Ireland’s calculus on sanctions is informed by its economic ties to Russia and its need to forge stronger EU ties ahead of a potential Brexit.
Ireland is reluctant to move to deeper sanctions unless there are massive Russian violations of the Minsk agreements. It advocates a “wait and see” approach: political dialogue should be continued and existing sanctions should be rolled over. However, sanctions should not be extended as long as the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the Franco-German diplomatic initiative continue to report that Minsk is generally being implemented. Despite Ireland’s increasingly close economic ties to Britain, it is also careful to avoid the more hawkish position of its nearest neighbour. And, as a non-NATO member of the European Union, it continues to stress the importance of keeping open potential channels of communications with Moscow.
Dublin’s position is that restrictive measures against Russia, coupled with open dialogue and continued political and economic engagement with the various sides in the conflict, offer the best way of creating the conditions for a breakthrough. Although Ireland says that the EU should respond with one voice, its stance locates it alongside Denmark and the Benelux countries, midway between the more hawkish stance of Poland, the Baltic countries, and the United Kingdom and the more cautious position of countries like Greece, Cyprus, and Italy.
In recent years, Ireland has made a considerable investment in developing its economic, trade, political, and cultural relations with Russia – so,the economic imperative for its strategy on sanctions is clear. Russia is the third-largest non-EU export market for Irish goods after the United States and China. Irish food and drink exports to Russia in 2013 were worth over €230 million, but since then, Irish food exporters – principally meat, dairy, and seafood – have been badly hit by Russia’s retaliatory sanctions. Ireland is due to hold a general election in early 2016. Having exited its EU/IMF bailout programme and steered the country through a politically unpopular austerity programme, Enda Kenny’s coalition government does not want to see the Celtic Tiger’s fragile export-led recovery put at risk by worsening relations with Russia.
However, as the crisis deepens, Ireland is also increasingly keen to forge new and stronger European links beyond the UK, its closest ally, which by the end of the decade may no longer be a member of the EU. Brexit would be hugely damaging for Ireland and Dublin has grown more vocal in expressing its view that the economic and trade benefits to Ireland of UK membership are significant and that it wants the UK to remain a full and integral EU member. In a speech at an ECFR event in London last November, Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs Charlie Flanagan said there was “too much at stake” for Ireland to remain on the sidelines of the debate.
As a small and traditionally neutral country, Ireland has so far contributed €300,000 towards the additional costs of the OSCE operation in Ukraine and seven Irish nationals serve in the organisation’s Special Monitoring Mission. Ireland has consistently stated that there can be no military solution to the crisis. This stance has been criticised in some sections of its domestic media but – as Ireland approaches the centenary celebrations of its own independence – it is a view that is unlikely to change.
Brian O’Connell is an Irish writer and broadcaster and a former press officer for the European Council on Foreign Relations.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.