Speech at European Movement Ireland to mark Greek Presidency of EU23 January 2014
Check Against Delivery
It gives me great pleasure to speak to you today. I am particularly honoured to be addressing this event for a number of reasons.
The first is that it is, I believe, the EMI’s inaugural event of 2014. The second is that it marks the beginning of the term of the Greek Presidency of the Council, and the launch of the Citizens’ Dialogue Report, following the European Year of Citizens work programme for 2013.
And last, but by no means least, this event coincides with the 60th birthday celebration of European Movement Ireland, which you marked little more than a week ago.
So let me begin with some comments about the EMI and the role it plays in Irish society.
Then I would like to look at the difference a year makes, examining where we are now compared to this time 12 months ago.
I will then touch briefly on Irish priorities and our commitment to the EU.
After this I will emphasise the freedoms enshrined in EU membership and their importance to us.
I will conclude with a brief summary of my work.
But first, I would like to take the opportunity to wish our Greek counterparts every success on their term of Presidency of the Council of the European Union.
Ireland, as you will be aware, held the role during the earlier part of last year, focusing on the core themes of stability, jobs and growth in Europe.
The Greek Presidency will no doubt be a fruitful and productive one, which will skillfully navigate the challenges and grasp the opportunities that present themselves during their time in this role.
We all know the Greek people have been through very difficult times. I travelled to Greece late last year and met with Prime Minister Samaras and EU Affairs Minister Kourkoulas. I heard of their great challenges and experienced the huge efforts of the Greek Government and people to rise to them.
It is precisely because of the difficulties that Greece has undergone and the resilience of the Greek people during times of adversity, that I believe they will deliver a successful Presidency; which will contribute to European and Greek recovery.
In Ireland, the important role that the EMI has played in terms of communicating what exactly it is the EU does, cannot be overstated.
The fact that the organisation pre-dates Ireland’s membership of the EEC by almost 20 years, is testament to the hard work and dedication of the staff, members and volunteers, who work tirelessly to advance Irish understanding of Europe and European institutions.
From the Blue Star Programme, which explains the diversity of Europe to young minds, to the Graduate Jobs Campaign which aims to make Irish graduates and jobseekers aware of the opportunities available to them in Europe. This is the EMI at its best.
The fact that that the organisation is run on a not-for-profit basis and operates on a policy that includes all political parties, is the reason for the organisation’s durability in the past, which I have no doubt will continue long into the future.
I have no doubt that the founding fathers, who were steadfastly committed Irish Europeans, including Dr Garret Fitzgerald, Declan Costello and George Colley, would be exceptionally proud of the marking of the organisation’s 60th birthday this year.
Euro Year of the Citizen
A fine example of their work is the Citizens’ Dialogue Report which is also being launched here today. This is a review of the series of citizens’ dialogues that EMI carried out throughout 2013 as part of their Presidency and European Year of Citizens work programme.
These Town Hall meetings took place throughout the country as part of promoting engagement, debate and dialogue amongst Irish people on our relationship with Europe.
Indeed, I was delighted myself to have spoken at these Town Hall debates in both Limerick and Naas and found it encouraging that people came along, engaged with me in my role as Minister for European Affairs on our interactions with the EU.
These meetings and preparing for today prompted me to reflect on the changes in the Union over the last year.
Reflections on the year gone – The euro
In remembering how far we have come in just a few short years I am reminded of the predictions of noted and famous commentators who said that when it came to the end of the euro and euro exit for some countries, that we were ‘talking about months, not years, for this to play out’.
Another forecast the “violent collapse” of the euro in ‘ten days at most’.
The exit of countries from the Eurozone, the vista of uncontrolled national default and the disintegration of the euro were commented on by many, assumed certain by some and feared by all.
This has not happened. That apocalypse was avoided. But we cannot be complacent.
Our recovery is still a fragile one with many deep and very difficult challenges.
Reflections on the year gone – A bigger Union
But this is still a Union and currency that countries want to join. Far from breaking up both have grown and will grow.
Last year we welcomed Croatia as the 28th member of the Union, and there are many others who have expressed an interest in joining, and are working hard to make that goal a reality. I am obviously pleased that we will open an embassy in Zagreb, as part of a wider diplomatic expansion.
