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Ireland: harnessing the potential of EU membership

Since Ireland joined the then European Economic Community (EEC) in 1973, life for Irish people has improved significantly. In particular our membership of the Single Market has transformed our economy into one of the world’s most open, with a diverse range of trading partners. It has helped make us an attractive investment destination, while EU funding has been effectively applied to ensure a modern infrastructure and a very strong educational system across the country. Ireland’s historically-strong food sector is now a 21st-century driver of growth, while innovation and research are at the core of our entrepreneurial society.

Today, in no small part due to 40 years of EU membership, people in Ireland enjoy better educational opportunities, much-improved transport, a cleaner environment, more and cheaper mobility in the EU (from airfares to roaming charges) These and other benefits will be highlighted as part of the 2013 European Year of Citizens.

Find out how, in every county of Ireland, the EU has made a difference.  The EU matters, to all of us.

1. The economy and jobs

Single Market

The Single Market is one of the EU’s greatest achievements.  Restrictions on trade and free competition between member countries have been eliminated. All border controls within the EU on goods have been abolished, along with customs controls on people.   There is greater mutual recognition of educational and professional qualifications. Irish qualifications can now take you across Europe.

EU citizens can live and work in any Member State, which adds greatly to the opportunities and jobs available to Irish workers.

The single market has created greater opportunities for Irish business, helping it to look beyond its traditional markets in the UK, and to target exports at a larger, dynamic EU marketplace. Irish businesses have unhindered access to a market of nearly 500 million people.  An estimated 700000 jobs have been created in Ireland since 1973, and trade has increased 90 fold.  Through EU trade policy deals Irish exporters can sell more easily and cheaply into global markets, for example in South Korea, South Africa and Central America.

Cohesion Fund

When we joined in 1973, Ireland was still a small, largely agricultural economy which was heavily dependent on trade with its nearest neighbour the UK. Membership gave Ireland access to financial support through Structural Funds.  Ireland invested heavily in upgrading its transport infrastructure, which underpinned rapid growth in enterprise and exports.  Irish regions have also benefitted from Cohesion Funding: investment focussed on regional development to achieve higher standards of living and development across the country.


When Ireland joined the EEC in 1973 agriculture was its most important industry, representing 40% of exports with the UK as its dominant export market.  While Irish exports have diversified dramatically in our 40 years of membership (16% of total goods exports now go to the UK compared with 55% in 1973) agriculture remains key to Ireland’s economy.

In recent years agriculture has been among the key drivers of recovery and growth, having been modernised to compete in the new, wider European and global marketplace.  From 2007 to 2011 Ireland enjoyed a surplus of €9bn in trade of agri-food products with our EU trading partners. In 2011, 11% of our overall exports came from the agri-food and drinks sectors.

‌The Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) has given Irish farmers vital support which has enabled  them to expand their farms, upgrade their equipment and access training. EU membership has also provided Ireland with a huge barrier-free internal market of half a billion consumers for our agricultural products.

You can find out more on the website of the government food export agency, Bord Bia.

Research and development

Ireland has developed an international reputation for research and innovation, drawing to great effect on over €400m of EU funding through the Seventh Framework Programme and the Research and Development Fund.  Irish researchers take part in high-calibre pan-European research projects tackling some of the biggest challenges facing the world, from tackling cancer and Alzheimer’s disease to building a low-carbon economy. Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) have been particularly effective in attracting EU research support and Ireland has more SMEs receiving support from the Seventh  Framework Programme than any other Member State

Digital Agenda for Europe

Ireland  has positioned itself at the heart of Europe's digital industry (9 of the top 10 global companies maintain a presence in Ireland). The Digital Agenda for Europe is an EU programme which seeks to reboot Europe's economy and help Europe's citizens and businesses to get the most out of digital technologies. It is a flagship initiative under Europe 2020, the EU's strategy to deliver smart sustainable and inclusive growth. 

