Subscriber OnlyPeopleIreland's 50 years in the EU

Don’t believe the Eurosceptic press. The EU is far from the bureaucratic monolith it portrays

Catherine Day: The European Union is still a work in progress, and each generation will bring its view of the future to its construction

Ireland joined the EEC, as it then was, in January 1973. This is one of a series of articles exploring our evolving relationship with the European Union – and its past, present and future

My Brussels career did not get off to an auspicious start. I missed the flight which was to take me to Brussels in June 1979 and when I started work in the European Commission, a day late, I immediately ran into a problem. I was put into an office with an elderly French man who clearly had not been informed he was to share his previously single-occupancy office with a very newly arrived young Irish woman. He protested loudly to the powers that be and I and my desk were swiftly removed. I got an apology and a more congenial office companion. Happily, from then on, things improved.

When I started work in the commission it was very different from the organisation it has become. Ireland was part of the first of several enlargements and most of the attention was taken up by the arrival of the UK. The commission was very francophone and any interaction with the administration was through French. All the procedures were paper based and often involved ingratiating oneself with a variety of Belgian and Italian colleagues so that they would condescend to move your paperwork to the next stage. We had big typing pools churning out the mass of paperwork needed to make the system work. I vividly remember the excitement when my unit received our first fax. It got an office to itself, you had to ask for a key to go and use it and to record every sending and receipt of a fax in a big ledger.

At the political level the larger member states each had two commissioners, usually from different political parties. Despite their political differences, on issues of perceived national importance they regularly made the same arguments and often managed to build support around the table for their points of view. The single commissioners from the smaller member states had to work that bit harder to get their points across. Later, under the Nice treaty, all member states agreed to have only one commissioner each, which made for more equal treatment. In the early years, around the men-only weekly meeting table, there were cigarettes and cigars to help the proceedings along. Over the years the cigarettes and cigars were distanced, first to a side table inside the meeting room, then outside it until they were finally banished altogether from the building.


Working in different jobs in the commission over the years brought me to many different places. I have been in the White House and the Kremlin, in the Élysée Palace and 10 Downing Street. From the highs of meeting world leaders and European royalty I have also seen the lows of bombed-out towns and meeting refugees in Palestine and Bosnia. In the early years of working on the recovery programme for Bosnia we had to fly to Sarajevo on US military aircraft as there was no civilian air travel. On a joint visit of US secretary of state Madeleine Albright and European Union commissioner Chris Patten to Bosnia in 2000 we had to wait outside a US base in a helicopter while she had lunch with the troops. We got no lunch but I did share a granola bar from the bottom of my briefcase with Chris Patten.

One outstanding moment for me was being in Oslo in December 2012 to see the EU receive the Nobel Peace Prize. At that time the EU was in the depths of the financial crisis with doubts being raised regularly over its capacity to survive. In those dark days, receiving the Nobel prize in recognition of the EU’s “advancement of peace and reconciliation, democracy and human rights in Europe” was a strong signal of encouragement that the EU should continue despite its difficulties.

I hope that other young Irish people will see it as a dream job for a new generation and bring their energy and ideas to the next stages of this great adventure

I have had the privilege of working with brilliant people and great bosses who encouraged me to think big and try new ideas but also to know the value of compromise in bringing people with opposing views together for a common purpose. Working successively in the cabinets of Dick Burke, Peter Sutherland and Leon Brittan gave me insights into the differences between how politicians and civil servants see the world and what can be achieved when they work together.

In 1996 I was thrilled to be given the opportunity to work on the biggest enlargement the EU has ever undertaken. Like the rest of the world I had followed every news bulletin that documented the fall of communism and celebrated the fall of the Berlin Wall. Here at last was an opportunity for Europe to right the wrongs of the second World War and to unite a divided continent. By the time accession negotiations began with eight countries of central and eastern Europe plus Malta and Cyprus, the EEC had become the EU and had a much more integrated economic and political system. Learning lessons from previous enlargements we had an intensive pre-accession process with each country, working through the entire body of EU legislation and helping them build the administrative capacity to implement it.

Ability, and willingness, to live up to the obligations of membership is crucial to the bargain of trust between member states that makes the EU work. While we did a lot of work with the incoming member states on their justice and civil rights systems it has since become clear that is easier to adapt an economic system than a values one. The current disputes with Hungary and Poland go the heart of what EU membership is all about: the EU is an engine of growth and prosperity but most of all it is about sharing common values and living up to them.

The EU is still a work in progress and each generation will bring its view of the future to its construction. Far from being the bureaucratic monolith often portrayed by the Eurosceptic press, I found it to be an exciting process which constantly experiments with new ways of helping its members to deliver a better life for their citizens. I hope that other young Irish people will see it as a dream job for a new generation and bring their energy and ideas to the next stages of this great adventure. Who knows, maybe Ireland can provide another Irish secretary general of the commission in the years to come?

Catherine Day is a former secretary general of the European Commission and a trustee of The Irish Times