Ireland’s 50 years of EU membership…

I had the pleasure of attending the annual Irish Association of Contemporary European Studies (IACES) lecture given by Professor Brigid Laffan of the European University Institute recently. In the hour available to her she painted some broad strokes of how membership has helped change Ireland over the past 50 years. One striking statistic was that male life expectancy was 68 years when Ireland joined in 1973. If I had been my age then, I would be dead!

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55% of our exports went to the UK at the time, and our average income then was 61% of the EEC average. Ireland was the first poor state to join the EU and has become an aspirational model for all the poorer states who have joined since. The EU is predominately made up of smaller, poorer member states and can no longer be accurately be described as an exclusively rich man’s club.

Critical to the success of our membership was the quality of engagement by our politicians and civil servants with a member of the audience who was part of the initial cohort of Irish civil servants in Brussels noting the pioneering spirit and enthusiasm with which they took to the task. We were particularly successful in shaping EU policies when there was a good fit between our domestic agenda and EU agenda.

There were 400 meetings between Irish and EU civil servants and politicians between June 2016 and June 2017 to ensure that Ireland’s interests were taken into account in the Brexit negotiations. A current concern is the dramatic fall-off in senior Irish civil servants in the Commission partly because a job in Brussels has lost some of its allure, (and perhaps also because some former British officials have used their right to Irish citizenship to re-designate as Irish?).

Part of Ireland’s early success in maximising the benefits of the CAP was attributed to Mark Clinton’s fabled ability to hold his whiskey and do without much sleep in the interminable overnight negotiations required to come to agreement. The regional and social funds were also critical in helping Ireland bridge the gap between a predominantly rural and agricultural economy employing 25% of the workforce and our much more urbanised and technologically advanced economy today (where agriculture makes up less than 1% of GDP).

The EU didn’t cover itself in glory in either its response to the 2008 financial crisis, or the much more recent encroaches on the rule of law in Viktor Orbán’s Hungary. However the infamous bank guarantee was entirely Ireland’s doing and wasn’t even communicated to the EU prior to being announced. The lack of an effective Irish banking regulator added to our culpability and helped to make the imposition of the Troika unavoidable. Nevertheless we recovered from that crisis far quicker than expected and EU membership remains the settled will of the Irish people with 88% support.

Ireland holds referenda far more frequently than any other member state which results in a more informed and engaged electorate. (In passing, one might note, that this is in stark contrast to the UK where the electorate have no way of changing their “unwritten” constitution, no Independent Referendum Commission to provide unbiased and authoritative interpretations of what a referendum proposal might entail, and little informed public debate of what the EU actually does or proposes to do in the future).

Today the EU is faced with multiple serious crises despite the relative stability of the Euro and the EU economy. The war in Ukraine, the migrant crisis, the energy crisis, and the climate change crisis have followed hot on the heels of the pandemic. These are forcing much greater cooperation on security, refugee provision, the transition to sustainable energy, and cross-border health care, procurement, and pandemic control. However, Professor Laffan saw little scope for the creation of a single market for services or much greater integration of national competencies like public health care, education, or social welfare without the enactment of a new EU wide Treaty.

Equally, she saw no scope for further enlargement without the reform of the EU’s rules for unanimous and weighted majority decision making. A potential EU-36 would be simply unworkable if one or two countries could block all progress. She saw little scope for the UK re-joining the EU for a generation, although closer ties were possible because the “paper thin” Trade and Cooperation Agreement currently makes the UK a more distant trading partner than Turkey.

Despite our best efforts, Brexit has been damaging for Ireland, particularly in de-stabilising the Belfast Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland. However, the Irish economy has not been as damaged as first feared and could even stand to gain from losing the UK as a direct competitor for FDI into the EU.

Ireland benefits from having a strong EU and does not have to choose “between Boston and Berlin.” However, we must guard against complacency (and carve out a new role for ourselves as the centre of gravity within the EU moves eastwards). The debate over the USA’s inflation reduction act is the latest example of where our close ties to the USA could be of benefit to the EU as a whole.

(Text in brackets are my commentary).


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