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Why is support for the EU so extraordinarily high in Ireland?

According to the most recent Eurobarometer poll, published this week, support for membership of the European Union in Ireland has declined, slightly – from 87% last year to a mere 83% at the beginning of 2022. This stands in stark contrast to the figures for the EU as a whole – across the 27 member states, support for EU membership is at a healthy, but far from unanimous, 62%. In Ireland, we’re 21% ahead of the European average, and comfortably one of the most pro-EU countries in the Union. If you dig deeper, the figures are even more extraordinary: When asked if they agree with the statement “I am in favour of the European Union AND the way it is working at present”, 63% of Irish voters agree. Across the EU as a whole, that figure is just 27%. Lots of Europeans want to see the EU change. Irish people are massively happy with it as it is.

Support for EU membership here spans all political parties and shades of opinion. There is no party in the Oireachtas which opposes EU membership, and not even one independent member who takes that position openly. Opposing EU membership in Ireland is not only not a vote-winner, but an active vote-loser, for those politicians who try to go down that road. It is one explanation, out of many, for why the Irish Freedom Party, avidly opposed to EU membership, has had difficulty in making any political headway.

The popular explanation for the EU’s popularity here has always been economic: That EU funding, over a sustained period of time, was instrumental in modernising the country, and that the single market was essential to attracting foreign investment, allowing companies to locate here and benefit from tariff-free trade with the enormous European consumer base. But that explanation is limited: For one thing, it is also true of many eastern European countries, which are presently the beneficiaries of sustained EU investment, and open markets, and where EU membership is notably less popular. In the Eurobarometer poll, for example, support for EU membership in Bulgaria is a mere 56% – not much more than a majority. In Lithuania, it is 64% – healthy, but nowhere near the heights of Irish unanimity. Neither country is in a particular conflict with the EU, like, say, Hungary and Poland are, but still, EU support is warm, and nothing more. In Ireland, it is red-hot. Economics alone do not explain the difference. Cultural factors must also play a role.

In Ireland’s case, it is not especially hard to understand what those cultural factors are: For a thousand years, this island has lived – for both good, and ill, at different times – in the shadow of the island next to us. Across several centuries of conflict, we looked to European powers for assistance against the British – Spain, and France, and even, during the first world war, the German Empire. Irish nationalism has always found its allies – allies of convenience though they were – on the continent. We have also, always and perennially, been an outlier in the modern English-speaking world for our relative hostility to “western” interests. Unlike Canada, or India, or New Zealand, or South Africa, or Australia, Ireland has always resisted taking its place in any US-led alliance of nations, and sought instead to bind ourselves to Europe.

Brexit, of course, has heightened that further, especially given how that process was presented to the Irish public: Monsieur Barnier as saviour of the nation, supporting our country against the dangerous extremism of British nationalism. Much of that was myth-making, but the best myths appeal to existing prejudice, and this one in particular tickled a particularly soft spot in the national psyche.

All of this makes “Irexit” – even in the longer term – an unthinkable prospect. Attitudes to the EU, and the role it plays in Ireland’s national story, are much too deeply ingrained to be reversed in a generation, or perhaps even two or three generations. There are those who believe that a shift in the economic relationship between Ireland and the EU – whereby we now pay in more than we get back – will change the Irish view, which they believe to have been slightly mercenary. This seems misguided.

The fundamental truth is that Irish public opinion on world affairs is much more in tune with continental thinking than it is with the thinking of the anglosphere. In the UK and the US, Vladimir Putin is universally seen as a baddie. China, as a geopolitical threat. Liberty and freedom of speech as paramount values. In Ireland, our thinking on these subjects is much closer to that of the German public than the American public: That Vladimir Putin and the Russians are best left unprovoked, that China is a valuable trading partner, and that the most important values are social solidarity and a commitment to peace.

That comes out in the poll too: When asked if they would prefer a Europe which focused more on “social solidarity” or “individualism”, the results were overwhelming: 76% of Irish people said “social solidarity”, and just 21% said “individualism”. If you’re somebody who is generally sceptical of social democracy in Ireland, you are outnumbered four to one.

Above all, though, the second figure quoted in the first paragraph of this article is what gives the game away: Not just that we are happy to be in the EU, but that 63% of us express happiness with how it is working at present. That suggests that our love for it is not, necessarily, based on what it does, but on what it is. It approaches a level of support which is almost unconditional.

There is, however, one bit of good news for Eurosceptics: When asked by the pollster whether Irish people would prefer, in ten years, more decisions to be taken at EU level, or for “approximately the same number of decisions to be taken at EU level as today”, the result is 54% to 25% in favour of “the same number as today”.

That does suggest, perhaps, that the EU, or those in it who wish to centralise power even more, retain the capacity to lose the love of the Irish public. Indeed, referenda on the EU which have been defeated here have always been defeated on the grounds of too many powers going to Brussels. For the moment, if you are a Eurosceptic, it might just be possible to fight Brussels to a standstill, even here in Ireland. But for the moment, any dreams of Irish people becoming hostile to the EU are just that: dreams.

Note: This piece was updated, at the Irish Freedom Party’s request, to remove a line which may have inferred that Irish Freedom Party leader Hermann Kelly was previously employed directly as a UK Independence Party (UKIP) advisor. In actual fact, he was employed by the “Europe of Freedom and Democracy” group in the European Parliament, of which UKIP was the largest member.

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