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In January 1973 Irish journalist Dennis Kennedy penned an article for German weekly newspaper Die Zeit as part of a short series on the incoming members of the EEC; what could be expected of them, and what they themselves expected. Ireland, according to Kennedy, was eagerly awaiting regional funding which would inevitably flow from Brussels and, it was hoped, would invigorate the economy. But Irish hopes also retained politico-cultural dimensions. Entry onto the European stage as an equal partner would mean a change in Anglo-Irish relations, with Ireland no longer a powerless smaller affiliate in a bilateral relationship; instead “Anglo-Irish relations will be situated, maybe for the first time in history, on an equal footing”. It was hoped in Ireland, Kennedy believed, that entry would also increase living standards in the Republic, arriving at northern levels and, thus, eliminating what was seen as an obstacle to reunification. Kennedy also predicted a change in thought, with a move from vertical to horizontal thinking: People would no longer compare their situation with the years experienced before in Ireland, but with the situation of those living in Hamburg and London.

It is interesting to compare these expectations with what followed. Certainly, in 2022, the Irish relationship with the UK is now on a more equal footing; indeed, membership of a larger sovereignty-sharing body has given the Irish state a degree of geo-political clout it could otherwise only have dreamt of, as Brexit has shown. The standard of living in the Republic has surpassed that of the north. There has been a revolution in Irish horizontal thinking and living. While Ireland of the 1970s was relatively insular and deeply Catholic, with travel abroad difficult and expensive, Irish society has experienced a transformation in intellectual and experiential openness, due at least partly to increased EU-related mobility and digitalization. Yet, state institutions still do not really fully reflect the sense of fairness and equality people desire, as homeless numbers rise, housing becomes scarce, and childcare remains an expensive quasi-luxury. The Irish economy has indeed been invigorated, but only for some. There is a real need to connect ‘horizontal thinking’ to a more ethically-run economy.

Statistics regularly suggest that Irish people are extremely pro-EU. Certainly, as the UK has become ever more euro-sceptic, Irish euro-positivity has gone through the roof. Is there, though, a genuine European identity on display in Ireland, beyond pragmatic politics and economics? Certainly, it is not easy to identify with the European Union; an abstract, complex and bureaucratic body of institutions and laws. It remains a source of worthy socio-regional funding, directly financing important projects, and has been a legislative motor for social liberalisation. A democratising and peaceful source of soft power in the world, the Union also represents a better, more fairly-regulated type of economic globalization; a capitalism that transcends national boundaries requires a managerial structure of this kind. But the EU’s external sea borders have also shamefully become a graveyard of sunken human bodies, who once dreamt of a new life in a new continent. The EU has also been an agent of humiliating financial austerity. A pro-EU stance, thus, usually comes justifiably laden with EU-critique.

Perhaps the more thorough adjoining of ‘horizontal thinking’ – or cosmopolitanism – with an ethically-based economy could provide an avenue to a real European identity. The sociologist Gerard Delanty has appropriately called the European Union a vehicle for “normative transnationalism” that has established the “precondition for European cosmopolitanism”. The EU has indeed helped to normalise transnational links and to facilitate a relaxed, everyday cosmopolitanism for many; by easing mobility for its citizens but also by establishing a series of formal exchange programmes, such as Erasmus. Cosmopolitanism as an idea suggests a type of cultural open-mindedness, an openness to different languages and different ways of viewing the world, but some conceptions of cosmopolitanism, such as those of the philosopher Anthony Appiah, see it as also linked to an ethical discourse that should be reflected in the state institutions of liberal democracy. Cosmopolitanism is, actually, Ireland’s natural state as Ireland, if history had taken a slightly different route, would have become a much more markedly bilingual island, with many more people moving easily in their daily lives between Gaeilge and English, between different ways of viewing and conceiving the world. Poverty, emigration and colonialism stunted this development but also, indeed, created meaningful long-held familial-transnational links with Boston, Sydney and Vancouver. Ireland now also has an array of meaningful familial-transnational links with cities such as Warsaw, Berlin, Lagos and Tehran. As the numbers of binational people grow in Ireland, the numbers of people moving easily in their daily lives between languages and ways of viewing the world also grows, in a return to Irish’s natural state of cosmopolitanism. This cosmopolitan reality needs to be guided by an ethical edge in the Appiah sense, reflected in legislation, to protect and support multilingual multiple identities, and to provide a strong material and educational basis for “horizontal thinking” as part of daily living. Put simply, the state and the EU also have an ethical responsibility for suitably housing its people and for providing fair childcare services. This cannot be left to the market. Maybe then a cosmopolitan European identity might actually emerge from a cosmopolitan Ireland, an ethical-cultural open-mindedness for the 21st century, centred in an inclusive economy.

Inspired and assisted by the Irish Foreign Affairs as part of the Communication Europe Initiative, our Ireland EU 50 series is a selection of unique stories from writers from Ireland and elsewhere. The CEI was established in 1995 to raise awareness about the European Union and to improve the quality and accessibility of public information on European issues.  

Fergal Lenehan
Researcher. Investigating cosmopolitanism and neo-nationalist discourse, online. Co-edited “Reclaiming the European Street” by Michael D. Higgins, Uachtarán Na hÉireann. Dad. Social Europeanism. Hurling. Likes posting pictures of rooftops.

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