Ireland joined the EU on 1 January 1973 following an overwhelming 83% “yes” vote in the respective referendum of 10 May 1972. Since then it has become one of the greatest success stories of European integration. It managed to pick the best out of its connection with the European continent and the English-speaking world.
A European transformation
In 1972 Ireland was globally known for ‘the troubles’ of the northern part of the island. It was a financial satellite of the UK. Its economy was based on agriculture and its society suffered from unemployment, poverty and emigration, including what we call today ‘brain drain’.
Its access to the European Economic Community (EEC), which later became the EU, with its huge single market of 440 million people today, opened new perspectives for many sectors of the Irish economy. Since then, it has become much more diverse and dynamic, with industries like information technology, pharmaceuticals and financial services. Ireland joined from the beginning the eurozone, namely the EU monetary union. That choice ensures until today access to cheap lending, price stability, comparatively low inflation and easier absorption of international financial shocks.
Ireland has also transposed into its internal legislation virtually thousands of EU legal acts, ensuring alignment of dozens of economic, social and environmental sectors with the rules and policies of its European partners. The EU framework further pushed a traditional Catholic society in a more progressive direction. The website of the Irish Representation to the EU highlights, for instance, the issue of gender equality. It reminds the younger generations that Irish women were discriminated against back in the 1970s, when men were paid more and there was a marriage bar for women in public service jobs. Since then, and thanks to European legislation on equality in the workplace, Irish women are entitled to equal pay for doing the same job as their male colleagues. Men benefited too, as they are entitled today to paternity leave. This is just an example of not only economic but also social progress linked to the EU membership.
However Ireland opted out from the EU free-movement Schengen area, as it preferred free movement across the border with Northern Ireland/UK. It also retained its traditional neutrality and stayed out of NATO, contrary to the big majority of EU member states. It also stands out from the rest of its EU partners by using the lowest standard corporate tax rate, a mere 12,5%, thus gaining a great competitive advantage and attracting many big companies from around the world. The EU did not play the prime role in the resolution of the Northern Irish problem, but it helped a lot. It ensured that there would be no hard border on the island following Brexit. It included Northern Ireland (NI) in the EU customs union and internal market – a remarkable accomplishment as NI is still part of the UK. The EU also ran a series of cross-border ‘Northern Ireland PEACE programmes’, to ensure cohesion between communities involved in the conflict in NI and the border counties of Ireland, and also promote economic and social stability.
It is finally important to highlight that Euroscepticism remains a minority view in Ireland, where opinion polls regularly indicate between 70% and 90% support for membership of the EU. This is one of the highest rates in the Union.
The next 50 years?
It is impossible to predict the future of the EU, as well as the future of Ireland in it, over the next ten, twenty or fifty years. However it would be safe to make some assumptions about the big picture. Due to Brexit, Ireland is going to connect ever closer with the continent and move further away from the UK. Its development will strongly depend on the EU funds and programmes on digital and green transition. The same is going to happen with its energy and food security – two major challenges of our century. Due to the advancement of globalization, it will strongly rely on the EU trade agreements and negotiating powers to advance its business interests at international level. And thanks to its recent success with knowledge-based economy, Ireland will be well-placed to contribute to the EU policies on artificial intelligence and the fourth industrial revolution.
Moreover, while being the only English-speaking member of the EU, Ireland will serve as a cultural bridge between Europe and countries like the UK, USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. As far as allowed by its size, it could offer ambassadors, cultural representatives, business links and political initiatives to connect the European continent with the ‘Anglosphere’ and benefit out of its special place in both worlds.
Inspired and assisted by the Irish Foreign Affairs as part of the Communication Europe Initiative, our Ireland EU 50 series is a selection of unique stories from writers from Ireland and elsewhere. The CEI was established in 1995 to raise awareness about the European Union and to improve the quality and accessibility of public information on European issues.