It was supposed to be a good year for Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. In January, for the first time since 2007, the Irish goernment—which was so savaged by the global financial crisis of 2008 that it was under the International Monetary Fund’s thumb until 2013—announced a budget surplus. Drastic survival tactics had paid off, including cutting public-sector salaries by as much as 20% and freezing all public-sector hiring and promotions. It had been uncomfortable. The collapse of the Celtic Tiger bubble—with its bankruptcies, layoffs, and foreclosures—was anything but a distant memory. But Ireland was back in the black. Imagine the indignity, then, for its top minister to step up to a lectern and tell the press four grim words: “Nobody will go hungry.” A panic over food shortages had gripped the country ahead of Varadkar’s budget announcement, sparked by the specter of a so-called “hard Brexit” by its top trade partner, the United Kingdom. (About half of Ireland’s food and live-animal imports come from the U.K.) The Irish government published a contingency action plan warning of “severe macroeconomic, trade, and sectoral impacts.” A flurry of tense news headlines followed.
Such is the paradox of Ireland in 2019. It has the fastest-growing economy in the European Union for the fourth-straight year with a gross domestic product that shot up from $226 billion in 2012 to $334 billion in 2017, a total that surpasses the GDP of Denmark and is roughly double the per capita count of France or Spain. Yet an uneasiness has permeated since 2015. That was the year the Irish GDP ballooned by 26%, inflated in part by a reclassification that included “inversions,” in which U.S. companies move their headquarters overseas in pursuit of lower corporate taxes. Ireland, it seemed, was Schrödinger’s economy: both flourishing and feigning. Nobody dares lift the lid to find out if the gains are rooted in reality or financial sleight of hand.
Then came Brexit. In 2016, Ireland’s only neighbor by land and erstwhile colonizer voted to walk out on the EU and its $17.3 trillion common market. The move to secede, called Brexit and triggered by a slim majority (51.9%) in a national referendum, has unfolded as a Shakespearean tragedy of reckless vanity and hubris, shaped by quasi-comical political chaos in London. The British powers have not been as riven by intraparty defections, parliamentary defeats, and general acrimony since 1886, when then–Prime Minister William Gladstone announced his support for Irish Home Rule. More than a century later, stiff-upper-lip Britain’s tumble into confusion and calamity has heightened plucky Ireland’s reputation for calm and clarity and turned it into an attractive destination for upwards of 12,000 once-British jobs, according to the City of London’s own estimates.
“Brexit is creating a contrast that hasn’t existed before,” says Kenneth Armstrong, a professor of European law at the University of Cambridge and author of Brexit Time. “It has unleashed Britain’s demons and given Ireland a halo. Ireland seems modern just as Westminster’s system of muddling through makes Britain seem like a Victorian relic.”
In other words, as Britain self-combusts, Ireland—with its young workforce, low taxes, and English fluency—is poised to pounce.