On 10 May 1972, some 41 years ago on Friday, the people went to the polls to decide whether to join what was then the European Economic Community. More than four in five people voted "Yes". As we mark the 40th anniversary of our membership this year, it is plain that the four decades since we voted have fully vindicated our choice. The Ireland of the early 1970s was a very different place.
It is sometimes difficult to recall and appreciate just how different it was. In 1973 Irish gross domestic product, GDP, was 60% of the European average. Ireland was the poorest of the then nine member states. Today, despite our recent difficulties, our GDP is well above the European average. In 1973 Ireland was a country of traditional emigration, with a workforce of less than 1 million. Today, there are almost 2 million people at work, largely the result of many women entering the labour force. While emigration remains with us, it is not at the level that it was. In 1973, after decades of economic drift and isolation, the population of the country was 2.9 million. Now, it is 4.5 million. In 1973 our foreign trade was largely with our nearest neighbour and 55% of our exports went to the United Kingdom. Now, even though our trade with Britain has grown enormously, the figure is under 17%. Our external trade is much larger, more diversified and more balanced, and with exports accounting for over €90 billion, it is leading our economic recovery. The Single Market of 500 million people has been opened to our businesses and we have greater clout in negotiating the terms of our trade beyond EU borders when we do so as part of the world's largest trading bloc.
As our access to new markets grew, so did our attractiveness as a place in which to invest and do business. In 1973 a mere €16 million was attracted in foreign investment. Today, we count our foreign direct investment in many billions and the economy has been transformed, with almost 1,000 companies in the foreign owned sector. These companies have come to know the Irish people, their creativity and capacity for hard work. More and more of them are coming to invest here. We now have a real Single Market which is deeper, wider and more significant than the Common Market that the Irish people joined many years ago. We have also created an economic and monetary union, with the euro as our shared currency.
Ireland has not just been shaped by these developments. We have played our full role in shaping them. This is something that is too often overlooked. In Berlin last year when I had the privilege of accepting the European of the Year award in the name of the people, I spoke about how Ireland's commitment and contribution to the European Union through seven EU Presidencies had brought a distinctive clarity, an insight and resolve to negotiations at European level, for example, in chairing the meetings of the European Council in 1990 that welcomed German reunification following the fall of the Berlin Wall, in 1996 laying the vital ground work for the introduction of the common currency and in 2004 welcoming ten new member states, mainly in central and eastern Europe.
Our current EU Presidency finds the European Union at a critical juncture. While the phase of immediate crisis is I hope behind us, we are far from building a strong and sustainable recovery. The urgency of the need for economic recovery is shared and palpable among our leaders, people and across the Union. During Ireland's Presidency we are making real progress in our three Presidency priorities of stability, jobs and growth. These priorities require little justification. Since the eurozone crisis began, 3.8 million jobs have been lost. In March employment across the eurozone fell for the 15th consecutive month, dropping at the fastest rate since January 2010. A total of 19 million citizens in the single currency area are now looking for work. The eurozone is suffering a second deep recession in just three years. Consensus forecasts for euro area GDP growth worsen every month. Without a change in direction, the International Labour Organization predicts another 4.5 million jobs being lost in coming years.
This is a crisis of an almost unprecedented nature. It is not just a sovereign debt crisis facing individual countries, although high public debt and deficit levels have complicated the response to the crisis. Many eurozone countries are facing a deeper economic crisis than other non-euro OECD countries with similar deficit and debt profiles. It is a crisis of confidence in the euro and the political and economic management of the eurozone. It is a crisis reflecting the unfinished and often dysfunctional nature of the Economic and Monetary Union we began 15 years ago.
We have taken some very welcome steps to stabilise the single currency. We have established the European Stability Mechanism as a credible and permanent funding back-stop for eurozone countries in difficulty. Through the six pack, the two pack and the fiscal compact, we have strengthened mutual surveillance of national budgetary and competitiveness developments and the potential sanctions for breaches of our commitments to each other to pursue sustainable economic policies. Many countries across the eurozone are implementing unprecedented national reform plans to restore competitiveness, financial stability, growth and confidence in their long-term fiscal sustainability. The people voted by a large majority in a referendum last June to approve ratification of the fiscal stability treaty. The European Central Bank has developed new instruments to stabilise financial conditions and improve the functioning of monetary policy. Most recently, European loans to Portugal and Ireland were extended to reinforce market confidence in their funding position as both countries plan to exit their programme of assistance. French support for this has been crucial and very welcome.
These are all important steps in the right direction, but there is no room for complacency. While financial markets have shown signs of greater stability, the crisis in the eurozone's real economy is still deepening. Improved budgetary discipline and funding support are only part of the solution to the eurozone crisis. They will only fully restore confidence if they are accompanied by greater efforts to support investment and growth and create employment. In a common currency area unco-ordinated national efforts alone are not sufficient to meet the employment needs of citizens. Much greater eurozone and EU collective action and co-ordination are also required. Some of the notable priorities from an Irish perspective include updating and intensifying implementation of the compact for growth and jobs agreed at the European Council last year; implementing the recently agreed youth employment guarantee; agreeing a bundle of measures to remove remaining barriers to the internal market, most notably in the areas of services and digital content; progressing a series of external trade agreements for the Union that could lead to the creation of over 2 million new jobs across the Union.
More urgent than any of these, however, is the need to address what has become the Achilles heel of the eurozone, the ongoing crisis in Europe's banking sector. We welcome the indication from the president of the European Central Bank that the ECB is considering further non-conventional measures to ensure the effective penetration of its monetary policy into all parts of the eurozone. This should involve a more structured dialogue between the ECB and the other eurozone institutions and governments about the necessary instruments to make this happen. It is also why the euro area summit commitments made last June were so important and must be followed through. They committed euro area leaders to the creation of a banking union that would break the vicious circle between the sovereign and banking debt crises by using the European Stability Mechanism to directly support financial institutions under common supervision. The summit committed to quickly putting in place the other elements of the banking union urgently needed to underpin Economic and Monetary Union and the Single Market.
For our part, as Presidency, we have prioritised the EU legislation required to achieve a banking union such as the capital requirements directive, the single supervisory mechanism, bank resolution and recovery and the deposit guarantee scheme. While we have made good progress, a great deal more work remains to be done. There are, as always, important technical details to be resolved, but with sufficient political will, there are no insuperable difficulties in these areas. The work done by the Eurogroup, the ECB and the Commission in agreeing the modalities of direct recapitalisation of banks by the European Stability Mechanism will be the next major step.
This is a key issue for the success of the Irish programme. We still need further assistance to reduce Irish taxpayers' exposure to our banking system as we try to return to market financing in a sustainable fashion. With such support, Ireland can emerge as a success story for the entire eurozone and return durably to the normal market provision of our financing needs next year when we exit the EU-IMF programme. A successful Irish exit from the bailout by the end of this year would prove and demonstrate that a combination of intensive national reform efforts and European solidarity can actually deliver results. It could provide momentum for reforming governments and investor confidence across the eurozone. Too many eurozone countries have fallen into the trap to which I refer. For the sake of our common currency, we need to see that it is possible for the country to climb out of economic difficulty.
Our membership of the European Union has helped and marked us to become a real republic. It is that journey, that transformation, that we commemorate in Europe Week, reminding ourselves of our respect for the Union and that by working together we will emerge from the economic difficulties that our countries face. We have come a long way and the journey ahead still challenges us.