Ireland's entry into the European Economic Community was emphatic.

Let’s look at the figures: a referendum held on 10 May 1972 recorded a turnout of 70.3%, with 83.09% of the electorate in favour.

It was the highest turnout for any referendum up to then. 50 years on, there’s still overwhelming support.

A Red C survey in 2022, for European Movement Ireland, found that 88% of those questioned were in favour of Ireland remaining in the EU - that’s up 4% on their previous poll.

Our relationship with the EU has changed significantly in recent years. It will evolve further as EU leaders continue to pursue 'ever closer union’ - a key phrase from the Treaty of Rome which established the EEC and came into force on 1 January 1958.

As Taoiseach, Micheál Martin last year characterised Europe’s influence on Ireland as transformative.

He said: "A young Irish State transitioned from relative economic stagnation and insularity to embrace economic openness, a place at the heart of the Single Market, a competitive and attractive location for global investment."

But the social changes flowing from EU membership have been equally ground-breaking, if not more far reaching.


Ireland was a net recipient of over €40 billion in EU funds between 1973 and 2018, according to data from the European Commission.

What’s not to like about that?

Our road network is an obvious example of the EU’s largesse. And the money continues to roll-in. According to the Department of Agriculture, Irish farmers will receive an estimated €10.73 billion in European funding under the Common Agriculture Policy over the next seven years.

In 2014, however, the financial dynamic changed: for the first time Ireland contributed more to the EU budget than it received.

The amount was relatively small - €168 million - but the shift was seismic. Our country had become a net contributor due to its significant economic growth over the previous four decades. By 2020, the State was paying €360 million more into the EU budget than it received.

However, for the majority of Irish people, it seems, this is a small price to pay for the economic revolution which has been attributed to Ireland’s membership of the European club.

We’re no longer a country - as we were in the 1960s - with high unemployment, high emigration and a high dependence on the British export market for our near sole commodity - agricultural produce.

Our ongoing membership of the Single Market, and access to its 440m citizens, means that we’re no longer a financial satellite of the UK.

Instead, our economy has become more dynamic - with foreign IT, pharma and financial services and a more diverse domestic product being generated. 40% of our exports went to the EU in 2020.

At the same time, there have been substantial problems. We joined the euro from the beginning, on 1 January 1999, on the basis that it would provide us with cheap lending, price stability, low inflation and the ability to cope better with international shocks.

Our property crash and subsequent EU/IMF bailouts raised significant questions over those claims of solidarity.

The current cost-of-living crisis, and gigantic interest rate hikes by the European Central Bank, have brought those questions back to the fore.


It is indisputable that many of the social changes which have taken place in Ireland over the past 50 years are mainly down to Ireland’s membership of the EU.

For example, Irish people can live and work in any other Member State and enjoy equal treatment when it comes to jobs, working conditions and tax.

Across the EU, workers' rights have been improved through better working hours, conditions and contracts. And that freedom of movement has benefitted tens of thousands of Irish students who, thanks to the Erasmus programme, enjoy the right to broaden their horizons by studying in universities in Paris, Rome or Berlin.

Women’s rights in the workplace have been revolutionised by our membership of the EU. The 1992 pregnant workers directive was a legally binding provision which provided a minimum standard for the protection of employment rights of women.

It followed a slew of other legislation, such as the 1975 equal pay directive and the 1976 equal treatment directive.

Had Ireland never joined the EU, such protections may have eventually come our way.

But the driver for change was Brussels. In Ireland of the 1970s, women were discriminated against across the board. The most heinous example being the so-called "marriage bar" in which women were forced to leave a public service job once they got married.

Europe has also been strong when it comes to protecting the rights of minorities. Senator David Norris famously overturned the criminalisation of homosexuality in Ireland by taking a case to the European Court of Human Rights - an international court rather than an EU institution.

He had lost in both the Irish High Court and Supreme Court - the latter partly justifying its position on the basis of "the Christian nature of the State".

Even when victorious, the Irish State dragged its heels in introducing into Irish law the ECHR judgement.

It’s arguable that the social changes brought about by the Irish electorate voting to change the Irish Constitution and usher-in divorce and abortion are also attributable to EU influence.

When it comes to consumer protection, the influence of EU legislation is extensive. The regulations cover everything from food labelling, cosmetic ingredients, durability of goods, mobile phone roaming costs, mobile phone chargers, recycling, energy efficiency, safety requirements, green-washing, child protection, misleading advertising, disputes resolution and… on and on the list runs.

In essence, the EU has been able to use the opportunities presented by the Single Market to demand that business abides by its stringent regulations.

Such power isn’t limited to products - it increasingly applies to how the tech sector works and, for example, how and where data is stored.

And that’s a power which simply wouldn’t be available to an individual country - like Ireland - if it wasn’t part of the EU.

Read more:
EU membership transformed life in Ireland over past 50 years
Ireland at 50: Where we stand in the EU firmament
How does the EU-US relationship impact Ireland?
1973-2023: How joining the EU has changed Ireland


Former Taoiseach Enda Kenny joined around 20 other EU leaders in Oslo for the 2012 awards ceremony

When the EU was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2012, the Nobel Committee’s chairman, Thorbjorn Jagland, said it had "... helped to transform most of Europe from a continent of war to a continent of peace".

Many EU politicians have described the European project as the greatest peace process the world has ever seen.

