EU membership crucial for our economic future
OPINION:As Ireland takes the helm again, let us recall how the EU has positively influenced our lives over four decades
Ireland begins its seventh presidency of the European Union tomorrow, while 2013 also marks the 40th anniversary of Ireland’s accession to the EU. As we take the helm again, it is worth reflecting on what four decades spent at the heart of Europe has done to transform our economy and our society.
Despite our recent problems, Ireland’s EU membership has driven our economic development over the past 40 years, helping our once underdeveloped economy to become one of the most successful hi-tech, exporting economies in the world.
Although we had gained our independence from Britain several decades earlier, in 1973 we were still economically wedded to it. Our mostly agricultural export market was completely dependent on selling to the UK – itself one of the slowest-growing western economies at that time and one where there was a policy of maintaining low food prices, which translated into low wages in Ireland.
EU membership changed all of this. Suddenly, farmers, under the Common Agricultural Policy (Cap), were being paid proper prices for their produce, far in excess of what was available to them by selling to the UK. It’s worth noting that between 1973 and 2008, Irish farmers received €44 billion from the Cap – just one way in which resources were transferred to Ireland to help build our economy. Structural funds of €17 billion since then also helped to improve roads and public transport infrastructure.
Gaining access to the EU’s Common Market also changed everything for Irish business, as continental markets were opened up to us and we became a much more attractive prospect for foreign direct investment. To illustrate, in 1973 the value of that type of investment in Ireland stood at €16 million; today’s figure is €30 billion.
But, arguably, the real change came with the creation of the Single Market in 1993. This eliminated trade barriers within the EU, allowing for the free movement of goods, services, labour and capital between member states.
Perhaps the best way to illustrate how this transformed the Irish economy is to look at our per capita GDP. In 1993, it was just 70 per cent of the EU average. By the end of the century it was well above the average and, despite our many pressing problems, there it remains today.
The introduction of the single currency brought additional incentives for foreign investors to locate in Ireland, along with relative price stability. Notwithstanding the problems of recent years, the euro has made life easier for Irish businesses and travellers trading or visiting in the euro zone.
Of course, the EU has positively influenced Irish life in many other ways. Forty years ago, no woman could get married and keep her job in the public service or a bank. The removal of the marriage bar in 1973 – a condition of our membership – was one of the first major results of the EU’s equality legislation.
For others, the EU will have most resonance in the Erasmus programme, through which thousands of Irish students have been able to study abroad. Or it may be in some of the more practical, tangible outcomes affecting everyday life – such as the deregulation of the airline industry in the 1980s, which, for the first time, made foreign travel a possibility for most Irish people.
We must also acknowledge the modernising effect the EU’s many environmental directives have had in this country. It is not so long since we were pumping raw sewage into Dublin Bay.