THE economic, political and societal development of Ireland since joining the European Economic Community in 1973 has been nothing less than seismic.
At the time, there was a common understanding of the significance of Ireland’s membership of what was to become the European Union. It held a promise of prosperity, greater freedom, and even the chance for peace in our time.
As a new member country, Ireland sprang forward with a youthful enthusiasm. Successive Irish governments and businesses sought out and grasped every opportunity the Single Market had to offer. We were keen to expand trading links with our European neighbours.
In the early days, Ireland was considered a poor country in comparison to most other member states. Every penny of EU funding was welcomed like the gift that it was.
Through wise investments, we upgraded our roads and infrastructure. Farming families across rural Ireland benefited massively thanks to the Common Agricultural Policy.
EU membership has certainly delivered economic benefits to Ireland, having received more than €40 billion in EU funds from 1973 until 2018, as a net recipient of the EU budget. The Single Market accounted for 40% of total Irish exports in 2020. This market is said to represent more than €30 billion in added value to our economy.
Ireland has also became a more equal, inclusive society, where human rights are cherished. Joining the European Community saw an end to the so-called ‘Marriage Bar’, which had required women to give up public sector jobs once they got married. EU values, such as equality, have been a guiding light for our country.
Once in this European club, Ireland began strengthening diplomatic relations, shaping legislation and quickly established a reputation as a hardworking, committed member state. Ireland has a record of being a trusted broker, with a proven ability to get opposing sides to come together in search of compromise.
A recent example of this was when Ireland’s Environment Minister, Eamon Ryan, was appointed to lead negotiations for the EU, in order to get us over the impasse at the COP27 Climate Change Conference in Egypt.
In addition to leading political figures, Irish diplomats and staff working in the EU institutions have risen to the highest positions based on their talent and dedication. We have had two Irish Secretary Generals of the European Commission, Catherine Day and David O’Sullivan. Mr O’Sullivan has just been appointed to lead the enforcement of EU sanctions against Russia on a global scale.
The election of Pat Cox as President of the European Parliament in 2002 also shows how our small country has often taken the lead, thanks to exemplary representatives.
Of course, our membership has not been without challenges. EU solidarity has helped us overcome the worst of times. The Union supported the dream of peace in Northern Ireland and funded numerous multi-million euro reconciliation projects in the wake of the Good Friday Agreement.
The economic recession was also a painful time in our history, after which we had to rebuild our fiscal strength and stability.
Since the UK voted to leave the Union, our fellow EU member states have stood firmly by Ireland’s side to achieve the best post-Brexit agreements possible, despite difficult circumstances, in order to preserve peace on the island.
Ireland is now a net contributor to the EU budget. The economic benefits afforded to us through seamless access to the Single Market, the most affluent market in the world, gives us the capacity and responsibility to give back. We can share our good fortune, not only in monetary terms, but also in terms of the wealth of our experience.
We joined the EEC alongside Denmark and our closest neighbour and ally, the UK. In the past, Ireland could depend on the UK at the European Council table. Looking forward, Ireland should develop new alliances, perhaps with some of the newer member states.
Together, smaller countries can be effective allies for each other.
Ireland must strive to be an outward-looking, forward-thinking member state. We should focus on emerging opportunities across the digital sphere.
In other vital areas, we have much more work to do, such as in tackling climate change. In fact, we have the potential to be a clean energy exporter, utilising our abundant renewable natural resources. Encouraging and investing in talented Irish people who might consider a career in the EU institutions is also crucial.
Ireland has matured in its 50 years of EU membership. We have achieved our overarching aims of furthering national interests and improving our economic prospects.
At EU level, Ireland continues to promote peace, progress human rights and advocate for a more equal, just world.
The European Union is now truly home for Ireland. Our country can be confident in its future, as a highly-respected bridge-builder and a driver of positive change. After 50 years, Ireland is a true EU success story.
Seán Kelly MEP (Ireland South) is the Leader of Fine Gael in the European Parliament.