One of them, another Nobel laureate, was the late SDLP leader John Hume, who stated: "It is the duty of everyone, particularly those who live in areas of conflict, to study how it was done and to apply its principles to their own conflict resolution."

The EU’s long commitment to the Irish peace process remains steadfast. It’s visible in a myriad of ways, including funding mechanisms for cross-community groups and the ongoing EU-UK negotiations aimed at ensuring there’s no return to a hard border on the island of Ireland as a result of Brexit.

Yet, the EU’s evolving foreign policy has led some to assert that it can no longer claim to be a vehicle for peace.

My colleague Tony Connelly has been writing about the challenges presented by Ireland’s involvement in the EU’s defence cooperation entity PESCO, as well as the EU’s policy on arming Ukraine.


The EU operates by what’s termed "pooled sovereignty," in which Member States agree to operate on a collective decision-making basis.

Each country has a minister or leader attending EU Council meetings; Members of the European Parliament; and a commissioner.

Some decisions are taken by consensus, but there is a growing move to make more use of qualified majority, i.e. if 15 or more countries agree to a proposal, and those countries represent at least 65% of the EU population, then the proposal is passed.

One of the more potent arguments in the 2016 Brexit referendum was that such a political arrangement amounted to a usurping of sovereignty because it upended the democratic tenet that a government should always be directly accountable to the people.

The logic ran that a government should always be voted in by the electorate, to pass laws for the people which are upheld by the national courts - without any undue influence from external sources, such as the European Court of Justice.

Pro-Brexit campaigners synthesised that sentiment into a pithy campaign slogan: freedom.

Irish politicians have been sanguine for the most part about the concept of pooled sovereignty. However, there could be trouble ahead with this, for two reasons: (1) the further expansion of the European Union into, for example, the western Balkans, and (2) the increased use of qualified majority voting.

In essence, it will be imperative for the present and future Irish governments to establish new alliances, within the EU framework, to ensure that we continue to frame any future debates and ensure that our voice is heard.

Critics of the EU routinely assert that there is a "democratic deficit" at its heart.

They cite the fact that whenever a referendum on further EU integration is defeated, it’s inevitably sent back to the electorate.

In Ireland’s case, that happened with the Nice Treaty (2000 + 2001) and the Lisbon Treaty (2008 + 2009). Yet the notion of a democratic deficit is quite nebulous.

There are undoubtedly issues over transparency, accountability and the sheer complexity of what’s being decided at EU level.

However, the view of the electorate - polls suggest - is that they are supportive of this unique political structure. The Red C survey, for European Movement Ireland, found that 79% of people questioned agreed that EU membership has had a positive impact on their lives.


Successive Irish governments have described climate change as the greatest challenge facing the world.

At the same time, Ireland has been a delinquent in this - paying for carbon credits, at the taxpayers' cost, after failing to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in line with agreed targets.

This government says it will abide by the EU’s European Green Deal - the long-term plan to tackle the crisis. The greatest assistance Ireland could give the EU (and the planet) is to actually meet the targets set out in its own Climate Action Plan - the first being a 51% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030.

A challenge where Ireland will require considerable EU assistance is the ongoing advance of digitisation, and the associated rise of Artificial Intelligence.

The EU is in a strong position to influence the impact of the ‘the 4th industrial revolution’ on its citizens. It has the ability to negotiate trade deals and enforce compliance with defined standards.

Yet it’s difficult to foretell what heightened interconnectivity and smart technology will mean for workers and workers' rights. The trick for the EU is to shape this emerging economy and protect the workforce.

Sixty-five years ago today, six countries - Belgium, France, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and West Germany - came together to form what would become the EU.

Ireland was finally admitted on 1 January 1973 - on its third attempt. Now there are 27 EU members. Though the UK has departed, there are many other states in the accession process - waiting to join.

Ireland has been a strong advocate of countries in the Western Balkans being given that chance. Managing that process will present significant difficulties but, if done correctly, will also present considerable opportunities.

The ongoing migration crisis has shone an uncomfortable light on how the EU has been dealing with people coming into the union without prior authorisation.

The EU’s stated objective is to operate an effective, humanitarian and safe European migration policy. However, that has clearly not been achieved.

There are also considerable differences between Member States, with those worst affected - Greece, Italy and Spain - arguing they’ve been abandoned to deal with an EU-wide problem.

It is as much Ireland’s problem as any other Member State and it’s imperative that the EU finds a means of living-up to its own stated objective.

Finally, a key priority for the EU in general, and the European Parliament in particular, has to be transparency and accountability.

This isn’t new territory: in 1999, the entire Commission led by Jacques Santer had to resign over allegations of corruption.

The latest embarrassment is the arrest of the Green MEP Eva Kaili after Belgian police, searching a number of addresses, found €1.5m in cash, allegedly linking her to a bribery scandal.

This is a crisis which affects all MEPs - not just Kaili. There’s no time to waste when it comes to properly regulating how lobbying is conducted at the parliament and ensuring that there are declarations by MEPs of all meetings with representatives of 3rd party governments.


John Hume, an avowed European, made the argument that the European Union was at its best when it was both inspirational and practical.

It’s a tip the EU would be wise to remember. It needs to take a leadership role on the greatest challenges of our age while, at the same time, remaining relevant to its 440m citizens by proposing practical solutions.

As the previous 50 years of Ireland’s relationship with the EU have shown, that is easier said than done.