Neale Richmond represented Ireland at a Conference on the Future of Europe. Photograph: Philippe Strinweiss

FOR many reasons, the EU finds itself collectively looking at the future for the world’s largest economic bloc and considering how the EU can serve it’s citizens best.

This is not a new phenomenon and such exercises have previously resulted in the creation of new Treaties, the expansion of competences and further cooperation.

As part of this process, a Conference on the Future of Europe is currently underway with randomly selected citizen’s panels meeting with political and civic leaders to thrash out the future direction of the EU.

The impact of the Covid-19 pandemic have put the understandable question as to how the EU can work better for its citizens in terms of healthcare? The ever-shifting geopolitical sands leads us to consider the EU’s place in the world while the massive challenge of tackling the climate emergency shapes all discussion.

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I have been honoured to be appointed as one of the four delegates representing the Irish Parliament as part of this consultative process, giving me yet another insight into the importance of EU membership for Ireland’s place in the world as a small but open Republic.

Membership of the EU and it’s forerunners has been utterly transformational for Ireland. Although independent from the UK for over 50 years when according to the EEC, Ireland only gained true independence at this point; no longer reliant wholly on the UK in either economic or social terms.

Irish exports to the UK stood at 55% in 1973, the latest figure is closer to 10%. The Ireland that joined the EEC is unrecognisable from the one today, an economic backwater with an over-reliance on the agri-food industry, which saw tens of thousands of its best and brightest emigrate every year.

Membership of the EU has allowed Ireland unfettered access to the single market and access on favourable terms to many other markets beyond. European funding has transformed Ireland’s roads, schools, community facilities and produced a highly educated workforce to compliment ever-growing net inward migration. Industries such as pharmaceuticals, financial services, technology, digital and life sciences have become the largest employers, For years, Ireland was a net recipient to the EU in fiscal terms but now stand as a net contributor. This is a badge of honour undergoing strong economic development.

But perhaps the societal progress of Ireland during the period of European integration has been most striking. The Ireland of 1973 was a cold place: homosexuality was illegal, women could be fired from their job for getting married or pregnant, abortion was illegal, divorce was illegal, the term illegitimate was in our constitution and the death penalty nominally remained on the statute books. Although these changes weren’t down just European membership, the influence has been massive.

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Within the EU, Ireland is an equal and has seen solidarity in action on many occasions, particularly in the face of an English government pursuing the very hardest of Brexits.

Despite the deluded commentary of some, the future for Europe is a bright one and Ireland will be central to that. The EU will expand once more and whatever path the people of Scotland choose, the experience of Ireland should be seen as a heartening one. Needless to say, the light remains on.