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?

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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.

No, Brexit Does Not Necessarily Mean the Dissolution of the United Kingdom

In June 2016, the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union (EU) with a 52-48 percent majority. Since joining the European Community (EC), the EU’s forerunner, in 1973, the United Kingdom has had a tenuous relationship with the regional bloc. The United Kingdom never fully embraced European integration, fearing a loss of national sovereignty. This was evident as the United Kingdom opted out of several EU institutions, neither using the common euro currency nor joining the Schengen area.

All of Britain’s frustrations with the EU culminated in the vote to leave the bloc in 2016. However, several of the individual nations within the United Kingdom voted to stay in the EU: 62 percent of Scotland’s population voted in favor of staying in the EU, as did 55.7 percent of voters in Northern Ireland. In contrast, English voters were the main demographic driving the leave vote with 52.5 percent of English voters choosing to leave the EU, while 53.4 percent of voters in Wales did the same.

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In his recent Foreign Policy article, “Brexit is Probably the United Kingdom’s Death Knell,” Brent Peabody notes that the United Kingdom has survived quite a lot since Northern Ireland became part of the United Kingdom in the early 1920s: World War II, the Troubles, and persistent questions from Scotland about its continued existence within the union.

But it may not survive Brexit,” Peabody posits, since Brexit has conjured up revived independence sentiments in Scotland and driven Northern Ireland closer to the Republic of Ireland. This sentiment is shared by many analysts who study Brexit. It is true that Brexit exposed the deepening fractures within British society. However, despite renewed independence sentiments, the United Kingdom is unlikely to break up.

Scotland

The desire for Scottish independence is not new. Scotland and England have an embattled history, and Scotland joined England in 1707. Scotland held a referendum on independence from the United Kingdom in 2014, with 55 percent of voters voting to stay within the union, partly in fear of losing its EU membership. The EU made it clear that should Scotland vote for independence from the United Kingdom, they would “not have automatic membership and would have to re-apply from outside the bloc.”

The argument for staying within the United Kingdom to preserve its EU membership is now moot, since the United Kingdom officially departed the EU on January 31, 2020, followed by an 11-month transition period in which the United Kingdom and EU negotiated their future relationship. Brexit has brought support for Scottish independence back into political debate. In fact, Nicola Sturgeon, the leader of the SNP, argues that Brexit “transformed the situation by dragging Scotland out of the European Union against its will.”

Several recent polls indicate increasing support for Scotland’s independence. The Scottish National Party, expected to win a majority in the Scottish Parliament elections in May, plans to capitalize on this increasing support to secure another referendum. While it is likely that another referendum will occur, this will require London’s blessing and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has rejected the idea of Scottish independence on several occasions. In the long run, it is doubtful that Scottish voters will actually vote to leave the United Kingdom as there are too many economic and financial benefits remaining in the United Kingdom.

Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland, which also voted to remain in the EU, has been part of the United Kingdom for approximately a century. The Irish War of Independence against Britain ended in 1921 when the island nation was divided into Northern Ireland, which became part of the United Kingdom, and the Republic of Ireland, a member of the EU. Decades of chaos, war, and hostility ensued, primarily between predominantly Catholic Republicans aligned with the Republic of Ireland and the mostly Protestant unionists who wished to maintain a closer relationship to the United Kingdom.  

A desire for reunification has not subsided in either Northern Ireland or the Republic of Ireland. Partly as a result of Brexit, there is growing support within Northern Ireland for reuniting with the Republic of Ireland. Recent polls reveal that while 47 percent would vote to remain in the United Kingdom, 42 percent of voters favor reunification with Ireland. While this polling data indicates that there is growing support for reunification, the percentage of the population that wants to remain within the United Kingdom remains higher than those who would vote to leave. Although support for reunification in Northern Ireland has clearly grown, it is still unlikely that Northern Ireland will leave the United Kingdom.  

Wales

Unlike Scotland and Northern Ireland, most Welsh voters voted to remain in the EU. Despite support for independence in Wales being traditionally weaker than compared to the other United Kingdom nations, there is growing, if nominal, support for independence. A recent YouGov poll in October indicated that nearly 25 percent would support Welch independence from the United Kingdom, up 8 percent since 2016. Nationalism in Wales is gaining traction. Yet, in reality, Wales’ economic prospects are not good enough to support independence.

Conclusion

Recent support for Scottish independence and Northern Irish reunification with the Republic of Ireland calls into question the stability of the United Kingdom. However, the United Kingdom is unlikely to dissolve. Brexit has certainly exposed the deep fissures within British society, especially with respect to the United Kingdom’s relationship with Europe. While society is increasingly polarized on this and other issues, the dissolution of the United Kingdom remains highly improbable. The push for Scottish independence and Northern Ireland’s reunification with Ireland are unlikely to materialize and will create more of a political headache than an existential threat to the United Kingdom.