independent

Saturday 19 April 2014

John Downing : So what did the European Union ever do for us? A heck of a lot as it happens

Taoiseach Enda Kenny holds a news conference at the end of an EU leaders summit in Brussels

APART from the motorway funding and the farm grants, what did the EU ever do for Ireland? The short answer is: a heck of a lot – but much of the really important stuff is too often overlooked.



'Into Europe – Out of Work' was a slogan of the small group of Labour and Sinn Fein campaigners against Ireland joining the then-EEC during the referendum canvass in the spring of 1972. That slogan did not work.

On May 10, 1972, seven out of 10 Irish voters went to their local polling booth and 83pc of those said Yes – it was a 5:1 landslide. For the vast bulk of people – but especially Irish farmers – it was all about money. Garret FitzGerald, over six decades Ireland's biggest advocate of European participation, frankly admitted this.

"Yes, for most people the EU is a matter of economic self-interest – not of idealism or emotion," the former Taoiseach said.

But much depends on how you define 'economic self-interest'. Our economic interest was served in a most upfront and immediate way. By early 2008 – after 35 years of EU membership – the Department of Finance in Dublin gave the score: Ireland had paid in €20bn but taken back €60bn – leaving a surplus of €40bn – or well over €1bn per year.

Swiftly

The big farm payments came Ireland's way relatively swiftly. Historian Diarmaid Ferriter estimated that after just five years' membership the average Irish farmer had doubled his annual income.

Thanks to EU leaders, Chancellor Kohl of Germany, President Mitterrand of France, and their protege EU Commission President Jacques Delors, the decade 1989-1999 saw the EU's regional, social and cohesion funds really take off.

Ireland was at the front of the queue – with experienced officials framing the best proposals – and took an average of €1.2bn per year, every year, over that decade.

In his book 'The EU Negotiations that Shaped Modern Ireland', Peter Brennan, the foremost Irish authority on EU funds, estimates that Ireland totalled €18bn from these sources over the 20 years from 1988 to 2008.

The money was used to transform road, rail and other communications.

Some of the EU Social Fund money was questionably spent, as evidenced by the former FAS training authority debacle, and some more of it substituted so-called training which really was the dole by another name. But much of it was well spent bringing real opportunity and eventually good employment.

For a time the EU regional aid funds eclipsed the EU agriculture grants. But the reality is that the agriculture funds over time have been extremely important.

Even as late as 2011, when Ireland's take from regional social funds dwindled, the country took €1.6bn from the EU's Common Agriculture Policy.

TheCommon Agriculture Policy has its fierce critics – but it also has strong defenders in Ireland. One real drawback in the 1970s and 1980s was that Irish farmers produced for the EU intervention stockpiles, those infamous beef and butter mountains which artificially propped up prices and made Irish agriculture abjectly dependent upon subsidies.

The policy also held back farm expansion by quota restrictions. The CAP has changed direction and emphasis several times. But it has helped fund rural Ireland at a time of profound global change in rural communities. It is now about to be utterly transformed in forthcoming negotiations.

Away from all sorts of EU grant aid there were other huge benefits which were not often enough spoken about.

There is the Erasmus programme which every year helps 2,000 Irish students to travel and study abroad as part of their course. And there are other cultural contacts which help complement the Anglo-American influences on Ireland through all media.

There is also the key access. In 1973 Ireland got enhanced access to a market of 250 million people in nine countries. Forty years later this is now the biggest single market in the world with 500 million people in 27 countries. That has allowed Ireland to sell vastly more and diversify the range of its markets away from the huge dependence upon Britain.

It has also made Ireland, an English-speaking country in the eurozone, a magnet for inward investment.

The EU presidency

What is it?

Each country takes the chair of all EU meetings involving the 27 member states and guides proceedings for six months. Ireland's stint runs from January 1 to June 30, 2013.

Have we done this before?

Yes – six times: 1975, 1979, 1984, 1990, 1996 and 2004.

How did we do?

Usually quite well – efficient, committed and with style and humour.

Does it cost us money?

Yes. The Government estimates €77m, which seems conservative. But it brings big international publicity. Bear in mind that Ireland netted over €40bn in its 40 years of EU membership.

Can we push our own case on things like bank debt?

Tricky one. As chairpeople you cannot push your own case, but behind the scenes there are good opportunities to use quiet influence.

Irish Independent

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