Thursday, January 6, 2011

Ireland and sovereignty in an integrated Europe

Geoffrey Wheatcroft discusses the non-existence of Irish independence in a brief article in the Dec. 30 issue of The New Republic (partially gated). Protesters in Ireland have been bemoaning the fact that their government appeared to be "handing over our sovereignty", but as Wheatcroft notes, there was never that much to hand over. Or, to put it differently, the idealized notion that sovereignty means a state has full control of its own fate is utterly unrealistic for any country actively involved in the global political economy, let alone one that has joined joined the European Union and adopted the euro as its currency.

The problem for Ireland is that it is particularly sensitive about its sovereignty and its independence, for understandable historical reasons. Norway is in a similar position, which is one of the reasons it has not (yet) joined the European Union. Wheatcroft draws a parallel with a different Nordic country, Finland, arguing that "Finland has achieved the things that Ireland aspired to": its own language, real neutrality, and economic success.

Wheatcroft overplays the comparison a bit. Finland may have resisted Soviet military aggression for four months in 1939, but it was severely constrained in its international relations from the end of World War II until the end of the Cold War, in ways that Ireland wasn't. I am sure many Finns would have been happy, at any time between 1945 and 1989, to exchange their "neutrality" for Ireland's. Nor is it fair to suggest that Ireland's economic success amounted to little more than the combination of a construction bubble with striking corruption.

Nevertheless, the parallel does raise an interesting issue. Finland was not able to join the European integration project until the end of the Cold War, because the Soviet Union would not have allowed it. Perhaps the experience of real political constraints has made the Finns more realistic about which features of sovereignty and independence are important, and which are not. One could argue Finland gave up one form of dependence for another when it joined the EU, but this was a dependence that was voluntarily chosen, and it was one that offered great benefits as well (unlike the dependence on Soviet goodwill).

In Ireland, in contrast, public debate is deeply focused on sovereignty as an end in itself; the issue comes up every time the European Union treaties need to be revised. It is a serious failure of the country's political leaders that they have never conducted an honest debate about what sovereignty means in a globalizing economy, nor what its value or purpose are in an ever more closely integrated Europe.

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