By Kristof Kocs
Dr. Christina Griessler, an Austrian-born research associate for the Political Communication Network (netPOL) at Andrássy University Budapest, and a European integration policy expert, paid a visit to our college on May 2, and delivered a special lecture to Professor Rafal Fabianowicz’s Comparative European Politics class.
This special occasion provided McDaniel College students with an opportunity to learn about the history and politics of the Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom, as well as discuss the general impacts of Brexit (the UK’s exit from the European Union), and particularly its consequences for Northern Ireland. Students could also ask questions from the professor, turning the lecture into a Q&A panel discussion, where topics such as the two countries’ position on the Russian-Ukrainian War and the related economic sanctions, were also discussed alongside the British-Irish relationship.
Christina Griessler graduated from the University of Vienna with a master’s degree in political science, and cultural and social anthropology, in 1999. In 2009, she obtained a postgraduate diploma in Conflict and Dispute Resolution Studies at Trinity College Dublin, Ireland, and received her doctorate in Political Science from the University of Vienna. Currently,Griessler works as a research associate at the German-language Andrássy University’s Comparative Political Science Department, specializing in Central and Eastern Europe, as well as the Rector’s Representative for Western Balkans Cooperation. Her research interests include the conflict transformation approach and issues of reconciliation and conflict mediation, Western Balkan political systems, EU enlargement, and Irish and Northern Irish politics.
Following a short introduction by Professor Fabianowicz, Griessler began by discussing her interpretation of what led to Brexit. According to the European policy expert, “the United Kingdom was not keen to transfer” the obligations and “competencies” of the European institutional system, and believed “that there was no guarantee that its special opt-out options” for key EU legislation would be preserved. “At the same time,” she continued, “Brexit was not expected to happen,” as there was “some hope, even until the last minute, that these issues would be settled,” and “it was also not clear” how the entire procedure would play out. According to Griessler, the latter is the primary reason that Brexit resulted in a “tedious annoyance” for everyone.
Griessler then shifted attention to the evolution of the two countries’ EU relations. She recalled that the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland, which was impoverished and backward in every aspect at the time, joined the European Union together, alongside Denmark on January 1, 1973. She emphasized how crucial it was for the Irish to break free of British dependency, and how “the asymmetric relationship” between the two countries grew more neighborly and equal. However, “while joining the EU benefited the Republic of Ireland,” which attained Western living standards by the 1990s, Griessler continued, the United Kingdom increasingly felt that its “independent role had been diminished” and that the EU had only reduced and curtailed the power and prestige of the once-thriving empire.
This was exacerbated by a lack of trust towards the EU, which existed in British society, and a successful campaign launched by a vocal minority, promoting the premise that a large number of refugees and Eastern European guest workers entering the country seeking better opportunities, would take jobs away from the local population. Moreover, the historical Irish conflict continued to escalate further, shifting from a primarily religious to a political one in nature, with the border issue between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, remaining unresolved.
The second half of the special event, was dominated by questions. In response to one of the questions, Griessler, for example, shared her thoughts on Scotland, in which the majority of local votes were in favor of remaining in the EU. Additionally, since the Brexit decision, the majority of Scots advocate leaving the UK and declaring independence. “The fundamental purpose of the UK’s government is to keep the union together,” she said, adding that Westminster politicians have learned from “[David] Cameron’s mistakes,” who thought the Brexit vote would fail, thus they will be far more cautious this time with the Scots.”That’s why” Griessler noted, “I don’t think [Scottish independence] will happen in the next few years.”
Nevertheless, Griessler believes that the outcome of the next election will have a significant impact, not only on Scotland or Northern Ireland, but the entire country’s future. Currently, the Labour Party is gaining support, and they have radically different beliefs regarding post-Brexit politics compared to the conservative government, and it is also questionable whether there will be a party capable of achieving a majority to rule independently. With the resignation of Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon in February, a change in Scottish politics is also likely. Regarding Scotland’s EU membership, Griessler argued that even if Scotland became independent, the same rules would apply to them, as for the Western Balkan countries who have been pursuing EU admission for the past 20 years. And, while Scotland may find it easier to meet the admission requirements, other candidate member states “would see this favoritism as unfair.”
When asked about her predictions for Northern Ireland’s future and the potential unification with the Republic of Ireland, Griessler explained that the latter is currently dealing with internal problems, particularly in social areas, due to a lack of needed infrastructure to accommodate the influx of refugees. In addition, the two political parties – Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael – that have been at odds for many years, have recently achieved “broad consensus in a united Irish government,” which would be endangered if the Northern Ireland issue had to be renegotiated.
Finally, when asked if she sees a difference or conflict between Ireland’s and the United Kingdom’s positions on the Russia-Ukraine conflict, Griessler replied that she “does not,”and that if there is, it is “only in a military sense.” According to the expert, the UK is a military superpower and a NATO member, whereas the Republic of Ireland is neutral, a position it has held since before World War II, out of fear that the United Kingdom would invade the country. As a result, “rather than sending weapons, Ireland accepts refugees, provides humanitarian aid, and supports economic sanctions against Russia.” In other words, “while the Republic of Ireland is unable to engage militarily, it completely supports Ukraine in other areas.”