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Irish attitudes to Europe

, by Neil Warner

Ireland and Irish people generally seem to occupy a strange position with respect to the European Union, European integration and European culture. It could be summed up basically as a kind of mixture of positivity and indifference.

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In general, Irish people largely positive attitude towards the EU and European integration. Eurobarometer surveys prior to 2007 about people’s personal feelings towards the European Union consistently found that, at about 20-25%, the number of Irish people likely to feel “enthusiastic” or “very positive” about the EU was by far the highest in the union and more than double that of most other member-states. This number has declined quite dramatically in recent years, not surprisingly in light of Ireland’s current economic relationship with the EU, but results still indicate that Ireland is more positive towards Europe than most other countries. At over 60%, a higher proportion of people in Ireland are likely to see their country’s membership of the EU as a good thing than anywhere else except the Benelux countries.

Ireland’s positivity towards Europe is for a variety of reasons. For all that it is tainted by the experience of more recent years, Irish people are aware that Ireland’s membership of the European Union and the structural funds provided by the EU were crucial towards Ireland’s economic development. What’s more, it was only through its membership of the EU that Ireland was able to become fully independent economically from Britain: particularly after Ireland’s currency broke its parity with sterling after it joined the European Exchange Rate Mechanism in 1979.

Yet, paradoxically, a higher proportion of people in Ireland (at over 50%) are likely to see themselves as “Irish only” and not as European than anywhere else except in the UK. In a strange way Ireland’s generally positive sentiments sit on a wider base of apathy and ignorance towards European culture and its institutions, and even more so towards any sense of common European identity. In most European countries, the distance which most people feel both from the political processes of the EU and from any real sense European identity remains a crucial and fundamental problem for the European project, yet it would seem that this may be especially the case in Ireland.

This attitude is rather difficult to understand, but some possible factors in it can be identified. To begin with, even in terms of its domestic politics Ireland arguably suffers from an unusually weak public sphere – its political culture is dominated by localism and clientelism and the quality of national policy discussion is weak.

What’s more, the fact that English is our primary language means that we share an alternative common linguistic culture and community with other English-speaking industrialised countries. As my JEF-Ireland colleague, Eoghan Boyce, will point out in another article, the thousands of Irish people who have emigrated since our economic crisis have mostly travelled to other English-speaking countries –the UK, the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand – rather than elsewhere in Europe. Irish people generally tend to know far more politics in Britain than in fellow Eurozone members like France or Germany, let alone the institutions of the EU themselves, in spite of the fact that the latter three are all far more likely to directly affect Ireland these days than British politics is.

Ireland is also historically disconnected from the rest of the continent to an unusual degree. While most continental European countries have experienced repeated interactions with a wide range of neighbouring countries over the centuries, Ireland’s political and social history was up until recently largely been limited to an intense and repeated one-to-one interaction with our British neighbours (with other European countries only playing occasional walk-on parts). All of this has an upside too, in that the bitterness or mistrust that can come from a shared history is absent (another reason for the generally positive attitude towards Europe, perhaps). But it also means that we lack the common past from which a shared identity and understanding of things can be more easily built.

Finally, there is the simple matter of our geographical detachment as an island off the continent’s Western periphery - reinforced by the Europhobia of the UK that stands between us and the rest of the continent.

Irish people’s indifference and lack of awareness in relation to Europe is more than ironic in light of the fact that the key decisions affecting the Irish economy have been - to a far greater extent than in any other non-Southern member state - effectively determined at a European level over the last few years due to the supervision of Irish finances by the ECB, European Commission and IMF from 2010 to 2013. What’s more, the fate of the Irish economy remains largely dependent on what happens more broadly in Europe. In particular, the Irish economy’s reliance on exports leaves it especially subject to the state of the wider European economy while Ireland’s small size and difficult fiscal situation means that any kind of reflation that our still struggling economy could benefit from would have to take place at the European level.

In the long term, however, it seems difficult to imagine that this current situation can last. Institutional and cultural realities can remain detached for a long time, but ultimately the influence of one must be brought to bear on the other or the tension between them becomes unbearable. Ireland’s institutional and economic links to Europe, and our increasing interconnectedness with other Europeans, provide powerful tools for us to promote the country’s cultural integration with the rest of the union. We can also be hopeful that the increasing relevance of European parliamentary elections, for example through the nomination of Commission president candidates by European parties this year, will play a role in this in Ireland as elsewhere in Europe. However, it will require far greater energy, commitment and imagination on the part of those us advocating a greater sense of European identity before genuine progress will be made.

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