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Support for the European Union in Ireland remains high, but there’s no room for complacency

Kathryn Simpson, Manchester Metropolitan University

On Wednesday 21st April 2021, European Movement Ireland (EMI) launched their annual Red C Poll on Ireland and the EU, which has been conducted every year since 2013. This year found that support for Ireland remaining a member of the EU remains at 84% - the same result as in 2020.

When examined socio-demographically, support for membership of the EU remains very high among the younger generation (87% of those aged between 18-24) and the older generation (93% of those aged 65+). The latter provides a contrast to many EU member states, which generally experience a decline in support for the EU among older cohorts.

It is interesting to note that a relatively low 76% of those aged between 45-54 support Irish membership of the EU. One explanation may be that this is an age group which has gained the most in terms of the opportunities afforded by EU membership since 1973, but which has also lost the most as a result of the economic and banking crisis of 2008. This assertion requires much further analysis, but it’s an illustrative point in this poll which merits attention.

EMI/Red C Poll 2015-2021, N=1,000

It’s also important to acknowledge that while support for EU membership has declined to 84% since 2016, the high support levels of 2016 (90%), 2018 (92%) and 2019 (93%) were artificially inflated, benefiting from a Brexit bounce. We should not generally expect support for the EU to be at such a high level when the EU average is around 55-60%.

The EMI/Red C poll is a snap shot in time. In order to understand Irish public opinion further, it is necessary to draw a parallel between the EMI/Red C polls and Standard Eurobarometer. Standard Eurobarometer from 1972 – 2019 shows that support for the EU in Ireland since 1987 has been above the EU average. This reached a record high in both 2017 and 2019, with 83% of those surveyed reporting that membership of the EU is a “good thing” for Ireland. Both the EMI/Red C polls and the large-N Standard Eurobarometer survey data are displaying similar and consistent results, reiterating strong support for EU membership in Ireland.

Standard Eurobarometer Data 1973-2019, N=1,000

This enforces the view that Ireland is one of the most enthusiastic supporters of European integration. Since Ireland's accession to the EU in 1973, its citizens have often been considered “good Europeans” with a pro-integrationist attitude. EU membership has been part of the modernization of Ireland, it has had an impact on British-Irish relations that has been good for Ireland, and membership has been economically beneficial.

However, support for the EU in Ireland is not monolithic, and Irish citizens hold a complex set of opinions about EU membership. This is reflected in the results of the EMI/Red C poll on issues such as taxation, defence and security, and health.

52% of respondents agreed with the statement “that there should be more political and economic integration even if it means that Member States lose control over economic policy”. Evidently, there remains a strong attachment to tax sovereignty and it is a widespread view among the Irish population. Only 29% are willing to pool sovereignty in the area of politics and economics.

On the issue of Security and Defence, 54% of respondents agreed that ‘Ireland should be part of increased EU defence and security cooperation’ with support reaching 60%+ among the age group of 55+. This is an increase of 5% since 2020. While not a huge increase, it’s worth noting for the following three reasons.

Firstly, every development of EU foreign and security policy has been contested in Ireland.

Secondly, in all Irish referendums on major EU treaty changes, the allegation that the EU was aiming to create a “European army” has been a potent weapon for No campaigners and a near-toxic issue for Yes campaigners.

Finally, the success of the “European army” argument led directly to the introduction of EU treaty protocols and formal EU Council decisions defining the parameters of Irish engagement in European defence cooperation.

On the issue of health policy, respondents were asked whether they have confidence in the EU’s Covid-19 Vaccines Strategy – with only 45% of people agreeing (and 48% having no confidence in the vaccine strategy).

For the EU, the vaccine roll-out has experienced five key problems: bad luck in procurement choices, contract issues, slower regulatory approval, disruption in the production of vaccines and the slow start to national vaccine programmes.

The success of the UK’s roll-out has been frustrating. For Eurosceptics, it is evidence of the necessity of Brexit. However, it is not because of Brexit that the UK was able to procure its own vaccine supplies. The EU’s joint procurement scheme is optional, meaning that the UK could have signed agreements with pharmaceutical companies while still being an EU member state. This would have led to political pressure, as we have seen with Germany, but the EU cannot stop this course of action.

It is also important to remember that the EU is not a state. It doesn’t have full executive powers in the area of health policy. Powers in relation to health policy are still at EU member state level. If EU member states and their respective populations want health policy to be an EU competence there would need to be an EU treaty change.

And there appears to be little appetite in Ireland for health policy to be an EU competence. When respondents were asked “in order to deal with crises, such as Covid-19, Ireland and other EU Member states should give the EU more control over healthcare policy even if they lose some control on a national level”, only 35% agree. Strikingly, it is the younger age groups, in particular those aged between 18-24 (49%) and 25-34 (42%), who agree that health should be an EU competence.

The vaccine roll-out has inflicted enormous reputational damage on the EU. There will be a long and painful examination into how things might have been done differently, and it may well be that EU member states will need to grant more powers to the EU as a result.

Finally, on the topic of Brexit, respondents were asked whether ‘There will be a united Ireland in the EU in the next ten years’, with only 32% agreeing with this statement. The highest level of support for a United Ireland was among the 18-24 age group at 51% – the youngest age group which have grown up in the post-1998 Agreement period. Markedly, only 24% of those aged 65+ agree that there will be a United Ireland, the cohort most cognisant of the Troubles from the late 1960s to late 1990s.

The EMI/Red C poll 2021 offers something of a contrast to the BBC Spotlight survey condeucted by LucidTalk, which found that 51% of those in the Republic of Ireland favoured a United Ireland.

Both polls are noteworthy, and reiterate the complexity and multi-layered nature of the attitudes towards a United Ireland both north and south of the border, which need to be investigated much further.

The poll also teases out nuanced criticisms of the EU. 71% of people believe the EU should do more to regulate digital media platforms including online sources of news, information sharing platforms and social media. And only 34% of individuals believe the EU is doing enough to deal with the effects of the climate crisis.

With only 53% of respondents agreeing that the EU is moving in the right direction and 52% of people agreeing that now is the time to hold a Conference on the Future of Europe to reform the EU, even if it results in a referendum in Ireland, there is no room for complacency.

Irish political parties need to discuss the EU much more with constituents and ensure citizens’ dialogues are established in partnership with civil society groups. As the EU attempts to draw a line under Brexit and launches the Conference on the Future of Europe on 9th May, areas of EU policy will be subject to reform. These include health, climate change, the economy, social justice, the digital sector, European rights and values, migration, security, and the EU’s role in the world.

Ireland is a good EU citizen, it went through the crisis and agony of the bailout programme and came out as a poster boy for resilience and toughing it out. Nevertheless, there is more work to be done in order to address knowledge gaps about the EU in Ireland.

Kathryn Simpson is a Senior Lecturer in Political Economy at Manchester Metropolitan University, and Deputy Director of the Manchester Jean Monnet Centre of Excellence.

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