When Ireland joined the EU, I was just a child and can hardly remember the significance of that accession. As I grew fonder of this unique peace gift that is the European Union, Ireland more than any other country impressed me in the way it turned challenge into opportunity. Through a silent revolution it implemented radical changes in all aspects of economic and social life.
Who remembers that in 1970s single women had to resign from their jobs once they got married and only 27% of women were working or available for work compared to 77% today? Who anticipated that foreign direct investment poured in the 1990s, in a country that projected double digit unemployment and mass migration by the turn of the Millennium?
In signing the 1972 European Community (EC) Accession Treaty, Patrick Hillery, the then Irish Foreign Minister, made clear that the Treaty of Accession was the most important moment in Irish foreign policy since the foundation of the State. Hillery, who played a crucial role in the accession negotiations and then became the first Irish European Commissioner, was no ordinary man and anticipated that his country would benefit like no other from joining the then called European Community.
In all fairness, Ireland has played its cards well. While in 1973 Ireland’s GDP amounted to more or less 70% of the EU’s GDP, in 2021, the country recorded the second highest level of GDP per capita in the EU (119%), overtaken only by Luxembourg (168 %). Between 1973 and 2018, Ireland was a net recipient of over €40 billion in EU funds. The country is now a net contributor.
Ireland’s membership of the European Union greatly facilitated its transformation from a peripheral and somehow anachronistic economy, overwhelmingly dependent on agriculture to one largely driven by hi-tech industry, medical equipment, pharmaceuticals, organic medicals, perfumes, cosmetics and other goods with dairy and meat falling at the bottom of the 10-top exports list.
It is undoubtable that the EU contributed to this success, by boosting confidence and enthusiasm, but other factors have accelerated the economic miracle. Among these factors stands high the dynamism of its people, which has allowed the country to move away from its splendid isolation, turning it into a modern and open country.
Again, Ireland has played the European card in a remarkable way. In fact, the Irish accession model should be more carefully studied in universities. The title could be ‘how a small and peripheral country has managed, in less than 30 years, to completely take its destiny into its hands and become a successful European player?’
This transformation was not a one-off. It is in motion. Recently, Ireland was the only EU country to have economic growth during the Covid-19 pandemic: a rise of 3.4% puts it in stark contrast to a contraction of 10.8% in Spain and 8.9% in Italy. Who would have thought considering that the EU, through a complexed set of circumstances, forced Ireland into a bailout programme in 2011? Again, the Irish proverbial pragmatism and resilience managed to turn challenge into opportunity thanks to a pool of talented people.
Just a few people would remark that Ireland – a small country (not even 5 million people) – has already supplied two Secretary Generals of the European Commission: David O’Sullivan currently appointed as International Special Envoy for the implementation of EU sanctions and Catherine Day, who retired after serving 10 years as SG of the European Commission.
And when it comes to other top EU jobs, one should mention Pat Cox, former president of the European Parliament and Mairead McGuinness, a top MEP turned Commissioner for Financial Services, Financial Stability and Capital Markets Union. In December 2022, Paschal Donohoe was given a second term as president of the Eurogroup, while in October 2022 Tony Murphy was voted president of the European Court of Auditors by a clear majority. There is more: Emily O’Reilly, the EU Ombudsman, but also Ms Emer Cooke, the Director of the European Medicines Agency, which played a key role during the Covid 19 pandemic.
The list is long. Other Irish key figures of the EU institutions could be mentioned such as Cillian Lohan, currently Vice-President of the European Economic and Social Committee, and Seamus Bolland, President of the EESC Civil Society Organisations Group.
All this confirms that Europe has enabled a whole generation of talented Irish people to come to the fore and shape the European Union of today through institutional sympathy and the political dexterity that are credited to Ireland, as the country is a real master in making sure that ‘red lines’ are never crossed.
If the Council still has to adopt decisions at unanimity on fiscal matters, well Dublin has made sure that it stayed that way and if the Treaty of Lisbon has maintained one Commissioner per country, well Dublin has, also there, been particularly stubborn on that issue. Yet, Ireland is appreciated in Europe and can get away with nearly everything: this is a talent to be reckoned with.
Now, for the EU, and particularly for Ireland, the post-Brexit era will be another major test. So far, Dublin has done very well and there is no reason to think that it will not continue to do so. This is my sure bet.
In partnership with the Irish Foreign Ministry 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.