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The four reasons why Irish eurosceptics are up against it

I’m trying to think if there’s another issue in Irish politics on which 88% of the public agree and to be honest, I’m stumped:

To be fair to the 12%, they don’t stand much of a chance in Ireland. EU membership is not, really, treated as a political issue on which there is a legitimate debate. You’ll never see a TV or radio show with two panellists in favour, and two against, arguing the toss in an informed way with open and equal moderation by the broadcaster. To the extent that those opposed to EU membership ever do get an airing, it’s usually some ordinary member of the public with a gripe about fish, or neutrality, put up to argue against three or four politicians or professors who dismiss their arguments with a kindly smile and a knowing nod.

And then, of course, there’s Brexit. Which must be weighed up against the fact that one of our reasons for entering the EU in the first place was to assert economic independence from Britain. The idea of joining them now, outside the EU, is about as popular as the flu, for reasons that are probably more cultural than they are economic.

Anti-EU people have several fundamental problems, beyond that, though.

The first is that for the most part, EU membership is experienced in most people’s lives as a net benefit. For the average citizen, it means free movement throughout the continent. It means subsidies for agriculture. It means seeing those ubiquitous signs everywhere showing that this or that project was EU funded.

The net negatives of EU membership do not impact people directly: If you flip free movement around and talk about immigration, for example, you run into the problem that people who talk about immigration always run into, which is that it is not an issue which directly affects people. You might argue that it impacts the availability of housing, or wage levels, or a range of other things, but the fact is that most people in Ireland have houses already, and jobs, and so on. The same is true of broader arguments like sovereignty – the average person doesn’t really notice where decisions are made, and cares less. And if a policy from the EU does affect them directly, they tend to take out their anger on local politicians, rather than at EU elections.

That misalignment of impacts – the positives felt directly, and the negatives barely noticed and blamed on others – makes it very hard to sustain an anti-EU case in Ireland.

The second fundamental problem is practical: We’re so deeply embedded in the EU that leaving it would necessarily be traumatic, economically. Though the pain suffered by the UK, for example, has been grossly exaggerated for political effect, it is also true that the UK is much less dependent on overseas investment than Ireland is. Britain has a very large domestic market – Ireland does not. The UK also has its own currency. Ireland would have to ditch the Euro, and switch back to something else, which, combined with the erection of trade barriers, would cause a massive economic shock. Those are not ideological suppositions; they are just facts. People are unlikely to vote for an economic shock.

The third fundamental problem is the lack of alternatives: Again, for various ideological reasons, people tend to play down this fact, but the UK did and does have alternatives to the EU. The rest of the English-speaking world, for historical reasons, has a close and friendly relationship with London, and London is a global trading centre. The UK is a Nuclear Power and a member of the security council – people will always want to talk to it, and trade with it. There was a convincing case to be made in the UK that outside of the EU, Britain could do just fine by building alternative relationships. Paradoxically, Ireland’s only other real path to global trade outside the EU would also be the UK, and the English speaking world, except we do not have the advantages that Britain does of long standing relationships throughout the world. We like to talk ourselves up as punching above our weight diplomatically, but even if that is true, we’re bantamweights operating at a lightweight level. There’s no immediately obvious alternative route for us.

And the fourth big problem, obviously, is what we mentioned at the outset: Even if you have convincing answers to these issues, you’ll never get a platform. In fact, the better your answers for them are, the less likely you are to get an airing. The media have a duty to air all perspectives, but they don’t have a duty to pick the best advocate for each side. They’re more than happy to leave the more polished, mainstream performers on the bench while they platform some poor fella who talks about the Bilderberg Group and the New World Order.

All of those things combine to make Ireland a cold house for Euroscepticism, and to make the population fearful of anything that might move us away from “the heart of europe”, even though that concept is a lie. If Ireland truly was at the heart of Europe, we wouldn’t need to be in the EU to begin with – just ask the Swiss.

None of this means that we have to be, or should be, fans of the EU. In fact, the bigger problem in Ireland is not EU membership, but our politicians attitude to it. If we’re going to be members, then we should be far more willing than we are to come to a national consensus on what the EU should be, where its powers should begin and end, and to advance that cause within the EU. As it is, we seem content to let the continental powers dictate terms, and then accept them because the alternative is moving away from the centre. We have a membership based more on fear, in other words, than love.

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