The United Kingdom’s historic decision to leave the EU has stunned Brussels and sent shock waves through Europe. The Scottish government has threatened to hold a second referendum on independence, jeopardizing the kingdom’s unity. And in Ireland, the vote threatens to derail a fragile peace process and undermine a recent economic recovery.
Over the past four decades, the EU has transformed Ireland’s relationship with the United Kingdom. Before both countries joined the bloc, in 1973, Ireland had achieved political but not economic independence. Its economy was rural and underdeveloped, leaving it reliant on British markets for its products. In the words of the French author Jean Blanchard, Ireland was an “island behind an island,” its ties with its larger neighbor defined by a combination of supplication and resentment.
EU membership drew the poison out of the relationship. It provided Ireland with new markets and a fresh political forum in which it remade its partnership with the United Kingdom and its European neighbors. Over a period of a few decades, Ireland’s agricultural economy was transformed into a postindustrial one, undergoing, in quick succession, a massive economic boom, a nasty crash, and a partial recovery. As Ireland grew, it stopped defining its identity solely in relation to the United Kingdom and instead began to see itself as a small, successful northern European state.
Ireland did not have to choose between Europe and the United Kingdom, since the latter was also a member of the EU. Sometimes, Ireland was constrained by its larger neighbor, as when it declined to join the EU’s Schengen scheme for border-free travel—despite the Irish government’s desire to do so—on the grounds that it already had a similar arrangement with the United Kingdom, which did not want to join the Schengen area. Usually, however, the tradeoffs were uncomplicated and easy to accommodate.
After last week, however, Ireland will no longer be able to have it both ways. If it wants to maintain good