In a few days the British electorate goes to the polls to decide whether the UK should leave an alliance of which it has been an important member for 43 years. Though this is a matter for the British people to decide, it is of profound importance to the European Union in general and for Ireland in particular.
At the outset, I should say that our greatest wish is to see the UK remain a member of the EU and work with us to make it better. We are your nearest neighbours and the relationship between our two countries is closer than with any other member state.
Britain and Ireland have been partners in transforming bilateral relations in recent years and the growing strength of our relationship was cemented by Queen Elizabeth’s historic state visit to Ireland in 2011 and the state visit of our president, Michael Higgins, to the UK in 2014.
It was further underpinned when, in March 2012, Prime Minister David Cameron and I signed a joint statement that has provided a framework for greater co-operation across key areas. The fact is that Ireland holds the only land border between the UK and another EU member state, and together we have been facilitators and co-guarantors of the peace deals in Northern Ireland. I believe that all of this gives Ireland a unique perspective and interest in the outcome of the referendum on EU membership.
Our desire to see the UK remain in the EU is based on four main concerns: Northern Ireland; the economy; the Common Travel Area; and the future of the EU itself.
I firmly believe that our common membership of the EU provided an important backdrop to the Irish and UK governments working together to secure peace in Northern Ireland. The EU itself has played a very constructive role in fostering that peace and has provided a framework for co-operation – whether between north and south, east and west, or between unionists and nationalists. European Union funding provides an uncontested setting in which the two traditions can work together.
Funding programmes from the EU will provide almost €3bn in the six years to 2020. Such funding will drive new investment in infrastructure, research and innovation that is supporting a transition in the Northern Ireland economy and creating sustainable jobs.
Ireland also wants the UK to remain in order to sustain and enhance our mutual economic growth. Research identifies Ireland as the member state that will experience most negative impacts from a British exit from the European Union, in economic terms. Most credible assessments conclude that in a Leave scenario, UK GDP could decline by between 1 and 5 per cent. Given the close ties between our two economies, such a decline could have a direct effect on Irish growth; our Economic and Social Research Institute has estimated that, for every 1 per cent decrease in UK GDP, Ireland could experience a 0.3 per cent decrease.
Anything that impacts negatively on trade would be bad news for both our countries. We trade €1.2bn worth of goods and services every week. While the UK is Ireland’s principal trading partner, we are your fifth-biggest market, with the UK exporting more to Ireland than to China and India combined. This bilateral trade flow sustains approximately 200,000 jobs and households on either side of the Irish Sea.
It would be hard to see how any other trading arrangement could improve on the incumbent model, with its unlimited access to a market of 500 million consumers. Alternative trading arrangements will merely impede trade flows and threaten the competitiveness of companies supporting up to 400,000 workers.
The Common Travel Area or CTA, which has been in existence since Irish independence, is an important feature of the close relationship between Ireland and the UK. It allows free movement of people and ideas between Ireland and the UK while ensuring that both Irish and UK citizens are treated on a par regarding access to social welfare: 9 per cent of all visitors to the UK are from Ireland. The Dublin-London air corridor is the world’s second-busiest. In 2014, three million tourists from the UK visited Ireland, spending close to €1bn.
But the CTA has only ever operated where both Ireland and the UK were either outside the European single market, or within it. It remains uncertain how it would work if the UK were to leave the EU. What is certain is that there will be no winners if extra barriers are put in the way of tourism, business travellers, or family visits.
I would also like to recognise that the UK has been a key ally of Ireland in European discussions where we share similar aspirations across a range of EU policy objectives. We both want the EU to complete the single market for energy, digital and for financial- and service-sector firms.
It is my hope that a re-energised UK will once again take its seat at the Brussels table as an important contributor to policy formation. With the UK’s help we can expedite the EU’s competitiveness improvements, pushing through deregulatory and pro-competition single-market measures while completing trade agreements with global partners. Such measures are vital to ensuring that Irish and UK businesses alike remain well placed to operate and compete in an increasingly globalised economy. More broadly, a UK withdrawal would weaken the EU in substance and reputationally at a time of serious challenges.
Ireland will remain a committed member of the European Union, irrespective of the referendum outcome. But there is no doubt that the Union we most want to see is one with the UK in it.
Enda Kenny has been Taoiseach since March 2011
This article appears in the 07 Jun 2016 issue of the New Statesman, A special issue on Britain in Europe