The accession of Ireland to the EU in 1973 constituted perhaps the most important step taken by the country since independence in 1921. For better or worse the European integration process has had more impact than any other factor (internal or external) on the shape and performance of the Irish economy; EU membership – notwithstanding periodic setbacks - helped transform the economic landscape and this in turn has had a pronounced impact on the Irish social and political landscape. Membership brought far-reaching consequences across a wide range of domestic policy issues and sectors.

The changes go beyond obvious economic measurements and quantitative indicators. They speak of a state which learned quickly how to work effectively within the Brussels machine. Ireland’s skilful management of its first presidency of the Council of the EU won it much respect from its EU partners, and subsequent Irish presidencies (up to and including the seventh one in 2013) allowed Irish actors to build a reputation for both competence and skilful diplomacy. That Irish officials ‘learned to play the Brussels game’ better and more effectively than many of their counterparts, in itself, constituted an intangible asset in the permanent negotiation environment of EU politics. Ireland’s international visibility has also grown since 1973, and with it has come national self-confidence. Enjoying a place at the European Council table – the seat of the EU’s twenty-eight national prime ministers and presidents – puts Ireland on a par with other European states, most notably the UK. A one-time fraught relationship with Ireland’s nearest neighbour has been transformed and is now based on mutual and deepening friendship. The EU played a role in allowing this rapprochement to materialise, and was also supportive of the Northern Ireland peace process. The severity of the financial crisis in Ireland and the temporary loss of economic sovereignty certainly dented this profile, but not irrevocably so. After 2008, Irish officials worried extensively about ‘reputational loss’. But for all these difficulties, Ireland continues to assert national views and interests with confidence in Brussels and remains a valued and respected member of the EU club, allowing the state to ‘punch above its weight’ both within and beyond the EU.

Membership of the EU has been good for Ireland, but perhaps not quite in the ways expected in the early 1970s. It has produced distinct patterns of adaptation and undoubtedly provided the main context for the transformation of Ireland into a modern European state and society. EU membership provided very substantive support for Irish agriculture and - at a critical period in the 1990s and 2000s - Structural Funding helped ease the Irish economy on to a much more dynamic growth trajectory. Access to the Single European Market proved decisive for FDI and helped create a level playing field for all member states seeking to grow their economies. The EU has undoubtedly also been a catalyst for all kinds of positive changes in Irish society. The principle of equality – equal pay for equal work – was introduced by EU legislation. Women and workers benefited greatly from improved rights, and the social policy environment was utterly transformed by Ireland’s participation in a range of EU policy regimes. But, equally, the experience of the 1980s and 2000s suggests the EU was not and cannot be a magical panacea for small states: poor management of the domestic economy can lead to major setbacks, as it did in Ireland after 1979 and again during the Celtic Tiger years.

What the Irish experience within the EU really demonstrates is that membership adds significant value to the effort to manage different dimensions of globalisation and can ameliorate the worst effects of international economic competition. EU policy can also act as a lodestar for developing specific policy areas and help push back domestic constituencies opposed to change. ‘Better ways of doing things’ emerge from processes of cross-national management of common problems and the socialisation of domestic elites into best-practice models which emerge from the integration process. Pragmatism has been the central feature of Irish engagement with Europe. And even though the great storms provoked by the ‘Great Recession’ experienced across the EU after 2008 threatened the very foundations of the Union, there remains a strong attachment to the core principles of the integration process and a commitment to further deepening of the eurozone in particular. Arguably, for Ireland, after four decades of membership, being at the heart of the EU remains ‘the only game in town’.


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