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Ireland joining the EU: ‘What was the alternative?’

John Bruton recalls a time before membership of the European Economic Community (EEC) when Ireland was a ‘much poorer country’. The former Fine Gael leader, Taoiseach, opposition spokesperson for agriculture, and ambassador of the European Union (EU) to the United States, tells Bernie Commins why there was no alternative to joining the EEC at that time

John was elected to represent the Meath constituency in Dáil Éireann in 1969, just four years before official membership, a time when Ireland was a ‘much poorer and much more rural country’.

“While there were areas of prosperity, with a newly opening mining industry, and a very large furniture industry, there wasn’t the sort of general prosperity that we are enjoying now in Ireland,” he says.

In 1973, there were around 250,000 farms in the country and more than one-quarter of the total workforce was in agriculture. The overall farm population comprised a large number of small farms and in the same year, Teagasc’s National Farm Survey (NFS) estimated that almost half of these farms were run on a part-time basis.

The overwhelmingly positive referendum response from the Irish electorate around that time to joining the EEC was indicative of the potential for prosperity that was identified. For farmers, part of that prosperity could come from gaining independence from our nearest neighbour and main trading partner, Britain, where 70 per cent of our food exports went back then.

“Prior to our joining the EU, our agricultural sector was – as it still is – very important, but it was handicapped by the way in which it had access to the British market. It was not subject to any form of external discipline,” John explains.

“Britain was able to give subsidies to its own domestic farmers that were not available to Irish exporters. That essentially meant that British beef producers could undercut Irish beef producers substantially and get a larger share of the market. As a result of [Ireland] joining the EU, that then became impossible.”

Single-most important thing

Following on from that, 20 years later, the Single Market, established in 1993, was pivotal for Ireland, he says: “In the immediate term after we joined, the membership afforded us a major boost in agricultural incomes, through the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), the Green Pound evaluation, and the like. But also later, from 1993 onwards, through the Single Market. 

“Ireland was able to establish a lot of industry here on the basis that it had full and unimpeded access to the Single Market of 27 countries. This meant that, in the area of government purchasing, there could be no discrimination against us as an EU member. It meant that a small country like Ireland could compete on a level playing field.” 

For John, Ireland’s access to the Single Market is probably the most important legacy that our five-decade membership has yielded. “The really important thing was that we moved from being part of the free trade area, which was what the EU was, originally, to a single market, which was the most important development, economically speaking, not just for agriculture, but for Ireland. 

“I don’t think the importance of it, for this State, is adequately appreciated or explained by the Government [in the context of Brexit]. The Government is saying that we mustn’t have border controls, well there are things worse than border controls and that would be us being out of the Single Market. Economically, the effects would be devastating. I think that, obviously, the income support that CAP gives to farmers is important, but the Single Market was important for everyone, farmers included.”


CAP then and now

In January 2023, the next iteration of the CAP comes into being and, reflecting on the CAP of the 1960s versus today’s version, John comments: “In the 1960s, a large part of Irish agriculture worked on a free-market basis – you got the best price you could, and you made your income from the market, so it had all the advantages of enterprise. Now, increasingly, agriculture is being rule-bound. Famers, especially in beef production, for example, are not making a living; their living is derived from income support that they have to qualify for through compliance with increasingly detailed requirements.”

While the aim of these requirements – improving the environment, water quality, climate-change mitigation, etc. – are necessary, they bring with them a level of bureaucracy that the farmers of four and five decades ago never experienced.

“Achieving these things requires a level of bureaucracy, and bureaucracy isn’t a bad word, it is a necessary evil, but this would have been foreign to farmers in the 1960s and the 1970s,” says John.

“Admittedly, farmers today are computer literate and agriculturally literate in ways that farmers would not have been 50 years ago. So, they can cope with this bureaucracy, but it is very different. 

“At one stage, we had milk quotas that restricted milk production, and we had various things over the years that, I think, worked to diminish the entrepreneurial freedom of farmers. So, there are good changes but there is also another side,” he says.

“It is also hard to overstate the extent to which Irish incomes have increased, particularly between 1990 and 2010. And this has meant, in a way, that other occupations, outside of farming, have become relatively more attractive. So, we have a lot of farming now done on a part-time basis. That was always the case, but I think it is more common now,” says John. 

What was the alternative?

In considering the impact of EU membership on Ireland, John comments: “What is the alternative? 

“OK, there have been ups and downs for farming, but generally, people have prospered and if they weren’t prospering, they had the freedom to find other work in Ireland. For other generations, they would have had to go to America or Liverpool. You can’t guarantee success for everyone, but people gained better alternatives, as well as better incomes”. 

Over the next 50 years, however, he says, trade-offs will have to be made when it comes to balancing our food production with our climate targets. “We are heavily emphasising environmental issues now, but we will have to get past the situation where we say that everything that is environmentally beneficial is necessarily the thing to do, because there may be other things that you are sacrificing. You need to look at the cost of the environmental measure and the potential benefits of approaching something in a different way,” he says. 

“There will be an increased emphasis on food-production efficiency using the most sophisticated cultivation techniques to get the most food at the right time. I think there will be a shift away from beef production because it is not intrinsically as profitable, or as a means of producing a given amount of energy from a given amount of sunlight. We may have to look more at arable farming, and the value of that may have to increase. If global climate gets worse, then Ireland may well be one of the best countries to be in, and it may mean that our agriculture will have a bigger market,” he says.