Enlarging Ireland

Shane Fitzgerald
The government’s stated position is that “the accession process provides strong encouragement for political and economic reform and that future enlargement will help to promote stability, security and prosperity in Europe.”[1] While the accession of ten new member states in 2004 was greeted with great fanfare and celebration in Ireland, there is also a keen awareness that enlargement creates greater competition for foreign investment, which has been a key driver of Irish economic growth in recent years.[2] The fact that the newer member states are closer to the main EU markets and have lower labour costs has already damaged Irish interests as major multinationals shift their manufacturing operations from Ireland to Poland and elsewhere.[3] This awareness is somewhat balanced by the knowledge that Ireland benefited greatly from the labour and skills pool of the new member states during its recent boom and that further eastward expansion provides an opportunity to diversify its trade patterns in an enlarged European single market. But, in a climate of economic recession and renewed emigration, a degree of scepticism about the benefits of further enlargement is likely to remain.
Croatian accession is likely to prove unproblematic from an Irish perspective. However, key issues – such as the ability of Albania, Bosnia, Serbia and Montenegro to meet the accession requirements, the status of Kosovo, the ongoing name dispute between Greece and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, and unresolved tensions between Cyprus and Turkey – represent obstacles which must be overcome before further eastern expansion is likely to be wholeheartedly welcomed from an Irish perspective. Assuming a resolution of the name dispute, Macedonian accession will probably pass with little comment from Irish sources. Turkish membership, for the same reasons that are familiar across Europe, might prove a harder sell, though the Minister for Foreign Affairs describes Ireland’s approach to Turkey’s candidacy as “supportive”. He also notes that there are “potential gains to the single market and to trade through the accession of a country of Turkey’s size” and that “[t]he Union’s reach and influence in the Middle East and Central Asia could be enhanced through Turkish accession”.[4] The prospect of Turkish accession was raised in a negative light during the two Lisbon referendums, but it is not clear what effect, if any, this negative campaigning had on voting patterns.
Perhaps because of Ireland’s geographic location in the north-western corner of Europe, European Neighbourhood Policy and the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership have not gained much traction in the public discourse. However, an increasing awareness of the importance of Europe’s eastern and southern neighbourhood, particularly in terms of energy security, is beginning to raise the profile of these initiatives. Strong bilateral relationships with Moldova and Georgia also play a significant role in terms of perceptions of developments in frozen conflicts.
There is much general sympathy in Ireland for Iceland’s difficulties and in bilateral contacts the Irish government has told the government of Iceland that it is supportive of its application for EU membership.[5]
Because Ireland has had, on balance, a generally positive experience with migration from Eastern Europe, and with the integration of communities of “New Irish”, there is little objection in principle to European enlargement to encompass many of the former Balkan and Baltic states. However, what will be looked for, especially in the wake of the Greek debt crisis with its contagion effects for Ireland, is solid evidence of each candidate country’s fiscal solvency and political stability.

The next Irish general election must take place by 2012 at the latest. It is difficult to say if immigration will become an issue in that contest, but, as has been the case elsewhere in Europe, we can anticipate that, at some stage, the issue will become more politicised, with consequent effects for how the prospect of further enlargement is viewed. However, as many European immigrants have returned home in response to the Irish recession, the potential negative employment effects of immigration have been muted up to now.

[1] Dáil written answers: Tuesday, 15 December 2009. Department of Foreign Affairs: EU Enlargement, available at: (last access: 10 May 2010).

[2] Department of Foreign Affairs: EU Enlargement – Ireland Leading the Way, available at: (last access: 10 May 2010).

[3] See for example this statement from Dell: Dell to Migrate Manufacturing Operations from Ireland to Poland and Partners by Early 2010, available at: (last access: 10 May 2010).

[4] Dáil written answers: Tuesday, 30 March 2010. Department of Foreign Affairs: EU Enlargement, available at: (last access: 10 May 2010).

[5] Dáil written answers: Tuesday, 22 September 2009. Department of Foreign Affairs: EU Enlargement, available at: (last access: 10 May 2010).