„I think the Irish saw the EU as a way of modernizing Ireland” said Professor Brigid Laffan from the University College of Dublin.
On a beautiful early summer’s day three years ago, Dublin hosted the formal ceremony to welcome EU enlargement. The leaders of the existing member states were there to welcome the newcomers on board. Seamus Heaney, the poet and Nobel laureate, recited a poem to a large, enthralled audience in the city’s Phoenix Park. For observers, the venue was wonderfully symbolic.
Many feel that Ireland is Europe’s shining success story, a place transformed during its EU membership from one of the continent’s poorest members to the top of the league. And a place where there is, despite hiccups, enormous enthusiasm for the European project. Since that day, 1 May 2004, it could be argued that Ireland has seen more change than any other EU country as a direct result of enlargement. A country once renowned for its outward migration, its citizens seeking better lives abroad, it has become one of immigration.
Ireland is an economic magnet for many thousands of Eastern European workers. Walk amongst the shoppers of Henry Street, and many of the voices you’ll hear are Polish. Ireland’s economy has been further stoked by the arrival of those migrant workers. Few would contend that Ireland has done anything but well out of its EU membership. You would be hard pushed to hear the sort of euroskepticism on the streets of Dublin, Galway, Cork or Waterford that you might find next door in the UK. Opinion polls reflecting attitudes towards the EU and its institutions usually place the Irish towards the top - positive, even enthusiastic Euro-citizens.
Why, some abroad might ask, would you want to criticize something that has served you so well? But a sure-fire way to annoy a senior Irish politician is to suggest that Irish economic success is mainly down to the funds that have come to Ireland from Brussels. Other vital factors have to be taken into consideration: they include government policy, such as keeping corporation tax low compared to the rest of the EU; a flexible, well-educated, English-speaking workforce; and an entrepreneurial spirit that has driven Irish businesses forward (see Ryanair, for example).
And, the Irish would argue, Europe has done well out of Ireland as well: the Irish have brought much to the party themselves through the success of their businesses, for example, or the vibrancy of their culture, the creativity of their artists and musicians, or the work of their diplomats or NGOs. Professor Brigid Laffan is research director at the Dublin European Institute at University College Dublin.
She compares EU funding to scaffolding, supporting the rest of the investment framework. She believes that rather than being dewy-eyed €-believers, the Irish are simply very pragmatic. Prof Laffan said: „I think there’s a widespread and deep-rooted acknowledgement that the EU has been good to Ireland. Ireland was always profoundly pragmatic over Europe. I have never bought the ‘love affair’ analysis. I think the Irish saw the EU as a way of modernizing Ireland.”
Ireland hasn’t always gone with the flow on European matters, however. In 2001, to almost universal surprise around Europe, Irish voters rejected the Nice Treaty on EU enlargement in a referendum. Another referendum was held the following year, and the result reversed. Some pointed out that rather than demonstrating skepticism, the defeat was down to a badly-run campaign. The campaigns did, however, reveal Irish sensitivity towards its military neutrality, something it wants to preserve. And it reminded the political class that nothing - not even euro-enthusiasm - could be taken for granted.
In addition, Prime Minister Bertie Ahern has not been afraid to dig his heels in on EU issues. He opposes tax harmonization across the EU, which would mean Ireland’s advantage - through low corporate tax rates - would be lost. He said recently: „One of the more serious political challenges for the next Irish government will be to ensure that a system of common corporate taxes is not introduced in the European Union.”
Ireland is moving from a net recipient from the EU to the status of net contributor, a symbolic step. That might change some attitudes, but it is unlikely to spark much euroskepticism. While there are dissenting voices - people who are suspicious of attitudes elsewhere in the EU on social issues, on foreign policy, on tax, for example - the main sentiment towards Europe remains positive. (news.bbc.co.uk)