FOUR DECADES IN EUROPE
Politically 2013 promises to be another tough year. Not only does the economic situation present challenges, which could well torpedo the Coalition by year’s end, but on another front there is little doubt that Abortion will be the political issue for 2013 in Ireland.
In the wake of the Halappanavar tragedy the government has announced its intention to legislate to fill the gap following the Supreme Court decision in the X case twenty years ago. The first public hearings took place in early January. The battle lines are being drawn. The Church and the pro-life lobby have already set out their stall. At least one expert witness has pointed out that it would be a very different debate were Britain, where abortion is legal, not so close. Could another emotive and divisive referendum be on the cards?
As if that were not enough, for the first half of 2013 Ireland has the six month Presidency of the EU. While arguably this will provide Ministers with some easy and positive publicity and afford a welcome relief from the unremitting pressure of the economic situation, it is also a distraction with Ireland tasked with advancing some serious, if not critical, issues for Europe. These include trying to get agreement on the EU financial framework (i.e. budget) for the coming eight years .
This year also marks the fortieth anniversary of Ireland’s membership of the EU. Those decades merit a closer look for they have seen Ireland altered dramatically and irreversibly . It’s a very different Ireland now compared to 1973. The battered Ireland that joined the EC, as it then was, was a poorer, shabbier place than the vibrant and assertive country of today, current economic problems notwithstanding . There are many faults with the EU but overall, membership, and the partial pooling of sovereignty that went with it, have been of enormous benefit.
There was, of course, Europe’s money. Up to 1973 Ireland was overwhelmingly dependent on Britain as a trading partner, which included trying to sell our agricultural products into a country which pursued a cheap food policy. Access to the Common Agricultural Policy (the CAP) changed this. We now had a particularly heavy hitter batting for us – France – and Ireland’s agriculture and by extension, the economy, benefitted.
Then, beginning around 1980, a different flow of funds into the country began in the form of funding from the centre to the less prosperous regions. Historians of the future may well mark this development as the point when the EU began to evolve from merely a trading bloc to a future European super state.
This process culminated for Ireland in the political and economic bonanza of the early 90s which saw Ireland securing roughly $ ten billion for infrastructural development. Hence our roads and other improvements. Hence also the freeing up of revenues which were spent raising welfare and other benefits.
The EU itself underwent a sea change in the early nineties. German reunification generated politically a new emphasis on expansion of contacts in Central and Eastern Europe which led to the opening later of accession negotiations with a dozen prospective member states. Internally the creation of the Single European Market in1992 led to the removal of many internal barriers to the free movement of goods capital and labour between the member states.
The new Europe, now the Union, was acquiring the attributes of a supranational state. For Ireland, now riding the back of the Celtic Tiger, the Single Market generated new opportunities for trade, and investment poured in. For the first time Ireland had full employment, married women were coaxed into the labour market as never before and yet still there were labour shortages. Ireland began to experience immigration for the first time in centuries.
May 1st 2004, during Ireland’s last EU Presidency, saw the expansion of the EU from fifteen to twenty five countries. It was rightly regarded as a watershed date in modern European history and as ringing down the final curtain on the Second World War and the Cold War which followed. Eight of the new members were former Soviet satellites, most occupied by the Red Army for decades after 1945. Two more former satellites joined in 1997.
It was against the background of domestic labour shortages that the Government took the otherwise curious decision to permit immediate freedom of access to the Irish labour market to workers from the new Member States. The Accession Treaties provided for limits or restrictions on the movement of labour from the Accession States for up to seven years. This to allay fears among the fifteen at the prospect of unfettered access to the labour market for the new entrants.
Twelve of the fifteen states introduced restrictions for up to seven years. The three countries which did not were Britain, Ireland and Sweden. Sweden got relatively few immigrants. Britain and Ireland, which form a common travel area, got far more. Britain got roughly one million, relatively easily absorbed in a population of 60 million. Ireland received at least quarter of a million, not so easily absorbed in a population of just over four million. Factor in immigration from elsewhere and the last census showed a population of over four and a half million, with 12% non-nationals. We’re far from becoming a nation of immigrants but Ireland has certainly changed, changed utterly.
The immigrants came to work, for jobs were plentiful. The net result was to swell the Irish labour force by several hundred thousand, many working in the construction boom. The national hangover, now that the bubble is well and truly burst, has led to an unemployment level of around 14.6%, a staggering total of 430,000 odd signing on the live register, almost 10% of the total population. More worryingly, one in five Irish households includes an unemployed adult, the highest among 31 European countries. And without emigration, which has returned with a vengeance in the last two years the figures would be even worse.
The building boom was fuelled by a number of factors but none more so than another aspect of our EU membership, the availability of cheap credit obtained through Irish membership of the Eurozone. Ireland embraced the Euro from its inception. The attraction –lower interest rates – seems to have blinded those in power to the potential pitfalls as well as ignoring the fact that most of our trade was with non -Eurozone countries. Hubris? We’ve certainly paid for that one.
It would take several columns to do justice to the many positives we have derived from EU membership, particularly in the areas of equality, women’s rights and social reform. Quite often it has been the push or the prod from Brussels or the rulings of the European Court which has obliged reluctant Irish legislators to act.
But above and beyond all this, EU membership has helped Ireland mature as a country and a society. Before 1973 much of our identity was defined in terms of our relationship with Britain. EU membership has changed this, provided a new dimension. We may not be at the heart of Europe, whatever Irish politicians may claim, but Europe is at the heart of us.