Ireland and the European Union

Ireland is no longer just the Emerald Isle in name - it has become the jewel in the crown of the European Union.

When Ireland joined the European Union in 1973, it was a poor agricultural country that was largely economically dependent on its powerful neighbour, the United Kingdom. It had a history of unemployment and mass emigration. Since then, the Irish economy has been transformed to such an extent that Ireland is Europe's largest software producer, and the Gross Domestic Product per capita exceeds that of the UK. While other factors were involved, it is clear that joining the EU was a positive step for Ireland.

Ireland has benefited from its membership of the EU along with its historically close links with the United States. Because of our EU membership and low corporation tax rates, many American companies, such as Microsoft, Dell and Intel, have chosen to make Ireland their base in Europe. Ireland has also received a large share of the EU's Regional and Structural Funds, which have helped improve the infrastructure that has facilitated the economic boom. On the other hand, some traditional industries, such as the textiles industry, have struggled because of increased competition. Also, Irish farmers have mixed opinions about the Common Agricultural Policy.

Since independence, Ireland has been militarily neutral. Among the causes of our neutrality were partition and a reluctance to enter into a defence alliance with the United Kingdom. Our membership of the NATO-led Partnership for Peace and the recent creation of the European Rapid Reaction Force has caused some concern. It seems, however, as though Ireland will participate in the European Rapid Reaction Force while remaining outside NATO.

From a foreign policy point of view, Ireland has been able to exert considerable influence from within and has been able to help shape EU policy on issues such as East Timor. Historically, the smaller nations in the EU have had a disproportionate say because of the national veto and the National Commissioner. The decisions made at the recent Nice summit will reduce this influence, but this was inevitable in the context of enlargement. Ireland succeeded, however, in preventing the extension of majority voting to the area of taxation.

From a social and cultural perspective, things have also changed. After joining the Union, employment equality legislation was enacted to improve the position of women in the workplace. In recent years, Irish culture has become less homogeneous as emigration has been replaced by net immigration. The traditional importance of the relationship with Britain has shifted as Ireland has become more focused on Europe and the outside world. Recently, a debate has been initiated about Ireland's future economic model - Boston or Berlin? A European social democratic model or an American free enterprise model? In referendums and polls, however, the Irish people have consistently supported the EU, and this support is likely to continue.

by Donal McSweeney

The author is a member of the teaching staff at International Study Centre, Dublin.