Book Review: Published in The Irish Times, Saturday 27th June 2015
This book is more likely to be covered in highlighter pen than sunscreen, and on desks rather than sunloungers. But, like the most popular summer books, it’s all about relationships.
The past, present and future of the United Kingdom’s relationship with the European Union are told through an Irish prism. This is also a political thriller, with the authors exploring the political motives of all sides. Published by the Institute of International and European Affairs, this is the third instalment of a gripping tale.
For most people the institute came to prominence lately when Jean-Claude Trichet, the former president of the European Central Bank, attended one of its events and answered questions from the Committee of Inquiry into the Banking Crisis. The think tank has published books on international and European affairs for nearly 25 years, and with this it has delivered another high-quality study.
This is the third in Paul Gillespie’s series of studies into the relationship, and this time he is editing with Dáithí O’Ceallaigh, a former Irish ambassador in London and current chair of the Press Council.
Gillespie (a former foreign-policy editor of The Irish Times) and O’Ceallaigh have divided the 18 chapters into five sections detailing the issues, the options for change, the implications for Ireland, the implications for Britain and Europe, and, finally, a road map for future negotiations.
We are treated to a history of the UK’s relationship with the EU. One of the contributors, Tony Brown, believes Britain could have tried harder to empathise with its European partners. We’re told that debate in Britain is often dominated by Eurosceptic voices. What is described as the “right-wing press” supports the British strain of exceptionalism while articulating separation between the UK and EU. This has lead to a lack of an emotional connection between UK voters and the EU.
O’Ceallaigh points to how the debate has undergone a fundamental change since the economic crisis, the rise of Ukip, the dominance of immigration as an election issue and the election of Conservative governments.
A fascinating chapter explores nationalism within Britain and asserts that continental governments believe it may be impossible to match the needs of a resurgent English identity with the EU’s four freedoms of movement, involving goods, services, capital and labour.
The the UK’s internal-sovereignty questions are teased out in a way that is often ignored. A UK exit from the EU could have serious consequences for Northern Ireland, particularly if an independent Scotland is pursued.
The impact on the North is a major theme, and Dr John Bradley explores it in a dedicated chapter. He argues that policymakers in Stormont need to imaginatively respond to the UK-EU relationship and that policymakers in the South need to look at the consequences for Northern Ireland seriously.
Diagrams, charts and bullet points make the geopolitical concepts accessible througout the book. Helpfully, the authors have combed the speeches and writings of David Cameron, the British prime minister, to distil his negotiation points. Each is tested to see if it can be met in the dynamics of European politics.
We then come to the heart of the book. The founder and chairman of the Institute of International and European Affairs, Brendan Halligan, sets out the four options for Britain: fully in, half in, half out and fully out. These follow the style of the previous books in the series, setting out descriptive and catchily named possible scenarios.
Fully in – a “more hypothetical than real” option – involves the UK joining the euro and the Schengen Area and signing up to the Fiscal Compact.
Half in involves the UK not joining the euro but taking a positive role in policy at the top table. This is likened to the position held by Sweden and Denmark and advocated, we’re told, by the Liberal Democrats and most of the Labour Party.
Half out is the UK stepping back from European integration and putting distance between itself and the euro zone while copper-fastening the integrity of the single market. The UK’s existing opt-out from the justice and home-affairs legislation is given as an example of how this might work. We are told that this option appeals to the majority of the Conservative Party.
Fully out would see the UK withdraw from the EU and seek a bilateral free-trade agreement.
The implications for Ireland jump off the pages of the following chapters, and the book turns into a page-turner as the knock-on effects become apparent. Whether Ireland takes a reactive, proactive or interpretative stance is explored. Tom Arnold, the former chief executive of Concern Worldwide (and current chairman of the Irish Times Trust), is stark in his chapter’s conclusions. Ireland, he says, must walk a tightrope between remaining a committed and core member of the EU while maintaining strong relations with the UK.
The most fascinating chapter comes from Prof Edgar Morgenroth of the Economic and Social Research Institute, who describes the economic consequences for Ireland if the UK exits the EU, focusing on trade, energy and foreign direct investment. This offers a mixed bag. The harm to trade could be balanced by the relocation to Ireland of foreign direct investment, but the damage to the energy market tips the scale. A Brexit is bad for the Irish economy. The harm applies to Britain, too, and not just economically. Prestige and influence are cited as its biggest potential losses.
The editors have drawn together 10 authors, from very different fields, while having a consistent narrative. It truly is a diverse set of authors: Blair Horan, the former general secretary of the Civil and Public Services Union, writes an excellent chapter on the trade-union perspective in the UK and Ireland; John McGrane of the British-Irish Chamber of Commerce offers an insightful business perspective.
This is a must-read book if you’re interested in Irish, UK or European politics. But the appeal of this edition of Gillespie’s trilogy goes way beyond that. Anyone with an interest in Northern Ireland, business and trade, agriculture, travel and tourism, trade unionism, nationalism and economics will find this a gripping read.
A host of unknowns lies ahead, but one thing is for certain: this is a relationship that will deliver more drama than Mills and Boon.