Garret Fitzgerald on the European project

January 12, 2023 in News

JOHN BIRD [STUDIES]:: This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of Ireland joining the European Economic Community (EEC) on the 1st January 1973. To mark this important moment in Irish history we take a look back at a contribution from 1962 to the Jesuit quarterly Studies by Garret FitzGerald. His article is entitled ‘Political Implications of Irish Membership of the EEC’.

At the time of publication of the article in 1962, FitzGerald was an astute academic and economist of repute with a strong leaning towards public service. The article is a deep look at the EEC and builds a coherent argument proposing Ireland’s entry to the EEC. Three broad elements form the thesis: first the history and ideals surrounding what led to the formation of the EEC, then the nature of its institutions and how they were evolving, and finally the main themes around how membership would affect Ireland. The article is an important defence of the European project in no small part due to FitzGerald’s candour in dealing head on with the criticisms of and the warnings against entry to the EEC.

It is also timely to place this article in the context of Ireland’s momentous entry to the EEC eleven years later, as it is the research and reflections of the man who would become Ireland’s first minister for foreign affairs with a seat at the table within the Community. His contribution under the coalition elected in 1973 was widely heralded as a success, both at home and in Europe. This article from the 1962 spring issue of Studies is a sober reflection on the state of affairs at the time and on the recurring themes of contention in the European project, as relevant today as they were 50 years ago.

FitzGerald treats of the early attempts at economic and political union in Europe, proceeding from the early failures due to Britain’s outright refusal to entertain any supranational agenda or formulations. The thesis that FitzGerald makes throughout is that rather than surrendering Irish sovereignty it was in fact a logical progression from independence for Ireland to take its place at the table in Europe on its own terms rather than as a province of Britain. Also that the local and stifling demagoguery endemic in sovereign democratic states would need to render sovereignty to ensure that sound principle-led policy was implemented and that Europe could contend with both soviet autocratic advances and the American lead in the world.

Background to the formation of the EEC

FitzGerald begins by plotting several broad motives for European political integration. Firstly there was the will to preclude any further repetition of the destructive wars that had destroyed Europe twice. As well as this there was a fear both of Russian military conquest and political integration and of the loss of Europe’s pre-eminence on the world stage due to constant bickering. Aligned with this there was the hope that an integrated Europe could counterbalance the two new world powers, which were inhibited by ideological rigidities. And a further consideration was that the economies of scale in a wider European market would achieve rapid economic expansion without resort to totalitarian measures.

Successive early attempts to form unity in Europe were stifled by the UK Government acting out of fear of ceding sovereignty to supranational powers. After establishing this background, FitzGerald moves deftly from the formation of the Organisation for European Economic Co-operation established to administer Marshall Aid, through to the Treaty of Paris in 1951 forming the European Coal and Steel Community (“important as the prototype of the other parallel Communities subsequently established and as introducing for the first time the supra-national principle”), and on through to the Treaty of Rome establishing the European Atomic Energy Community and the European Economic Community in 1957. These events were, in 1962, clearly very live issues and they helped to form a clear vision of the manner in which Ireland should and could become a member.

The Communities and their institutions

In depicting the genesis of the institutions of the EEC FitzGerald offers a deeper understanding of the essence of the European project. He meets the criticism that the unelected but powerful Executive in the EEC, ‘essentially civil servants’, would have an important or even an essential role in rendering the self-interest of national assemblies amenable to the overriding and more competent interests of the whole community. In this context he notes how in January of 1962 the EEC had “reached agreement on a common agricultural policy despite the very considerable sacrifices that this involved on the part of some Governments, for example, the German Government.”

Turning to the important issue of the Executives of the Communities FitzGerald holds forth:

Recognizing that the members of the Council of Ministers would frequently be guided by considerations of national interests rather than the interests of Europe as a whole, the authors of the Treaties endowed the Executives of the Communities with far more power than normally accorded to national civil servants – for that is what the members of these Executives really are – civil servants of the Communities….

…Clearly then the members of the Executive are much more than routine administrators. The Executives are in effect the power-houses of these Communities, given the task of overcoming all the difficulties that must invariably arise in the transition from national markets to a Common Market within which discrimination on a national basis is to be illegal.

FitzGerald opines that the resultant dilution of the democratic principle created a vacuum which was “bound to be filled by the politicians of the Community who will not indefinitely accept the limitations thus imposed on their power as elected representatives to control the economic life of the Community.”

The European Parliamentary Assembly: direct elections and extension of powers

Turning his focus toward the European Parliamentary Assembly, FitzGerald looks at two key issues: the direct election of representatives; and how to increase the powers of the Parliamentary Assembly. On the latter he showed himself to be aware of the historical dimension in giving birth to such an ambitious supranational agenda. These things take time.

Thus while a strengthening of the power of the Assembly must to some extent be at the expense of the independence of the Executives such a move might in practice be expected in most instances to strengthen the position of the Executives in their efforts to maintain the principle of European policies against the pressures from national governments.

Sharing of sovereignty

One main issue addressed by FitzGerald – one which remains contentious today, especially in the context of the Protocol, and indeed which many believe precipitated Brexit itself – is national sovereignty. If the early signs of 2023 are fulfilled and the issue of the Protocol is largely resolved, we should be left with more energy to spend positively making our future within the EU, and it would likely be useful then to recall FitzGerald’s forceful philosophical conception of freedom tied into a conception of sovereignty:

Many of the rights theoretically inherent in a sovereign government consist in nothing more than a right to take various courses of action, all of which would in one way or the other impose such hardships on the people of the country concerned as to be unacceptable and impracticable.

FitzGerald also turns his attention in the article to very pertinent topics such as foreign policy and defence, NATO membership, and the constitutional implications of membership.


The issues surrounding the formation of the EEC, the early characteristics of its institutions and how they should be developed, and close concern for Ireland’s role with the Community are all absolutely as live today as they were in the period before joining. Garret FitzGerald’s opinions and keen analysis in this essay make it a historical document of one of the founding fathers of our entry to the EEC. His sense of history is manifest in the closing words:

The voice of Ireland will be heard in Europe in the decades ahead. But for the sacrifices of those who won our freedom, none of this could have been. We have the right to believe that they will feel as they view this prospect that their sacrifices were not after all in vain.

The article is available through the research platform JSTOR »

FitzGerald Garret, ‘Political Implications of Irish Membership of the EEC’, Studies: An Irish Quarterly Review, Vol. 51, No. 201 (Spring, 1962), pp. 44-81 (38 pages): »

Dictionary of Irish Biography, Garret FitzGerald: »