Since the shock vote by Britain to leave two weeks ago, the Irish government has been continually emphasizing that we are embedded in the EU and will remain there.
Despite all the complications that Brexit could create for us, Ireland's future is with Europe, the government says. And politicians from all sides agree (even Sinn Fein, which used to be strongly anti-EU some years back).
The consensus is that although we must do everything we can to preserve our special relationship with the U.K. -- our billion euro a week in trade, the free travel agreement with mainland Britain, and the current invisibility of the border between us and Northern Ireland -- we have to stay in the EU. Coming out of the EU is unthinkable for us, it is argued, although the reasons why this is the case have not been spelled out clearly. Instead we are simply told that leaving the EU would be a disaster, so there's no point in even discussing it.
It's not quite as simple as that (is it ever?) and we will come back to that in a moment. The first thing is that we were just as surprised here as everyone else in Europe at the British decision and just as shocked at the vista of uncertainty it opens up.
Official Ireland had not expected it to happen and had not worked out what they might do if the Leave side won. They have no Plan B. So they are clinging to the security of what they know best, our default position of being a model member of the EU.
They are not saying it in public, of course, but Official Ireland is quietly hoping that the decision in Britain on EU membership will be reversed in another referendum there in the next few years. That suggestion has also been made in the U.K. and is being rejected as undemocratic by the Leave side, which won the referendum by the narrow 52 to 48 percent margin.
But that is nonsense. It could take at least two or three years to work out a trade deal between the U.K. and the EU if the negotiations are as protracted and difficult as expected. Only then will the full effects, both positive and negative, of leaving the EU be clear -- which they never were during the recent campaign -- and it would be justifiable at that stage for the U.K. government to ask the British people whether they want to leave or stay on that basis.
This is something we know all about here. Our constitution requires that major changes in the EU must be approved by a vote of the Irish people rather than just the parliament, as is the case in other European countries. This led to Ireland holding referendums on two important EU treaties, the Nice Treaty in 2001 and the Lisbon Treaty in 2008, both of which were necessary to reshape the way the EU worked as more countries joined.
Those of you with long enough memories will know the consternation caused in the EU when the Irish people voted no in both cases. In each case we were asked to vote a second time, one year later, when some negotiations had taken place and the consequences of rejection were fully explained. And in each subsequent referendum the Irish people reversed their earlier decision and voted yes.
So the possibility of Britain being asked to vote a second time is not surprising to us, even though right now it may seem outrageous to the victorious Leave side in the U.K. That will change over time -- and there will be plenty of time. It may be next year before the formal process for the U.K. to leave the EU is triggered; it could take two years to complete and even longer before a full trade agreement is finalized.
By then, as the reality becomes apparent, there could be wide popular support for another referendum.
Having said that, if Brexit does become a reality, there will have to be some serious thinking here about whether it is better for us to stay in the EU or not. Much will depend on the deal Britain works out and what that will mean here for the border with the North, our trade with the U.K. and free travel there. Merely repeating the line about us being part of Europe will no longer be enough.
It's true that being in the EU has been very beneficial for Ireland. Since we joined in 1973, Ireland has received more than €72 billion in EU funding, much of it for farming and under various schemes designed to help weaker member states. In the same period we contributed around €42 billion to the EU, so we have got out far more than we put in.
But eaten bread is soon forgot. In recent years our situation has changed, and as one of the more developed economies we are now net contributors, putting in a few hundred million euro a year which goes to the poorer new member states in eastern Europe.
Britain, on the other hand, has been a net contributor since it joined Europe at the same time we did. The same resentment that emerged in the U.K. to this outflow of funds could well develop here in the future.
Just as in the U.K., there are many depressed areas in Ireland where people probably feel the money could be better spent at home. That is why almost all of England, apart from London, voted Leave.
Particularly across the north of England, in cities and towns where unemployment is high and support and services are low, people voted against the EU because they could see no reason to vote for it. It's similar to the disappointment and resentment that is evident in the rust bucket belt in America.
Too much of the commentary in the U.K. following the Brexit vote ignored this and characterized Leave voters simply as xenophobic, racist Little Englanders. That cohort was part of the Leave vote, it is true, but the majority were ordinary people who are fed up with the EU and the yawning gap between its high-minded aspirations and the reality they see on the ground.
