Euroscepticism – a criticism or strong opposition towards the European Union – continues to rise throughout Europe according to the latest Pew Research Center statistics. The result of the British referendum in favour of leaving the EU has raised many questions concerning the future of the European Union, and has triggered fears of a resultant domino effect of other EU member states wishing to leave the European Union. It is well known that Euroscepticism is not solely confined to Britain; latest polls have shown that an overwhelming 61 per cent of the French population are Eurosceptic, followed closely by Spain, Germany and the Netherlands. How does Ireland rank among the 28 EU Member States? Is an Irexit in our future?
Despite the emergence of minor Eurosceptic trends in Ireland in recent decades, Eurostat research points to Irish satisfaction with the European Union.
Euroscepticism in Europe
In 2004, 69% of French voters and 58% of German voters backed the EU while not a single country reported a negative rating according to Pew Research Center findings. However, it appears that the opposite is now true.
Since the 1990s, when the EU began integrating political as well as economic issues into its agenda, several doubts have emerged regarding the legitimacy of EU actions. With more ambitious EU action, European citizens have grown more alarmed and suspicious of the European project.
For instance, only 26% of French and Italians believe that there are more advantages than drawbacks when it comes to their membership in the European Union. In the case of France, recent terror attacks have provoked claims that the European Union is incapable of providing security within its territory and of controlling its external borders. Similarly, almost half the electorate in Germany, Spain and the Netherlands have also become Eurosceptic.
The emergence of right-wing anti-EU parties in recent years and their surprising success in the European Parliament Elections in 2014 points to the disillusionment of citizens with the EU. As a consequence of the Brexit vote, many of these parties are now advocating a similar referendum in their respective countries including Marine Le Pen, the leader of the Front National in France and Geert Wilder of the Freedom Party in the Netherlands.
Ireland is predominantly favourable of the EU according to 2016 Eurobarometer findings whereby 58 per cent of respondents in Ireland have a positive image of the EU. Nonetheless, ambivalence towards European integration has taken shape in various forms in recent years.
Nice and Lisbon
Ireland’s relationship with the bureaucracy in Brussels has rarely been smooth. The initial negative results of the referendum for both the Nice (2001) and the Lisbon (2008) treaties portray Irish reluctance towards further integration and fears of its consequences. With regard to Lisbon, concern was raised primarily due to the proposed reduction of the size of the Commission and the integration of foreign affairs and security policy into the treaties. Nevertheless, it was still clear that Ireland wished to remain within the European Union. The Union pressured a decision to force second referendums, to solve what became known as the “Irish problem”, faced stark criticism among the Irish population, dubbed by many as undemocratic.
EU Commission’s Apple Ruling
More recently, some of Ireland’s Eurosceptics have used the European Commission’s contentious ruling on Apple’s tax arrangements here as a means of promoting the idea of “Irexit”. Stating that a “sweetheart tax deal” between Apple and the Irish state represents illegal state aid, the EU Commission have ruled that Apple owes Ireland €13 billion in unpaid taxes, sparking Irish objections to EU interference in taxation and policy making at a domestic level.
The Irish Government has pledged to appeal the Commission’s decision and it also affirmed its commitment to the 12.5 per cent corporation tax rate. They referenced EU treaties in stating that taxation remains a matter of national competence of EU member states. Concurrently Brian Hayes, a member of the European Parliament for the Fine Gael, voiced his concerns, explaining that EU efforts to dilute the country’s generous corporation tax regime could see the Republic following the UK. The government’s determination to appeal the Commission’s ruling is therefore a clear reflection of Eurosceptic feeling in Ireland towards the implications of integration on domestic taxation.
Economic and Social Transformations
Despite these indications of Euroscepticism, Ireland has always had one of the highest levels of public support for the EU among member states. Since its accession into the EU in 1973, Ireland’s membership has facilitated its transformation from an antiquated, agricultural economy into a highly developed modern economy driven by hi-tech industry and global exports. Nevertheless, Ireland was drastically hit by the 2008 financial crisis and certain eurosceptics claimed that the EU was partly to blame for the financial crisis. However, it must be noted that Irish recovery from the crisis was primarily aided by the EU/IMF financial assistance programme. Furthermore, 80% of respondents to the Eurobarometer 2016 poll remain in favour of the “European economic and monetary union with one single currency”.
Ireland is no longer a one horse town as such, but a thriving social and economic centre of excellence. Ireland’s membership in the EU has brought modernity and improved living standards to our small island. From an agricultural point of view, farmers benefit from direct payments amounting to €1.2 billion each year under the Common Agricultural Policy. Similarly, public transport, infrastructure projects and the Irish tourist industry have also benefitted tremendously from EU financial support.
In this way, it is hard to imagine from where Irish Euroscepticism could emerge given the complete social and economic transformations that have resulted from our membership in the European Union.
Eurosceptic Political Parties?
The absence of major anti-EU political parties in Ireland mirroring UKIP or the French “Front National” further portrays the positive Irish outlook towards European integration. Sinn Féin has often expressed its criticism of the EU particularly in relation depletion of Irish sovereignty, however it remains considerably pro-Europe in comparison to Eurosceptic parties in other countries. While political parties in Ireland have often questioned the implication of European policies on domestic affairs, not one party would openly advocated Irexit.
Is Irexit possible? Could Irish Eurosceptics that are hesitant to transfer national competencies to the European Union mount a campaign for an Irish exit from the EU? It is of course possible that objections towards the Commission’s Apple ruling may stir more outspoken opposition towards the EU, and could potentially lead to a more active movement of Euroscepticism in the future. However, it is unlikely that Irish pro-EU sentiment would take such a drastic hit that Ireland would be in favour leaving the European Union. The benefits have been outlined and are clearly stronger than any argument put forward in Ireland so far.