Policy never changes in a vacuum. External factors and events are as important as policy makers. This was evident when Ireland changed its position on corporation tax. Global developments presented the Government with a choice. It decided that even though that policy change may have costs, it would serve Ireland’s interest in the long term.
Ireland’s role in European defence is another policy choice is fast approaching and one with far-reaching consequences. An overdue public debate on those consequences is now beginning and we must ensure that it is structured, honest and works towards a new public consensus.
Our annual ‘Ireland and the EU’ poll showed in 2021 that 54% of people agree that Ireland should be part of increased EU defence and security co-operation, while 27% disagreed. 19% said they didn’t know.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine has moved defence cooperation from a strategic to an existential priority for the EU. European defence has been an evolutionary process as member states have slowly increased their cooperation in some areas, while retaining their national prerogatives in others. This gradual approach has been facilitated by the absence of necessity. A relatively stable geopolitical environment and the protection provided by NATO, underpinned by the United States, provided the EU with the luxury of pursing defence cooperation at its own speed.
Irish defence policy has also been influenced by this absence of necessity. Our favourable geographical position, combined with our military neutrality, meant we could afford to maintain a level of ambivalence about European developments.
However, things are now changing rapidly. Progress on EU defence had already gathered pace. New threats, from cybersecurity to disinformation and repeated scenarios where the EU has been unable to act, for example in the case of Afghanistan, have focused minds. The situation in the EU’s neighbourhood has deteriorated and the geopolitical environment is characterised by competition among major powers.
Defence and security were already due to be top of the agenda of this month’s meeting of EU leaders as they consider the long-planned ‘Strategic Compass.’ which will set out priorities and deliverables for European security and defence up to 2030.
The invasion of Ukraine has presented real-world consequences that have supercharged political will. The lightning-fast decision to direct European Peace Facility funding to lethal combat equipment set a new precedent. Faced with the invasion of a neighbouring sovereign state, the EU showed it is willing to move beyond sanctions and fund arms. Some member states have upended decades of defence policy almost overnight to provide support.
If Ireland is to change its position, it will be a slower process, as demonstrated by our decision to ‘constructively abstain’ from funding lethal weapons for Ukraine. Our military neutrality receives widespread public support and even affinity. Any change to or evolution of that will require close public consultation that will lead to robust and difficult debate. We should not shy away from this.
In the past, neutrality has been used to conflate European defence with offence. The spectre of an offensive European army was invoked during multiple referendum campaigns. As a result, Ireland’s neutrality was legally guaranteed by the European Council in 2009, before the second referendum on the Lisbon Treaty.
The recent publication of the Report of the Commission on the Defence Forces prompted public debate about the capabilities and resources of the Irish Defence Forces. However, commentary about their role and priorities was limited. The invasion of Ukraine has brought some clarity at a European level to the question of what we should be defending. It shattered the illusion that we can take the peace and security we enjoy for granted.
This presents choices about the future of Irish defence policy and the degree to which it will be connected to EU developments. In the future, the EU will likely have increased capabilities to intervene in humanitarian and crisis situations. Cybersecurity, disinformation and artificial intelligence will increasingly form part of future defence cooperation.
Addressing gaps in the EU’s capabilities at sea, in the air and in space are also likely to be prioritised.
How these developments will progress and who will participate will be the subject of further negotiations. Difficult questions will arise for Ireland.
What criteria should we apply to decisions to defend ourselves or provide security to citizens?
How should we provide support to defend our allies or secure their sovereignty?
How do we want them to support us? How do we align military neutrality with defending our own interests and values? Most crucially, will we be active in shaping and participating in EU defence cooperation, or will we opt out and what will be the result of either choice?
These are not theoretical questions. They are being debated across Europe right now. Our failure to address them to date means our skies are effectively protected by the UK, a country now outside the EU. Our coastline is vulnerable and our health service was crippled by a cyberattack last year. These questions and their answers will guide our role in the EU for many years. There is no consensus at present. We need to work harder and faster to begin to achieve one.
By: CEO, Noelle O Connell