Just because many of them want immigration to be controlled does not make them racist. It has to do with housing shortages and overcrowded schools and hospitals, not race.
As the fastest growing major economy in Europe, the U.K. has been a magnet for immigrants from poorer parts of eastern Europe in recent years, with the equivalent of a new city arriving each year. Last year, for example, immigration there exceeded the combined populations of the Irish cities of Cork, Limerick and Galway.
For the middle classes and the better off in the U.K. this is not a problem and may even by welcome when they need a cheap Polish plumber or a cheap carer for their elderly relatives. For ordinary working class people, however, it can be very much a problem, resulting in a persistent downward drag on pay rates and intense pressure on public services.
The official statistics which claim that because many are young and single these immigrants are actually net contributors to the British economy are not convincing to many voters in the U.K. because it all depends on how you measure the effect of their arrival and what is and is not included when costs are measured.
The same concerns about immigration that are evident in the U.K. are also visible in Ireland, although the rate of new arrivals from Eastern Europe has slowed since our economy crashed.
During the boom years here our rate of immigration was the highest in the developed world, higher than in the U.K. or the U.S. If Brexit does become a reality and we remain in the EU, that high level of immigration could resume, particularly if we are seen as a back door into the U.K.
The failure of the EU to recognize these concerns in Britain and do something about them was a major cause of the vote for Brexit. In many ways the EU authorities -- particularly the Brussels elite who run the show -- have only themselves to blame.
Their inflexible adherence to the so-called four freedoms which are regarded as fundamental principles in the EU was -- and continues to be -- a serious mistake, a utopian ideal that ignores the concerns of so many EU citizens, not only in the U.K. but also in France, Germany and other countries where right wing parties are growing quickly in response.
These four freedoms, on which access to the EU single market of 500 million people depends, are the free movement of goods, services, capital and (the critical one) people.
In theory that is good for economic development and produces a level playing field. The problem is getting there. With hugely different levels of economic development across the enlarged EU, the result of the process is to produce severe strains in places like the U.K.
The whole immigration question is much wider than just economics, of course, since despite what Marx thought people are not the same as capital, goods or services. When they move they bring with them different cultures, beliefs and social behavior patterns and integration with the host population can be fast, slow or may not happen at all.
Uncontrolled immigration between EU countries ignores this. It's an ideal that comes with a price, a price that is paid not by the Brussels bureaucrats but by ordinary people.
Added to this is the widely held perception -- not just in the U.K. -- of the EU as an undemocratic bureaucracy which meddles far too much in the lives of its citizens with directives and regulations that frequently appear to be unnecessary, or even ridiculous, and take little account of national differences. A particularly sore point in the U.K. is the power of the European Court to negate or override local decisions, either by parliament or local courts.
It's not true that the EU is undemocratic, but its workings are so remote that it often seems that way. Also, there are usually good reasons why common regulations (on things like food or the environment) are agreed but they don't always make sense when they are implemented at local level.
The overall impression that many people have of the EU, in the U.K. and elsewhere, is that it makes sense in some ways, mainly for business, but a lot of the time it is irrelevant and extremely annoying.
Certainly for Ireland, in spite of how much we gained in earlier decades, recent experience has been mixed.
We benefit from foreign companies who set up here to gain access to the single market. But immigration into Ireland has posed real difficulties in some areas like north county Dublin, and support for these communities is patchy at best.
Farming used to be the big winner here and a large part of farm income still comes from EU supports. But the EU has made an absolute mess of the dairy sector, for example.
The biggest bugbear for us, of course, is the way we were forced by the EU into the bailout, which loaded over €60 billion on to Irish taxpayers and which we will be paying off for decades. Ostensibly this was to save the Irish banks and the Irish economy.
In reality the EU was terrified of contagion leading to banking failures across Europe so the real purpose was to protect the European banking system. And the Irish taxpayer continues to pay for all of it!
Since then, the EU has decided that in future banking failures in a particular country will be handled on a Europe-wide basis from a central fund. But there is an absolute refusal by the EU to make this retrospective and lessen the burden carried by Ireland. So the EU spirit and the high-minded aspirations only go so far.
On balance, most economists and other experts favor us staying in the EU. But if an IrExit vote were held here one wonders if the result would be much different from the outcome in the U.K.