Women at work

Gender equality is a fundamental part of EU law.  European legislation on equality in the workplace has ensured that Irish men and women are entitled to equal pay for doing the same job, receive equal and fair treatment at work and that women are entitled to maternity leave.   The EU has had a real impact on Irish women. Important advances include the increase of females as a percentage of the total workforce – up from 34% in 1973 to 56% in 2011 - and the narrowing of the gender pay gap.  A woman earned 47% of a man’s earnings in 1973, but now earns 86%, above the EU average. There is further to go, but Ireland has moved a long way in the right direction.   


Workers’ rights

Every Irish citizen now has the right to live, work, study and retire in any EU Member State.  The EU has helped protect and enhance workers’ rights through a variety of regulations, for example on working hours and contracts.

European Social Fund

The European Social Fund (ESF) supports the creation of more and better jobs in the EU, by co-funding national, regional and local projects to improve levels of employment, the quality of jobs and the inclusiveness of the labour market.  Since Ireland’s accession to the EU the ESF has invested over €6 billion in education, training and employment creation in Ireland. This was invested to great effect across the regions of Ireland, increasing access to higher-level education for all.

EU Jobs

There are also many exciting employment opportunities for Irish citizens within the EU institutions, as well as openings for people with qualifications in Irish as translators, interpreters, and lawyer-linguists.  The EU jobs website provides information on the opportunities available.  Find more information about getting to Brussels, living there, and moving up the ladder in the European Movement Ireland’s Green Book.

2. Education

The EU funds many initiatives and projects aimed at all levels of education, from primary school to university, helping to create one of Ireland’s principal assets: our young, well-educated and skilled workforce.

The Erasmus programme is the EU’s main education/training programme, allowing students to spend time studying at a university in another European country. Around 200,000 students take part every year, including around 2,000 from Ireland. Erasmus has Irish roots:  it was launched by former Irish Commissioner Peter Sutherland in 1985.  Erasmus the blog offers further insights into the Irish experience of the Erasmus programme.

Erasmus for All, a programme bringing together the EU schemes for education, training, youth and sport, will be a priority for the 2013 Irish Presidency.

The EU’s Youth on the Move programme, part of the Europe 2020 strategy, undertakes a range of actions aimed at making eduation and training more relevant to young people’s needs and encouraging more of them to take advantage of EU grants to study or train in other EU countries.


3. Travel and freedom of movement

The EU has removed many of the barriers which made it difficult for Irish citizens to travel freely within the EU in the past.  The lifting of border controls has greatly facilitated free movement within Europe.

European Health Insurance card

The European Health Card provides cover and access to care to all Irish citizens if they fall sick or have an accident while travelling in the EU. It was unveiled during the 2004 Irish EU Presidency.


Thanks to EU legislation liberalising transport sectors (the airline sector having been reformed by Irish Commissioner Peter Sutherland in the 1980s) it has also become far cheaper for EU citizens to travel within the EU.  The Single European Sky legislation also restricts uncompetitive pricing.  EU laws on air passenger rights mean that passengers can now claim compensation for delayed or cancelled flights.



Liberalisation of the telecommunications market has significantly cut communication costs for Irish citizens, as has the cap on mobile phone roaming charges when travelling in other EU Member States. Ireland was among the first Member States to push for this in the mid-2000s.


17 member states now have the euro as their currency, giving traders within the eurozone exchange rate certainty and providing great convenience for tourists.

4. Consumer rights

The EU provides protection for EU consumers shopping across European borders.  The European Consumer Centres Network (ECC-Net) gives free information and advice to consumers and provides assistance to consumers with disputes against traders located in other Member States.  The EU body SOLVIT gives free advice to businesses experiencing problems with a cross-border element that are caused by bad application of EU law by EU public authorities.

5. Environment

European environmental legislation has underpinned a vast improvement in the Irish environment.  Raw sewage is no longer dumped into the Irish Sea.  Marine life in Irish coastal waters has benefited from cleaner sea water and beaches. Regulations on waste management and funding from the Cohesion Fund have led to investment in drainage schemes and safer disposal of rubbish.  This has not only improved the environment but also created jobs.