With continuous talk of whether there will be ‘a deal or no deal’ British exit from the European Union, journalist Ger Leddin takes a look back over the last forty-six years since Ireland first joined the European Community.
When I first started researching this feature, I was surprised to note that more than half of Ireland’s population weren’t yet born when on the first of January 1973 we the Irish nation, signed up to what was then the European Economic Community.
A frightening statistic for me and one which unfortunately reminds me of my advancing years as I can remember what Ireland was like before then and in a way I was part of the generation which benefited most from our subsequent membership.
1. The Economy
The clue is in what was the original name —The European Economic Community.
Up to 1973 Ireland, let’s face it, was the poor cousin of Europe and over-dependent economically on Britain.
For half a century since our Independence — a period which don’t forget included the isolation which we as an island were forced to deal with during the Second World War.
We simply hadn’t any major exports to the rest of the world and depended largely on an over-reliance of agri-food sales to Britain.
That over-reliance on agri-food exports changed quite rapidly after 1973. With Ireland’s entry, our economy moved from that over-reliance into what it is now an economy largely driven by hi-tech industry and an economy with access, aided by a common commercial policy, to a global market-place.
2. Ease of Travel
Approximately 1.3 million British citizens currently live, work or are retired in other EU countries. With all the uncertainness surrounding Brexit many of these ex-pats are unsure of their future regarding pensions, healthcare, length of allowable stay.
Ireland’s membership of the community removes this worry from it citizens who choose to live and work in other member states.
Since we joined the community we have enjoyed complete freedom to live and work in all member countries.
Irish citizens abroad can avail of basic European health cover which entitles us to the same level of health care as we would have at home.
The EU Single European Sky regulations have helped ensure a relatively low-cost regime with regard to airline fares making it much cheaper and easier for Irish citizens to avail of a wider range of employment options abroad, almost as a commuting option.
Ireland has one of the highest educated, young and dynamic workforces in the world. A fact that has helped to promote the country as a perfect location for the direct foreign investments which have helped the country grow over the past decades.
Our educated workforce was encouraged and part nurtured by the European Social Found which has contributed 6.5 billion towards the education and training of Irish workers.
One item to note is that In 1973 when Ireland joined the EU just 27,135 Irish students reached third level education. By 2015 that figure had increased to 173,649.
There can be no doubt but that Ireland’s agricultural industry has benefited greatly from the Common Agricultural Policy.
This, sometimes controversial policy has ensured that the €1.2 billion which Irish farmers receive every year helps level the playing field for Irish farmers and ensures that these direct payments can be targeted towards allowing Irish producers to become net exporters of agri-food products.
Ireland’s Rural Development Programme 2014-2020 has a budget of almost €4 billion, co-funded by the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development (EARDF) and also by the national exchequer.
While there has been a sharp decline in the numbers of Irish workers employed directly in agriculture — 24% of the country’s workforce in 1973 reducing to 8.4% in 2017 — some would argue that this may not necessarily be a good thing.
However, the CAP has done much to support, develop and encourage what is now a much more streamlined and competitive industry.
5. The Environment
Again, when you listen to Irish people discussing the EU the issue of European Union regulations concerning environmental issues the topic always seems to cause controversy and debate.
In a way, this is probably a natural reaction to a “Big Brother or Nanny State” syndrome.
But slowly over the years since 1973, we have seen a tremendous improvement in the standards of our bathing and drinking water, our air quality, our refuse disposal and the myriad of other components that make up the country in which we live.
These positive changes to Ireland’s environment have been brought about by the millions of euro in EU funding and the through the Community’s LIFE programme which has contributed approximately €3.1 billion to the protection of the environment throughout Europe including Ireland.
I started this feature by stating that Ireland had at times been considered as the poor cousin of Europe. This has now changed we have a vibrant and growing economy largely made possible by EU funding and support. Policies and funding have been made available and along with funds from our own central exchequer have insured the completion of far too many capital projects to list in this text.
Infrastructural projects such as our exceptional motorway network, the ongoing broadband network, ports and airports and many cultural initiatives have all been either fully or in part made possible by EU structural funding.
The country of Ireland has been a net recipient of European funds since 1973 and will remain so throughout the duration of the current EU 2014-2020 financial plan.
It is worth noting that Ireland’s net gain from EU budgets has been €44.6 billion since 1976.
A recent (Autumn 2018) survey showed that 64% of Irish people continue to have a positive image of the EU. Meanwhile, the share of Irish people (8%) with a negative image of the EU is the second lowest in the EU after Lithuania at 6%. The EU average is 20%.
So where do we go from here? Yes, Brexit will present difficulties, particularly for the agri-food sector and these difficulties will require careful fiscal management but to use a slightly twisted metaphor, are we better inside the tent looking out than outside looking in?