“Ireland will be committed to the European Union for the long term.”
That pledge formed the core message of “Ireland, the European Union, and Brexit,” the talk that Shane Stephens, the Irish Consul General in Atlanta, delivered yesterday to students at the University of Georgia School of Law. (Sponsoring were Georgia Law’s Dean Rusk International Law Center, along with the university’s Willson Center for Humanities & Arts and School of Public & International Affairs.) Stephens, who represents Ireland throughout the southeastern United States, continued:
“The European Union is a massively successful peace process, first and foremost. It brought the countries of Europe so close that another war like the 1st and 2d World Wars cannot happen again. It expanded peace, prosperity, and democratic principles. That’s been good for Europe, and good for the world as well.”
The diplomat’s fiercely pro-EU stance contrasts with the current political climate in Ireland’s eastern neighbor and former colonizer – the United Kingdom, where, on June 23 of this year, British voters opted to leave the EU by a margin of 52% to 48%. Brexit hit a snag last week, when Britain’s High Court ruled that only Parliament has the power to take leave from the EU. But that decision awaits appeal to the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom; Stephens’ talk proceeded on the assumption that leave eventually would occur.
“Anticipation of Brexit already has had a huge impact in Ireland and the United Kingdom,”
he explained. By way of example, he noted that the value of the pound sterling has plummeted, and that has made Irish crops more costly, and so less desirable, in the British marketplace.
Stephens predicted that the UK would retain some relationship with the EU, but said its contours would depend on negotiations between the two. Given the anti-immigration sentiment that helped propel “Leave” to victory, a sticking point may be the free movement of workers. Stephens said:
“This is one of the core principles of the EU, one of the things that makes the EU great, in my view.”
(Driving home the point was Mise Éire/I am Ireland, the brief Irish government video that he showed, which reveals diversity in the Irish polity.) Stephens said he expected access to Europe’s single market to remain contingent on acceptance of the freedom of movement, yet surmised that “pragmatic” negotiations might produce a solution to this disagreement.
Brexit poses opportunities as well as challenges for Ireland, Stephens noted. Ireland’s status as a “market-oriented” European country is likely to increase. Its already enjoys strengths in financial technology, pharmaceuticals, and the software industry, with giants like Google having significant presence on the island. In Stephens’ words:
“Ireland is a place where people are happy to work.”