2022 is an important milestone year for Ireland. It marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Accession Treaty, signed by Ireland in January 1972 which allowed it to join the EEC. After twice failing to join, the third application, alongside the UK, to become a member of the EU was more successful. Following the signing of the Accession Treaty, both countries joined the EEC in January 1973. EEC membership was widely endorsed by the Irish electorate with 83.09% voting in favour in a referendum on the subject in May 1972, while the UK endorsed it in 1975.
Unlike the UK, Ireland has had a different experience with EU membership. While the UK’s relationship has been characterised by tensions from the moment it joined, Ireland’s relationship has been associated with acceptance and support for integration with the EU. This is highlighted with its support for the Eastern enlargement of the EU in 2004, and its enthusiastic support for Ukrainian accession to the EU. Coupled with support for EU integration from successive Irish governments, Ireland’s public approval of EU membership appears to highlight that this has resonated with the electorate.
In a recent survey carried out by European Movement Ireland in partnership with RED C, Irish support for EU membership is at 88%, a 4% increase on levels recorded in 2021, and previously peaked at 93%. This compares to a median of 67% for the entire union, and is second only to Malta. Meanwhile, according to a study by Eurobarometer, 75% of people have a positive image of the EU in Ireland, which is the second highest in the EU. Alongside this, 77% agree that Ireland’s interests are considered at an EU level. The latter is the highest of any EU member. In addition, Ireland has the second highest public trust of the EU with 74%. Does this suggest that Ireland is the EU’s most enthusiastic member?
The evidence presented would suggest that Ireland is certainly one of, if not the EU’s most enthusiastic member states. Government and public have consistently shown some of the highest support for EU integration, enlargement and membership. Unlike other member states, Ireland has not had a considerable growth in Euroscepticism and little appetite existed for ‘Irexit’. Arguably, the lack of public mood for Ireland leaving the EU has come due to the mutual benefits EU membership has brought for the nation. Before joining the EU the Irish economy was largely agrarian and reliant on the UK. However, since acceding in January 1973, Ireland’s reliance on the UK has considerably reduced. It has received over 40 billion in EU funds, along with subsidies to fund agriculture and fisheries through the Common Agricultural Policy and Common Fisheries Policy, while its net exports to the EU have grown to 40%.
Nevertheless, one cannot be complacent. While Ireland has consistently been one of the EU’s most enthusiastic supporters since joining, the recent EU elections highlight room for improvement. Forty percent of people surveyed by Eurobarometer reported they were ‘not interested’ by the May 2019 elections, which is slightly below the EU average. However, this is more associated with the democratic deficit of the EU rather than an Irish problem. Going forward, to increase and solidify Ireland’s status as one of the strongest supporters of the EU project, the government needs to increase education and awareness amongst the public, particularly at younger ages, about the benefits of joining the EU. By doing so, this should lead to an increase an increase in interest in EU affairs and decrease in the potential rise in Euroscepticism.