University of Limerick
Cork: Cork University Press, 2013
Once famously described by a French historian as “an island behind an island”, Ireland’s relations with the European continent have been mediated both by its peripheral geographical location and an ambivalent relationship with its nearest neighbour. Early work on the attempts by Ireland to overcome its relatively marginal position in the European consciousness by Hederman (1983) Maher (1986) and Keogh (1989) all examined the problem from an Irish perspective. The volume under review here fills an important lacuna in the pre-accession story of Ireland’s ‘tortuous path’ towards EEC membership by looking at the relationship from a European perspective. Thus the book is structured around six ‘national’ chapters defining, respectively, the evolution of policy of each of the original Six founding members; and one final chapter that synthesises these diverse national positions into policy preferences of the two principal EEC institutions: the Council and the Commission. Inevitably, there is some instructive overlap between this section and the foregoing chapters, but the authors have painstakingly traced the nuances between divergent national perspectives out of which a “Community” position is forged in Brussels. Each country chapter opens with an historical account of popular perceptions of Ireland by the Six. Here a mosaic of positive and negative images combine: the xenophobia whipped up in Ireland by the erroneous belief that large tracts of land were being bought up by Germans; the affinity between Flemish and Irish nationalism; and a mixture of wartime memories in the Low Countries: some resentment at Irish neutrality but also gratitude for Irish aid to the famine stricken population. In analysing the Irish approach to the EEC, the national chapters are dominated by a series of recurring themes among which the most important are: the need to take account of Britain’s application to join the EEC; Ireland’s ‘neutrality’ and non-membership of NATO; and the extent to which the Irish economy would require special ‘derogations’ to facilitate membership. An important cross-cutting theme that provides a complicating leitmotiv behind Ireland’s efforts to maintain its diplomatic profile among the Six, is the perceived resilience of the Franco-German axis that tended to frustrate the efforts of other member states to drive a wedge between the two on occasions where, as was often the case, France found itself in a minority of one. By far the most important factor influencing Ireland’s approach to the EEC between 1960 and 1972 was the parallel attempt by Britain also to gain accession. Ireland was forced to navigate a delicate course between, on the one hand, emphasising its separate approach while on the other hand being unable to argue that if Britain was refused entry, Ireland would proceed with its own application regardless. The delicacy of this approach was further accentuated by the fact that some members of the Six saw “association” as being preferable to full membership for Ireland (on account of its fragile industrial base). This explains why when Britain’s application was twice rejected (in 1963 and 1967) Ireland immediately set about keeping its own application alive in the capitals of the Six. The relative diplomatic invisibility of Ireland made it all the more important to remind the Six that Ireland was still waiting eagerly in the wings. The authors explain that Britain’s case for EEC membership was itself one of several issues that divided the governments of the Six, with France (at least under de Gaulle) fearing a systemic dislocation of the Community as a result of British accession, while the Netherlands and Belgium took a much more positive line, seeing British membership as providing a useful counterweight to Franco-German hegemony. Although West Germany favoured British membership, it was “not prepared to jeopardise German-French relations, even for the U.K.” (73). The question of Ireland’s non-membership of NATO was also used by some governments as a pretext for arguing that Ireland could not be fully committed to the political goals of the EEC: West Germany took a strong line on this while the Belgians were more relaxed. However, France’s own position on Irish non-membership of NATO softened after 1966 when de Gaulle withdrew from NATO’s military structures, and developed its own nuclear capability. Thus the West German view that NATO and EEC membership should overlap eventually found less support, and when the USA tried to push this view, President Rey of the Commission reportedly told US representative Richardson that Irish reasons for non-membership should be “now apparent to Mr Richardson” (an allusion to the emerging conflict in Northern Ireland in 1969) p.367. When the final breakthrough for Irish membership of the EEC arrived it was due to a happy synergy of circumstances that was largely outside Ireland’s control. The departure of de Gaulle profoundly altered the Community’s landscape. Fortuitously, the new leaders in France and Britain were enthusiastic Europeans: “The rapprochement between the two leaders who had the same vision of a Europe of States and who managed to establish a climate of confidence was a good omen for enlargement” (377). The evolving conflict in Northern Ireland might have derailed the simultaneous adhesion of Britain and Ireland to the EEC, but the authors explain that, remarkably, Anglo-Irish relations were able to compartmentalise the accession negotiations in a way that facilitated the entry of both countries with no rancour. Meanwhile the Commission in Brussels was keeping a close ear to the ground in Northern Ireland, and its conclusion that the EEC would provide a helpful context for a resolution of the conflict in the long run, but that no quick-fix solution could be envisaged, proved to be remarkably prescient. In 1970, the Commission representative in the UK told President Rey that “the volcano is there, and it is still active” (373).
The contributors to this book have delved deeply in the diplomatic archives and contemporary newspapers to produce a volume that is rich in detail, yielding a fascinating mine of information for anyone interested in the long and winding road towards Irish membership of the EEC.