And we have a bigger Eurozone, not a smaller one, with Latvia joining on January 1st.
A bigger Union, a bigger Eurozone. All remarkable given where we stood one year ago.
Reflections on year - Huge challenges still facing the Union
But this Union still faces massive challenges. An acute existential crisis may have ebbed, but we still face a crisis.
The length of the Eurozone recession, the levels of unemployment across Europe and the specific scar of youth unemployment all point to continued and deep challenges for European society. The crisis will not have passed until these issues are fixed.
I mentioned earlier the expansion of the Union and Eurozone.
I must therefore reference the failure of the EU and Ukraine to develop a new relationship at the Eastern Partnership Summit in Vilnius. As someone who visited Kiev and Independence Square last November, I am deeply aware of the aspirations of many in the Ukraine for closer association with the Union. The failure to do so is now having consequences in the streets and squares of Kiev.
One of the key classic texts of Greek history is the 'History of the Peloponnesian War' by Thucydides. In the famous funeral oration of Pericles he speaks of Athenian institutions by saying ‘our system of government does not copy the institutions of our neighbours. It is more the case of our being a model to others, than of imitating anyone else’.
The doubt that has pervaded the EU in the last year should not blind us to the fact that many outside of the Union view our shared institutions in that light.
Ireland and the EU – A contemporary rationale
The last years shows the durability of the Union. This is one of the reasons that Ireland has been a dedicated and committed member. And, with the consent of our people, that will continue to be the case.
Being part of the Union has made a significant and positive contribution to Irish life, putting standards in place to ensure a safer and cleaner environment and giving us access to markets and business opportunities which would have evaded us in isolation.
More importantly though, it has allowed us to reset our relationship with our nearest neighbour, the UK, through a policy of equality and inclusion, which are central tenets of EU membership.
While I absolutely respect the debate elsewhere on the future of the Union, I strongly believe that continued membership of the EU offers the best prospect for all members to meet their national aspirations.
The Union offers the best way for countries to navigate an interdependent world, where shared challenges and opportunities can best be grasped collectively.
The EU offers the strongest collective response. I would therefore claim that a strong contemporary rationale for Union membership is strongly national. Crucially, this collective response will be strengthened with continued and positive membership of all Member States.
So, membership of the Union is not without difficulty. However, I firmly believe that it is the most effective way of advancing Irish interests. And I believe this to be the same for other countries.
Freedoms & Moving Forward
Our support for membership is strongly linked to the freedoms that are enshrined in the EU.
At the very core of the European Union is the principle of the free movement of goods, services, people and capital, which has provided us with opportunities we simply could not have harnessed on our own.
This has allowed us, as a small nation on the edge of Europe, to successfully compete on the world stage with nations that in geographic size and scale, dwarf us.
The protection of these freedoms is vital. At a time of great economic difficulty this is very demanding. But we should not forget the circumstances which inspired their creation.
Devastation led to the birth of this concept, difficulty should not lead to their dilution. This is in our national self-interest as these freedoms create the 'grand bargain' of Europe. Citizens can move freely through national borders so that the goods, services and investments of the same country can move freely too. This is part of our shared future, not a risk to it.
This is what has allowed us to make the enormous transition from being a one of the most closed economies in the world to one of the most globalised.
We are now recognised as a communications and technology hub worldwide, with all of the biggest names in the market; Google, Apple, eBay, Amazon and Paypal having a significant presence here.
And the number of start-ups is growing. Only yesterday we saw the announcement of 100 jobs to be created in Dublin by Intercom, an early stage technology start-up which was founded by four young Irish men.
The European Union has been key to that development.
So, there are a number of challenges that lie ahead. But if we work together, I have no doubt, that they are challenges that we can overcome.
Again, I would like to offer heartiest congratulations to EMI on its 60th birthday and wish you many more to come. And to wish our Greek colleagues every success for the term of the Presidency ahead. I will end by quoting one of defining figures of Greek heritage; Plato. One of the concepts debated in The Republic is the nature of justice, and this is defined by Thrasymachus as ‘justice is really the good of another’.
These words are more resonant than ever as the Union, under the leadership of our Greek friends, advances through 2014.