Series 20 – Back to Brexit Basics – Ireland and the UK join the EU

Aug 16, 2018

Last week, we looked at the history of the EU. This week we look a little closer about how Ireland and the UK came to join the EEC (now the EU) in 1973.

Ireland joins the EEC

We learned last week that the Irish people voted to join the European Economic Community (EEC) in 1973. It wasn’t all plain sailing for Ireland or the UK in their bids to become members.

In the years before joining, many of Ireland’s political leaders such as Seán Lemass and Jack Lynch argued that to secure a future for Ireland, it needed to be part of the EEC. The founding six countries (Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg and the Netherlands) of the EEC had doubts however. They weren’t confident that Ireland would be a suitable member due to its over dependence on the UK for agricultural exports, as well as the mass unemployment, poverty and emigration that was experienced at the time. 

In fact, in 1963 French President Charles de Gaulle rejected the UK joining the community and this meant that all other applicant countries (including Ireland) had their negotiations abruptly ended.  A second attempt was made in 1967 but this was again blocked. Charles de Gaulle was then succeeded as French President by George Pompidou who in 1969 said that he would not block the possibility of UK and Ireland joining the community.

Renewed negotiations began and in 1972 the Treaty of Accession was signed.  Ireland held a referendum in May 1972 under the leadership of Jack Lynch and 83 percent of voters supported membership.  Ireland formally became a member of the EEC on 1 January 1973. You can read more on the European Commission’s website.

UK joins the EEC

In 1961, the UK applied for membership of the EEC. The application was prevented by French President Charles de Gaulle, who was said to be concerned that UK membership would weaken the French voice in Europe. The French President was also reported to be afraid that the close relations between the UK and the United States would lead to the United States increasing its influence in Europe.

A second application was again blocked by Charles de Gaulle in 1967. He formally stated that the UK economy would not be suited to membership of the EEC particularly given the UK’s practice of obtaining cheap foods from all parts of the world.  

UK Prime Minister Edward Heath brought the UK into the EEC at the same time as Ireland in January 1973.  Along with Denmark and Ireland, this brought the membership of the EEC to nine countries.

Under the Labour Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, there was a UK referendum on continued membership of the EEC in 1975. 67 percent of the electorate voted to remain.

Read all of our Brexit updates and Back to Brexit Basics on the dedicated Brexit section of our website.