50 Years of Irish EU Membership
For our weekly “Ideas on Europe” editorial by UACES, the University Association for European Studies, we welcome Dr Mary C. Murphy, from the University College Cork, in Ireland.
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Fifty years ago, Ireland joined the European Community, together with Denmark and the UK. But you are actually celebrating a double anniversary!
That’s right: just over 100 years ago, on 6 December 1922, the Irish state was founded. On that date, Ireland assumed independence from British authority. And fifty years later, on 10 May 1972, the citizens of the young Irish state voted decisively to share Ireland’s hard won national sovereignty by supporting accession to the then European Economic Community (EEC, as it was called then).
This decision to join the EEC – which formally happened on 1 January 1973 – is commonly regarded as one of Ireland’s most momentous foreign policy decisions. The achievement, and subsequent experience of EU membership is widely considered a critical moment in supporting Irish independence, state consolidation and economic transformation.
What did EU membership offer to Ireland?
In broad terms, it offered both political and economic opportunities, which Ireland was largely adept at embracing. In a period of just 50 years, the Irish economy encountered substantial change and marked significant improvement. Today, Ireland is among the most prosperous of all EU member states!
Membership of the single European market, access to EU agricultural supports, and generous structural funding receipts helped to underpin a gradual economic transformation from comparatively poor member state to one of the EU’s economic success stories. Central to that success is a trade profile which is far more diverse and considerably redirected towards Europe and the US, and away from the UK.
And in political terms?
Politically, the pooling of sovereignty which EU membership entails is viewed positively by the Irish state and by Irish citizens. The idea that shared sovereignty enhances national sovereignty and facilitates greater decision-making autonomy is embedded in the Irish political system and across society. This is especially evident in terms of the relative absence of a Eurosceptic narrative in Irish political discourse and the lack of political representation for the tiny minority who oppose Ireland’s EU membership.
However, for all the good fortune associated with membership of the EU, Ireland has encountered periods of immense challenge and difficulty, including treaty revisions, the global financial crisis, and of course Brexit.
Yes, we remember the rejections of two treaties by national referendums!
It happened on two occasions: the Nice Treaty was rejected in 2001 and the Lisbon Treaty in 2008. Critically, however, these two “no” votes did not permanently damage the Irish relationship with the EU. That is because the decisions were later overturned by strong majority support following second referendums which included some institutional and policy guarantees and concessions responsive to Irish concerns.
Public support for the EU was also undermined during the 2008 global financial crisis which hit Ireland particularly hard. For a period, the management of the Irish economy was largely taken over by the ‘troika’ of the European Commission, European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The troika oversaw a €65 billion bailout and harsh austerity measures. But like the earlier referendums, this period only temporarily challenged high levels of public support for the EU in Ireland.
And then came Brexit!
The Brexit crisis had a decidedly different impact on public and political sentiment in Ireland. Rather than weakening support for the EU, Brexit reinforced Ireland’s positive predisposition towards the European Union. In fact, notwithstanding the potential damage which Brexit entails for Ireland, the crisis underlined how Irish interests are best served by being closely anchored to the EU.
Ireland’s steadfast commitment to the EU, against the backdrop of the Brexit crisis, is all the more remarkable when set against the factors which motivated Irish membership ambitions in 1973. That original decision to seek EU accession was strongly influenced by a heavy Irish trade reliance on the UK. EU membership, however, helped to reorientate Irish trade relations away from the UK and to boost Ireland’s political and diplomatic clout, meaning Ireland was better positioned to withstand the UK exit from the EU in 2016.
Overall, this really sounds like a success story!
There is no doubt that Ireland’s experience of EU membership has encountered twists and turns, and ups and downs. On balance, however, Ireland’s post-independence journey has been boosted and enriched by the country’s decision to become part of the EU. Membership helped not just to consolidate and strengthen the young Irish state after 1973, it also facilitated economic growth, supported social progress, and reinforced Ireland’s international standing.
For a small, newly sovereign state on the western periphery of Europe, the effect has been truly transformative.