Ireland and the EU

With the L&H society debating Ireland’s relationship with the European Union on Campus this week, David Farrell looks at its history, and its future

Ireland’s membership of the European Union is taken for granted today, and to many it has been credited with making Ireland a more independent state. Yet much of our early dalliances with Europe were inextricably linked to those of the UK. Prior to joining the EU, most of Ireland’s trade and commerce depended upon Britain, and not to follow its economic destiny would have been unimaginably foolish. It has been noted as a key factor in our development from middling agricultural state into the economically developed Ireland of today. So, how did we get here and what sort of a relationship has the Irish state had with the EU?

The Maastricht Treaty was signed by the members of the European Community on February 7th, 1992, and came into force on November 1st 1993 both in Ireland and across the EU. It set-up the European Monetary Union (EMU), the precursor to the Euro. Whilst also establishing the European Union and formalising many of the institutions, it saw greater powers ceded to Europe and was the biggest step toward European unity since the organisations inception.

The effects of the EMU itself soon led to economic woe for Ireland and others as it saw states link their currencies to the Deutsch Mark. This all lead to a series of currency devaluations and to an easing of the EMU criteria. It highlighted the economic disparities across the Union and left food for thought over further monetary union. With expansion to 15 states in 1995, Ireland maintained its status as a beneficiary of the EU, staying as such until the accession of 10 new states in 2004. In 1999, 11 of the 15 member states signed up for the Euro and had a three year changeover to the new currency.

The next big event in Ireland’s relationship with the EU would occur in 2001, which incidentally saw the end of the ‘real’ Celtic Tiger, when the Irish people rejected a European treaty for the first time ever with a turn-out of just 38%. Concerns were raised over Ireland’s neutrality, decreasing influence in Europe and less representation. With Ireland left as the only state needing to ratify the treaty, the government sought and gained clarifications and concessions on those issues in the Seville Declarations ahead of a 2002 re-run of the referendum. It received a 60% majority with a vastly increased turnout. By the time the treaty came into law, Europe was preparing to welcome 10 new states on June 1st 2004 during Ireland’s Presidency of the EU.

This presidency was arguably the most significant of Ireland’s six terms to date, with the next one being the first six months of 2013. These presidencies present a chance for Ireland to play a greater role in setting the agenda, and the accession was seen as an opportunity for those incoming states to use all that the EU had to offer to achieve greater prosperity and security, following the Irish example. From here on in however, things began to get rocky for Ireland’s love story with Europe. The Euro, due to sluggish French and German economies, saw record low interest rates for Irish borrowers. This played a large part in the building of the property bubble and our eventual economic demise.

The European Constitution, proposed in 2004, sought to formalise EU powers and structures along with some organisational reforms. It would condense all existing EU treaties into one document. A number of states notably France, Spain, The UK and The Netherlands proposed referenda. The first such vote passed by 70% in Spain, but rejection by French and Dutch voters saw the constitution dead in the water. This led to a re-branding of The Constitution of Europe as the Treaty of Lisbon and it passed via parliament in most states. Ireland was an exception. There grew a presumption that the Irish would ‘be good’ and endorse the treaty. This wasn’t to be the case due to a large number of issues that were highlighted, primarily representation at an EU level. Again clarifications were sought and gained and these along with insistence on a different result, saw just that.

In spite of everything we find a Europe brought together by mutual suffering, austerity and economic strife. The Europe of today was not the one envisioned in the myriad of treaties and resolutions passed over the years, but a leaderless Europe afraid to take a stand. Ireland has had to play a very subservient role of late, going from a poster boy for EU development to a dunce expected to shut-up and do as told. Arguably, Ireland has benefited more than most from a united Europe. We have also achieved much, providing two of the five EU Secretaries General, a Parliament President and an EU ambassador to the US, as well as being a de-facto leader of the smaller states. Yet Ireland has been increasingly marginalised and our insistence on Democracy in handovers of power is derided.

Europe needs to change and quickly. We hear talk of greater Union every news cycle. Yet we hear little about greater representation or inclusivity. It is time for our leaders to stop with the band aids and perform the necessary surgery. The current precipice sees them left with two options: row back on Monetary Union and re-evaluate or come closer together. They seem to be going for the latter, but ignore the necessity for greater legitimacy, democracy and openness. If they don’t stop and make a grand and decisive decision things will get only get worse before they get better and we will keep on making the same mistakes.

The L&H will debate the motion “This House Believes That The EU is Bad for Ireland” on Wednesday, October 3rd at 7pm in the Fitzgerald Debate Chamber.