An Irish Perspective on the UK’s EU membership renegotiation

Dr Jane O'Mahony

As David Cameron’s efforts to secure a renegotiation deal shift up a gear following the European Council summit of December 2015, this post reviews the Irish Government’s perspective on the visions of EU reform as outlined by the Prime Minister in recent months. Viewing a British exit from the European Union (EU) as a ‘major strategic risk’ for Ireland, the Irish are strong supporters of continued UK membership of the EU and hence sympathetic to the UK Government’s renegotiation efforts. The Irish Government is broadly supportive of three of the main objectives of the UK’s membership renegotiation, namely enhancing competitiveness, sovereignty and subsidiarity and a formal setting out of the relationship between those within and outside the Eurozone as outlined by Prime Minister David Cameron in his Chatham House speech and letter to European Council President Donald Tusk. On proposed welfare reform, however, the Irish Government is more cautious given existing links between the two countries on freedom of movement and workers’ rights.

As outlined in its recent Foreign Policy White Paper, The Global Island: Ireland’s Foreign Policy for a Changing World, Britain’s continued membership of the EU is seen as of vital national interest to Ireland. Indeed, for the Irish it is extremely important that other EU member states recognise that Ireland has an important stake in the outcome of the negotiations given its unique historical ties with Britain and shared land frontier. For Ireland, a British exit from the EU would be seen to have significant negative consequences for Ireland’s economy, potentially negative implications for the political settlement in Northern Ireland and the loss of an important ally in EU negotiations.  It is in this context that Taoiseach Enda Kenny and other government ministers have signalled their willingness to support the UK government in its reform agenda as part of its EU membership renegotiation on numerous occasions, emphasising at the same time that any reforms agreed must be consistent with Ireland’s interests in the wider EU. In this respect the UK’s EU reform agenda is seen as an accommodation of national concerns (similar to the situations in Ireland following the referendum rejections of the Nice and Lisbon treaties in 2001 and 2008).


The UK Government wants to see a greater focus on efforts to boost competitiveness, growth and employment creation in the European Union. The Irish Government is strongly supportive of this goal, in particular of enhancing the single market, particularly in services, digital and also to a certain degree in energy. The TTIP negotiations were launched under the Irish EU Presidency in 2013 and as a highly globalised economy dependent on international trade, the Irish strongly support completion of trade agreements with the US, Japan and other developed economies in Asia and South America, in line with the European Commission’s new Trade Strategy launched in October 2015. The Irish labour market is already very flexible and the Irish Government also backs the REFIT and Better Regulation agendas, and in that context the enhancement of frameworks that reduce regulatory burdens on businesses. In sum, the Irish Government’s interests strongly chime with British priorities on these issues.


On the question of sovereignty, there are two main issues under discussion: ‘ever closer union (of peoples)’ and the enhancement of powers of national parliaments in EU decision-making. The Irish electorate has voted in nine EU-related referendums since 1972. ‘Ever closer union’ as concept has different meanings in different member states and while it has not been the explicit focus of contention in Irish referendum campaigns, further political integration in European security and defence has been contested due to Ireland’s policy of military neutrality. Given the flexibility Ireland already exercises as part of its EU membership, the Irish would not have difficulty with formal recognition of the specificities of Britain’s relationship with the EU, including its views on ‘ever closer union’ as they currently exist.

While the Irish parliament’s engagement with European Union policy-making has increased significantly in recent years, parliamentary scrutiny of EU legislation is relatively weak in comparative terms. Factors such as a powerful executive, a lack of resources, a heavy emphasis on constituency work for Irish MPs and limited visibility have mitigated against a more active role and the Irish Parliament’s take-up of the new powers granted to national parliaments with the Treaty of Lisbon has been relatively limited. It could be said that an enhanced role for national parliaments is not a key priority or high on the agenda of the Irish Government. In the 2011 Coalition Programme for Government pledged to put a binding scrutiny reserve system but this has yet to be implemented.

Nevertheless, the Joint Oireachtas (Parliament) Committee on European Union Affairs has signalled that it is open to the idea of enhancing the role of national parliaments in the pre-legislative phase of EU decision-making as developed in the Treaty of Lisbon, possibly under an enhanced yellow card system with new thresholds for activation of such cards and changes to time periods for consultation, as well as the enhancement of mechanisms for further cooperation amongst national parliaments. The preference at this juncture would be for any new reforms to be achieved in the first instance by inter-institutional agreement rather than through treaty change.

Relationship between Eurozone and Non-Eurozone countries

Following the financial crisis of 2008 and its 2010 bailout, the Irish government’s priority was to regain economic sovereignty through exiting the EC/ECB/IMF programme and securing economic recovery. The importance of Ireland’s membership of the Eurozone was amplified in this context. There is strong public support for the Euro in Ireland. That said, the Irish are mindful of British concerns in this area and would support the setting out of parameters for the relationship between member states within and outside the Eurozone that respect the positions of both sets of member states, as has been achieved with the Banking Union legislation. The Irish would be alert to the dangers of caucusing in this area but would also have reservations over the use of safeguard mechanisms such as ‘emergency brakes’ by non-Eurozone members to block proposed legislation deemed to favour the Eurozone over others.

Addressing Migration and Welfare

The close ties between Ireland and the UK are underpinned by a long history of migratory flows between the two countries, which post-independence took place through the Common Travel Area arrangement. Migrant flows between Ireland and the UK continue to be strong with approximately 400,000 Irish citizens currently living in the UK and UK nationals making up the second largest group of non-Irish nationals in Ireland (almost 230,000 British-born people live in Ireland according to the 2011 Census). Ireland’s experience of inward migration is relatively recent and reached a peak following the opening of its labour market to the new EU member states who joined in 2004. During the economic crisis, immigration declined significantly and the phenomenon of emigration returned as many Irish left the country for better opportunities abroad. While the number of Irish emigrating is now falling, it remains high, in spite of improved economic performance and falls in unemployment. The UK continues to be the most popular destination for emigrants of all nationalities leaving Ireland, the majority of those being in the 25-44 age bracket.

In the context of this close connection, the demand that as EU migrants, Irish citizens could also be denied in-work benefits as exist within the British system of social security, such as tax credits and housing benefit, for a period of four years would be viewed with alarm in Dublin, given long-standing historical reciprocity in certain welfare provision which pre-dates EU accession. The challenge thus is how to reconcile this demand with the fundamental principle within the EU’s single market that workers should not be discriminated against on grounds of nationality and at the same time address Irish-UK bilateral sensitivities on this issue.

While immigration as an issue is nowhere near as high on the list of public concerns in Ireland compared with the UK, a recent public opinion poll in Ireland pointed to one potential area of agreement between London and Dublin over welfare reforms: 70% of those polled were in favour of ending child benefit payments to migrants’ children who stayed in their home country. Such a change could potentially be made through a revision for example of Regulation 883/2004 of the European Parliament and of the Council on the coordination of social security systems (subject to co-decision) for instance.

Dr Jane O’Mahony, Senior Lecturer in European Politics and Global Europe Centre Associate

A longer version was published as part of the House of Lords EU Select Committee’s Visions of EU Reform Inquiry: