speaking at a Brexit conference in 2018. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

Rory Montgomery, a long-time diplomat and former Irish ambassador to the EU, says  there are “many examples” of how Ireland and the UK working together at EU level helped their bilateral relationship. 

First of all, it’s a question of politicians getting to know each other and establishing relationships, the most famous being Albert Reynolds and John Major, but there are many others as well. That’s the first point. 
Secondly, it meant that we had a common agenda. In other words, EU issues became a major part of a shared agenda, whether we agreed with each other fully or not. It means people having very substantive and meaningful talks about issues.
And then thirdly, at the official levels people would establish all sorts of connections. In my time I would have dealt with various British opposite numbers who would have gone on elsewhere. The Permanent Secretary of Treasury at the moment, he was my opposite number for a point, the former British Ambassador to Washington, the deputy head of Bank of England, and even in fact the great David Frost and I were opposite numbers back in 2004. And you can multiply this many times across all departments and at different levels. So the point is these are human connections and contacts. 

New alliances

In recent years, Ireland’s alliances across the EU have not so much shifted but have become more dynamic and been increasingly issue-dependent.

One European Commission official described Ireland’s approach to the building of alliances as being “pragmatic”, with the country aligning with others on a policy level rather than a nation state level.

In the context of the UK, the same official said that, even long before Brexit, the UK had been “turning itself into the black sheep of the EU” and that common interests with Ireland had been dwindling for many years. 

Instead, Ireland has been attempting to align with the Nordic nations of Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden on issues such as trade, education and culture.

The Nordic strategy is also evidenced by Ireland’s effort to gain observer on the Arctic Council, which also includes these countries. 

Denmark in particular has frequently been cited as a naturally ally for Ireland, as Dr Kathryn Simpson of Manchester Metropolitan University explains: 

The UK, Ireland and Denmark joined in that first wave of enlargement in 1973. Denmark has also had several ‘No’ votes to various EU referendums over the years, so has often been compared to Ireland in the past. But I think it’s also about trying to say, ‘right well, who is going to be our natural allies here?’, and I think that’s something the Irish government is still work trying to work out.

Ireland’s most important EU allies in recent years have perhaps been the ‘Benelux’ countries of Belgium, Netherlands and Luxembourg, with the latter two of particular note in joining Ireland in opposition to a proposed digital tax. 

Ireland’s late-in-the-day decision to agree to global OECD corporate tax reforms also pointed to where its priorities lie, with Estonia and Hungary the only other EU member states who left it so late to sign up. 

Big tech

PastedImage-89568 Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Tánaiste Leo Varadkar meeting in California in 2017. Twitter / LeoVaradkar Twitter / LeoVaradkar / LeoVaradkar

Data and big tech is another area where Ireland has taken an active approach to building alliances to protect its interests.

All EU member states have just signed up to the Digital Services Act and Digital Markets Act, which seek to increase oversight of big tech firms such as Facebook, Google and Apple. 

The DSA attempts to clamp down on illegal content, while the DMA is an effort to increase competition in a field dominated by US multinationals.

As part of the agreements, each EU member state will continue to take the lead in policing the firms based in their own country, despite efforts from France to change this. 

The EU’s long-held country-of-origin principle means that enforcement rules are handled by the national authority where a big company is based. France wanted other national regulators to be given greater power to intervene regardless of where a big tech firm is based. 

It was reported this month that Ireland joined Croatia, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Finland, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Slovakia and Sweden in successfully opposing France’s proposal.

Despite this small victory for Ireland and its allies, Montgomery believes issues around data and big tech will continue to be a sticking point for Ireland in the years to come. 

“With any luck if the OECD deal holds it should, for the time being at least, remove quite a lot of the pressure we’ve been under – because there’s been very serious pressure for quite a long time now both on the corporation tax rate but also on the question of whether we’re facilitating digital companies to essentially avoid tax.”

He adds: 

But over the period ahead there is the whole question of greater so-called “European strategic autonomy”, which essentially means building up European industries and being more open to taking protectionist measures against other countries. And I think potentially the way in which Europe approaches large US companies is going to be quite a flashpoint. Tax has been one of the big issues but it’s not the only issue and, especially when it comes to the digital economy, there are many concerns over data protection, the abuse on social media platforms and questions over anti-competitive practices. I think it’s quite likely that these will be the battlelines in periods ahead.  


glasgow-scotland-uk-2nd-november-2021-world-leaders-make-climate-change-speeches-at-cop26-in-glasgow-they-spoke-during-the-world-leaders-summit-accelerating-clean-technology-innovation-and-dep Boris Johnson and Ursula von Der Leyen at COP26 in Glasgow. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

If Ireland’s story within the EU was an opportunity for the country to increasingly demonstrate its autonomy from the UK, Brexit certainly hammered that message home. 

Irish officials in Brussels say there are no positives from Brexit but it has at least put the country’s interests front and centre and demonstrated a cross-European unity in protecting them.

The ongoing debate over the Northern Ireland Protocol follows the mechanism formerly known as the backstop and the red line known as a hard border.

All of these Irish issues were given international prominence and have surely assisted in highlighting the negotiation skills of Irish diplomats. They have also shown that the country has determined allies in the ashes of Brexit. 

Fine Gael MEP Frances Fitzgerald says she has been “struck again and again” by the level of understanding EU colleagues have shown but that it may be some time before Brexit is conclusively resolved.

“Somebody described the whole Brexit thing as being like an earthquake and we’re still in the aftershock period, so it’s going to take five to ten years for things to really settle down,” she says. 

Brexit, the Protocol, Article 16 and not getting clarity and finishing the negotiations… when they’re all finished, we’re not going to get a calmness in the Ireland-UK relationship – it’s changed.  

Simpson agrees and says the UK’s unsuccessful attempts to essentially “pit member states against one another” during early Brexit negotiations showed the strength of EU alliances and Ireland’s in particular.

“I think there would have been an expectation from the UK side in the initial stages of Brexit negotiations to kind of disunite the EU and try and pit member states off one another, and that has definitely not happened and still continues not to happen to this day. Even with current concerns over the Protocol; the EU is a bloc and it’s 27 and it’s firmly behind Ireland.”

This work is co-funded by Journal Media and a grant programme from the European Parliament. Any opinions or conclusions expressed in this work is the author’s own. The European Parliament has no involvement in nor responsibility for the editorial content published by the project. For more information, see here.

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