Defence, Security and Brexit: Ireland’s Dilemma
Kenneth McDonagh (Dublin City University)
EU security and defence cooperation has always existed in something of a quantum state – we can know where we are or how fast we’re moving but not both at the same time. In recent weeks both Emmanuel Macronand Angela Merkel have called for versions of a European Army, but seasoned EU watchers know that these calls are neither new nor likely to lead to significant changes in the short-term. However, the controversy sheds light on an under-discussed dilemma for Ireland, and other ‘awkward’ member states in the area of security and defence. Whereas the different visions of the Big Three member states created space for smaller member states to avoid hard choices in the past, a more cohesive EU in the future presents challenges to states, like Ireland, who’ve thrived in the murky waters of strategic ambiguity.
In the aftermath of the Brexit vote, the EU forged ahead with the publication of its new Global Strategy, which was was a clear signal that the EU intended to continue to evolve and develop during and after the Brexit process. Faced with a potentially existential crisis, the EU found a response in building a security architecture to reinvigorate EU institutions and to bring together the remaining 27 member states to work toward a common goal. Security provided common ground for cooperation without reopening a Pandora’s box of institutional reform that would be required to deal with more traditional areas of European cooperation such as market regulation or the even more contentious issue of burden sharing in relation to the refugee issue.
Indeed, with the United Kingdom leaving, it could be argued a significant stumbling block for European defence cooperation had been removed. British scepticism had allowed others such as Denmark and the Central European states, who viewed NATO as the prime security provider in the European theatre, to stand back from defence cooperation in the EU without overexposing themselves, and others like Austria and Ireland to avoid hard questions on the tensions between formal military non-alignment and the realities of being part of a deeply integrated organisation. Removing the UK pushes these states into the limelight in terms of blocking or opting out from security cooperation.
For Ireland, the aftermath of the Brexit vote has been particularly challenging. The Irish government has received credit for the way in which it has managed the Brexit negotiations to date, particularly in getting our European partners to strongly support the Irish position on the border. But the reduced room for manoeuvre for small states, in an EU that is more dominated by France and Germany than previously, needs to be taken into account. In a Franco-German EU, the space for constructive ambiguity is reduced.
The debate on PESCO (Permanent Structured Cooperation) in Ireland gives us some insight into how these dynamics are playing out. Critics of the initiative have framed it as a stepping stone towards a European Army and yet another nail in the coffin of Ireland’s neutrality. The image of an out of touch elite trying to railroad through a fundamental reform isn’t helped by the government not spending enough time discussing and explaining the implications of PESCO to the Irish public or in the Dáil. Although Fine Gael should receive some credit for its MEPs’ releasing a new policy document seeking to spark a debate on the future of the triple lock and to introduce a more flexible understanding of neutrality to reflect contemporary security challenges, particularly in the area of cyber-security. Still, the relative silence on these issues cedes space for these debates to be dominated by critics of PESCO, CSDP and the EU more generally.
Neutrality, perhaps in a way that isn’t true elsewhere, is deeply ingrained in Irish identity as a marker of who we are rather than what we do. In this context we can understand the role that neutrality as a symbol plays in political discourse in Ireland, and how challenges to its integrity can be used to stoke political resentment in much the same way migration plays this role in other countries. Although public support for the EU remains high in Ireland, so too does support for neutrality. Therefore, it has the potential to play the role of wedge issue that could drive Euroscepticism in the future as it has done with referendums in the past.
With European elections looming in May 2019, it is likely PESCO may be raised on the doorsteps and as the Nice and Lisbon Treaty referendums showed, Irish voters do respond to perceived threats to neutrality. That said, a March 2018 poll suggests 59% of Irish people believe Ireland should be more involved in EU defence and security cooperation. The outcome of a more open debate on Ireland’s security and defence policy is far from a foregone conclusion.
Dr Kenneth McDonagh is an Associate Professor of International Relations at the School of Law and Government. His research focuses on the EU as a global actor, the role of small states in the CSDP, and the gendered impact of EU missions in the Western Balkans. He is the Principal Investigator of the H2020 funded European Training Network Global India. He is also an Editor at the Journal of Contemporary European Research.