Can Ireland Be America’s New BFF in Europe?

More than four years after the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union (EU) in its unprecedented June 2016 vote, Brexit is over. The United Kingdom is officially out. For decades, the United Kingdom has considered itself as the “bridge” between the United States and Europe. Anchored by its special relationship with the United States and well served by its geopolitically advantageous position within Europe, the United Kingdom has long prized itself for “build[ing] bridges of understanding between the U.S. and Europe.” Interestingly, as the United Kingdom often lamented, the part of the special relationship most pertinent to the United States was the United Kingdom’s membership in the EU. But, now that the United Kingdom is no longer in the EU, who can the United States turn to in Europe?

Credit: USDAgov

In November 2018, the Washington Post ran an article which asked just that question: “Who becomes the U.S.’ best friend in Europe after Britain leaves the E.U.?” As the article points out, “countries across the European Union are clamoring to be the new U.S. sweetheart.”  As a former Italian diplomat noted, “Countries…they’d like to take some of the slack [of Britain’s absence]. But they don’t have the kind of relationship that the U.K. has with the U.S.” This is true; very few countries in Europe have that special relationship with the United States, though the U.S. relationships with France and Germany are quite close. One thing is clear: America needs a new go-to friend in Europe. Who better than Ireland?

An Already Close Relationship

Much like the United Kingdom, the United States and Ireland already have a close bilateral relationship. The two countries share deep cultural, ancestral, and linguistic ties. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, more than 31.5 million Americans claim Irish ancestry. Both countries are democracies and value advancing democratic ideals throughout the world. The United States and Ireland’s histories are entwined; over 100 years ago, the United States’ influence proved critical to Ireland gaining independence from the United Kingdom. The United States also played a pivotal role in brokering the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, bringing an era of Irish history, called the Troubles, to an end.

Moreover, the relationship between the United States and Ireland includes strong trade and investment ties. In 2019, Ireland’s foreign direct investment in the United States was roughly $343.5 billion dollars. Further, Ireland hosts several U.S. tech and pharmaceutical companies. On the diplomatic front, Ireland’s Taoiseach, or prime minister, is invited to the White House each year for St. Patrick’s Day. This year, President Biden and Ireland’s Prime Minister, Micheál Martin, celebrated virtually due to the COVID-19 pandemic, with President Biden remarking that “everything between Ireland and the United States runs deep.”

The United States and Ireland already share a close relationship in many areas, and it would be easy and advantageous for both countries to build upon these strong foundations and allow Ireland to be the United States’ primary interlocutor within the European Union.

Ireland’s Growing Diplomatic Clout

Ireland’s Ambassador to the United States, Daniel Mulhall, noted that Brexit “would likely lead to the strengthening of the US-Irish bond and the emergence of Ireland as the main bridge between the US and Europe.” How is this possible? In recent years, Ireland has been playing a significant, if not outsized, diplomatic role regionally and globally. The United States and Ireland belong to many of the same international institutions, with Ireland as a member of the the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) Partnership for Peace program; Ireland also secured a seat on the U.N. Security Council in 2021. A more significant diplomatic role for Ireland on the world stage will translate well to the European level and is exactly the kind of progress Ireland needs to show in order to be the United States’ new best friend in Europe after Brexit.

Within the European Union, Ireland is also showing some of its diplomatic prowess. The island nation attempted to mediate between the United Kingdom and the regional bloc during Brexit negotiations. As Thomas Wright, the Director of the Center on the United States and Europe at the Brookings Institution opined, Ireland “wants a close relationship between the European Union and the U.K.,” especially as the Irish border became one of the primary issues during Brexit. Ambassador Mulhall anticipates that one of the main advantages brought to the U.S.-Ireland relationship by Brexit will be “an enhanced diplomatic role as Washington’s closest EU partner.” If this is the case, Ireland has certainly proved it has the diplomatic dexterity and competency to serve as America’s primary interlocutor within the European Union.

Conclusion

The United States and Ireland have a strong and friendly relationship. Anchored in common cultural, historical, values, and linguistic ties, Ireland and the United States already share a lot. Add in the fact that Ireland’s diplomatic clout, both globally and within the European Union, continues to grow, it only makes sense that Ireland would fill the role as a bridge between the United States and Europe that the United Kingdom vacated.