Academic journal article Estudios Irlandeses - Journal of Irish Studies

On Becoming European: An Economist's Education

Academic journal article Estudios Irlandeses - Journal of Irish Studies

On Becoming European: An Economist's Education

Article excerpt

Abstract: Economics is an international discipline, but economists tend to be local thinkers. We describe how research on the Irish economy eventually led to a series of engagements with Europe, and eventually became transformed by a European dimension. We suggest that a strong sense of local identity is a pre-requisite for the emergence of a European identity, and that there is much to be gained from learning to look at Ireland through European eyes.

Key Words: Ireland; economics; identity formation; European Union; Structural Funds; EU enlargement; convergence.

Introductory remarks

About fifteen years ago I was sitting in the Winding Stair bookshop that overlooks the halfpenny bridge on the Liffey, drinking coffee and reading the second-hand book that I had just purchased. This was a time when the Winding Stair was still a bookshop that served coffee rather than a coffee shop that sold books. Across from me sitting at the large table I noticed two young German women, one of whom was reading Roddy Doyle's novel The Commitments. Having read it myself, I was puzzled how a non-Dubliner, not to mention a foreigner, could pick their way through the dense slang and exquisite expletives that make it so memorable. I could not resist asking! The explanation was very simple. The two young women lived in a colony of Germans in Dublin's inner city, supported by German social welfare payments, and basking in a culture that appeared to offer a welcome temporary respite from German regimentation.

I was reminded of that incident recently when I re-read Dubliners. How was it that this book is read all over the world, yet is so deeply centred in the minutiae of Irish history and Dublin everyday life of the early 20th century? More generally, how can one ever experience or understand another culture from the outside? This question had come to bother me over the past decade, as my work took me out of Ireland and into the enlarging European Union. As an economist, I believed that my discipline was universal, and that I had tools that could unlock the mysteries of development anywhere in the world. But this abstract claim sat uneasily alongside the human impressions and experiences of my European work.

Economic narratives are seldom of interest to non-economists. It has amused me that whenever I have to identify my line of work at social gatherings, people always want me to tell them about the future (house prices, the euro-dollar exchange rate, possible tax rises!). I noticed that I was never asked to explain the past. We economists are seen as strange and exotic creatures, who gaze into our computerised crystal balls, forecast the future, are invariably wrong, and are paid obscene amounts of money!

I never seem to have the opportunity to explain how, through my work as an economist, I ceased to be Irish-Irish and gradually became European-Irish. That this was no sudden epiphany, as on Sandymount Strand. That it happened so slowly that the changes were barely detectable. But at the end of the process, Europe was no longer a far away place, of big importance in the economic statistics of trade and whatever, but of very limited importance to everyday life. I had become European, had started to think as a European, and now looked back at Ireland partly through European eyes.

The research project that brought these feelings to a head was carried out late in 2004 for the Regional Policy Directorate of the European Commission. I was commissioned to evaluate the likely impact of the initial proposals for funding of the new Structural Fund programme that will follow the present one. (1) This new programme will cover a period of seven years from January, 2007 to December, 2013. Some "old" EU states and regions (Greece, Portugal and Spain, as well as the Italian Mezzogiorno and East Germany), will continue to receive investment aid. However, Ireland will be excluded, since its sustained high rate of growth during the 1990s has now taken it beyond the aid threshold. …

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