Ideas on Europe

Ireland and the European Union – Much More than Brexit - Ideas on Europe

Ireland and the European Union – Much More than Brexit - Ideas on Europe

For our weekly “Ideas on Europe” editorial by UACES, the University Association for European Studies, we have a very special guest today, Dr Kathryn Simpson from Manchester Metropolitan University. Dear Kathryn, welcome back to euradio!

How nice to speak with you again. I was stagiaire at euradio in both 2008 (following my Erasmus Year at Sciences-Po Rennes) and in 2010 (while studying my Masters degree at the University of Bath/Sciences-Po Paris).

That’s right. If I remember well, In 2008, you covered the Irish “No” vote at the referendum on the Lisbon Treaty for us.

Yes, as an intern working in the newsroom at euradio, I interviewed the then Minister for European Affairs Dick Roche. In the interview, Minister Roche stated that a second referendum on the Lisbon Treaty was necessary for Ireland to remain at the heart of the EU. This was a bit of a scoop for Euradio as his comments were picked up by Ireland’s national broadcaster RTE and the BBC! And turned out to be true, as Ireland did hold a second referendum on the Lisbon Treaty in October 2009.

And then you joined us again in 2010.

At your request! I spearheaded a new programme “English for Everyone” – an afternoon magazine show that covered a wide range of topics; music, politics, culture, sport – from across the EU. I had the opportunity to produce the programme, get to grips with the technical side of radio production and made the programme my own. I thoroughly enjoyed it and worked with a phenomenal team, but I realised that a career in journalism wasn’t what I wanted to pursue.

And now you have become a well-known academic!

In 2011 I started studying my PhD in Politics and Government at the University of Kent in Canterbury, and the rest, they say, is history!

My research today focuses on public opinion, political behaviour and attitudes towards the EU, in particular in Ireland and the UK. And more recently, of course, in the context of Brexit.

So, let us know your perspective on Ireland’s relationship with the EU.

It used to seem so simple. European integration was good for Ireland, and Ireland was a good European, that was the mainstream consensus. In the run-up to the 2009 European election, several European and Irish leaders described Ireland as being ‘at the heart of Europe’. 

However, that pro-European consensus was already under strain, as shown by the 2008 referendum we mentioned. And the 2009 European Parliament election took place on the cusp of a dramatic transformation of Ireland’s and Europe’s circumstances.

I presume you refer to the global financial crisis?

Exactly. The crisis had a specific impact on the eurozone countries. This was followed by a succession of foreign policy challenges in the near neighbourhood of the EU, stemming from the consequences of the Arab Spring uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa in the early 2010s and from the Ukrainian Revolution of 2014, not to mention the migration crisis of 2015. All this contributed to the rise of populist parties in many EU countries, which played into the Brexit referendum in the UK in 2016. And these inter-linked crises created an over-arching crisis of EU governance.

My recent book Ireland and the European Union: Economic, Political and Social Crises, examines how Ireland’s relationship with the EU was affected by this succession of crises. Maybe I should say “relationships”, since the book looks both at the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. The various crises were not of equal significance. The financial crisis was a huge issue for the Republic but less so for Northern Ireland; Brexit had a major impact in both polities; the migration and populism issues were less controversial; and the foreign policy challenges had a minimal impact.

One of the interesting features of Irish politics during the financial crisis was a more nuanced public understanding of the EU – critical of austerity but more appreciative of other social dimensions of the EU. This suggests an evolution in Irish public opinion about the EU. There is an apparent contradiction; that Ireland always registers among the most pro-EU countries in general opinion surveys, despite the fact that it has on several occasions voted against EU treaties. During the financial crash and the Brexit crisis, there was no discernible “Irexit” effect in Irish public opinion. Although the Irish public continues to show levels of knowledge of the EU that are lower than the EU average, their overall attitudes remain positive, and this was strengthened after Brexit.

So, what do you expect for the future?

For a long time, Ireland was seen as a pro-European country, one that had benefitted from many EU policies and programmes. The analyses in this book suggest that there is now a more questioning dimension to the relationship, but at the same time the broad outlook remains pro-European. In particular, Brexit has served to underline Ireland’s commitment to, if not dependency on, the EU. 

However, there are several potential problems which could disrupt that commitment. Brexit has changed relations between the Republic and Northern Ireland, and between Ireland and Britain, in ways that are still far from known. The EU is also still changing, with emerging calls for deeper integration. While Ireland is generally supportive of further integration, developments in areas such as defence cooperation and tax harmonisation would cause problems. Finally, the global situation is constantly evolving, and issues such as climate change, health security and de-globalisation could also have a major impact on future Irish-EU relations.

“Ideas on Europe” will be back next week, and we will welcome Kathryn Simpson, from Manchester Metropolitan University.