Ireland and the EU

Since joining the then European Economic Community (EEC) in 1973 Ireland has experienced a roller-coaster journey of highs and lows. European integration has undoubtedly coincided with an extraordinary transformation of Ireland: from an economy dominated by agriculture and low-level manufacturing to one associated with hi-tech knowledge-intensive services; from an inward-looking society on the periphery of Europe to one which has (for better or worse) embraced globalization in its multiple forms; and from a polity where sovereignty was exercised exclusively from Dublin to one where the European Union now plays a central role in decision-making. Ireland’s ‘EU journey’ has been more nuanced and less emphatic than many commentators suggest. Instead, it can be summarised as a collection of successes and failures, with plenty of twists and turns along the way. The experience has been influenced and marked by economic advance and regression, by political triumphs and periodic crises, by important social advances and by a somewhat volatile public opinion.

The dramatic nature of the Irish experience within the EU is underlined by the fact that when Professor Joe Lee wrote his landmark history of twentieth century Ireland in the late 1980s one of the most important issues he addressed was the apparent (continuing) economic failure of the Republic of Ireland. The main reasons advanced for this failure included slow and erratic patterns of economic growth, low productivity in key economic sectors, high and persistent levels of unemployment, exceptionally high emigration rates and a range of enduring social problems. That this remained the case after more than a decade of EU membership seemed to call into question the wisdom of the Irish decision to join the Community. By the late 1990’s, however, Ireland was increasingly viewed as a ‘model pupil’ amongst the so-called ‘Cohesion’ states, the poorer members which qualified for significant financial subsidies known as Structural and Cohesion funding. The economic ‘take-off’ of the early 2000s only seemed to confirm the evidence that Europe had been good for Ireland: access to the Single Market in particular turned Ireland into one of the most significant recipients of Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in the world. And notwithstanding the deep problems thrown up by the ‘Great recession’ after 2008, Ireland remains one of the European Union’s wealthiest member states.

It seems clear, however, that the protracted financial and economic crisis has changed the dynamics of the Irish relationship with the EU. The ‘European project’ was closely associated with austerity following the arrival in Dublin of the troika in November 2010 and public opinion increasingly exhibited a negative attitude towards European integration. The crisis also constituted a profound crisis of politics, political institutions and democratic representation. Governance in both Ireland and the EU failed to deal adequately with the ‘financial tsunami’ when it arrived in 2008, and thereafter public confidence in the capacity of those institutions to manage the crisis decreased very significantly. Notwithstanding the exit from the ‘bailout’ regime in 2013, there remains a distinct fragility about the Irish relationship with the European Union.


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