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Speech by Minister McEntee at the Belgium Luxembourg Chamber of Commerce

Speech Location: AIB Office, Molesworth Street

Distinguished Guests, Ambassadors, Colleagues,

Thank you all for your kind welcome and the opportunity to speak to you here this evening.

The Belgium Luxembourg Chamber of Commerce is a perfect illustration of what can be achieved by open and progressive partnership. For many years, Belgium and Luxembourg have demonstrated that the interests of states can be aligned and combined, in order to deliver a better life and opportunities for all of their citizens.

Last year, we celebrated  the 60th Anniversary of the Benelux Union, a Union that has served as an example to all of us.

In Ireland, we hope to be able to learn from the examples established by Belgium and Luxembourg and to deepen our own relations and partnerships with both countries. We already have many shared connections and commonalities.

The capacity for interactions between our countries increased exponentially when Ireland joined the European Communities in 1973. Belgium and Luxembourg, as founding members of the European Communities, were on hand to welcome Ireland then and our relationships have grown stronger ever since.

On the occasion of the Ireland's signing of the accession treaty to the European Communities, the then Foreign Minister of Luxembourg, Gaston Thorn, stated that the enlarged community was aimed at a single great objective: the enhancement of all that we do best.

This is an objective that is still relevant today, it is at the heart of cooperation between our countries. We still want to be able to share and learn from each other, to trade freely and develop connections between our citizens. Fortunately, with the help of fora such as the Belgium Luxembourg Chamber of Commerce, we have been able to live up to this objective, with benefits to all our countries.

Our most recent figures show that Ireland's exports to Belgium and Luxembourg are worth over €18 billion, while Belgium and Luxembourg's combined exports to Ireland amount to nearly €7 billion. 

But we know there is still potential for much more. Through our state agencies, we intend to expand on the immense, untapped opportunities for trade in the EuroZone. Enterprise Ireland has a clear strategy to target this zone, they are focusing on 6 core markets which include Belgium and Luxembourg. Their ambition is to grow exports to the 6 key markets by 50% between 2017 and 2020.

But the future potential and past progress in partnership between our countries and across the European Union should not lead us to believe that progress is inevitable. Unity and cooperation are not necessarily a natural default.

Recently, we have seen examples of how once-strong and unquestioned partnerships can become strained. But we have also seen how important partnership and unity can be in times of uncertainty.

In particular, Brexit is an important reminder of how important the European Union is to a country like Ireland.

For us, the solidarity and support of our EU partners has been a hallmark of this process, for which we are profoundly grateful.

The UK's departure from the EU poses a unique and unprecedented challenge. The UK is a key partner for Ireland - our closest neighbour, our friend, and a key collaborator in the EU. No other country in the EU is as inter-connected with the UK– historically, culturally, politically, socially and economically, both as a trade partner, and for access to the rest of our EU single market, through the UK land-bridge.

It comes as no surprise that we have viewed the impact of Brexit – especially the prospect of a no deal Brexit – with such deep concern. However, while we deeply regret the UK's decision to leave the EU, we, with our EU partners have respected it.

It remains our view that the best and only way to ensure an orderly withdrawal is ratification of the Withdrawal Agreement, agreed by the UK and EU after long and intensive negotiations, with real compromise shown on both sides.

It provides important protections for UK and EU citizens' rights and settles the question of financial obligations. It provides for a transition period, giving us time to negotiate what we hope will be deep and ambitious agreements on the future relationship between the EU and the UK. It provides the basis to start those negotiations in an ordered and constructive way.

Vitally, it also protects the Good Friday Agreement, including by ensuring that there can be no re-emergence of a hard border on the island of Ireland. 

The EU and the UK have understood in dealing with Brexit the need to address the unique circumstances on the island of Ireland. North-South economic and social cooperation benefits people across the island, and underpins the peace process and the Good Friday Agreement. This is most clearly felt through the open and invisible border that currently exists between Ireland and Northern Ireland. 

This is why the Protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland, and the backstop, is so important. This has been made very clear by political parties and cross-community groups in Northern Ireland, evidenced again in the recent European Parliament elections.

The backstop acts as an insurance policy, which we hope will never have to be used. It remains our priority to achieve a future relationship agreement that can resolve all these issues and we, together with our partners in the EU stand ready to begin exploring alternative arrangements once the Withdrawal Agreement is ratified.  We will work closely with our EU partners to meet that commitment. But sadly, the Brexit uncertainty persists.

Last month, following a request from Prime Minister May, the European Council agreed to an extension of the Article 50 process until 31 October 2019.

We welcome this decision, which provides the UK with more time to work towards an orderly withdrawal. But, extension is not a solution in itself. Westminster needs to make a choice - on Brexit, and its future relationship with the EU.

Over the summer we will see a new Prime Minister in the UK, following the decision of Prime Minister May to step down.

However, a change of Prime Minister will not change the facts of Brexit.

It is vital that the UK, regardless of whoever the next Prime Minister is, uses the time up to 31 October to find a way forward.

There should be no illusions in the UK that a change in political circumstances will convince the EU to make changes to the Withdrawal Agreement, including the backstop. It cannot be opened or renegotiated. The European Council has made this consistently clear.

It is important that political discourse in the UK is realistic about this.

However, should there be a change in the UK's position, the EU has always been clear that it is open to looking again at the Political Declaration on the EU-UK future relationship.  The EU, and Ireland, is fully committed to achieving an ambitious and comprehensive future partnership with the UK.

The responsibility for finding a way forward, and avoiding a no deal outcome, lies firmly with the UK.

Unfortunately, given the ongoing political uncertainty in London, a no deal outcome remains a risk, and we are continuing to prepare for all scenarios.

We continue to advance our extensive and detailed Brexit contingency work, including for a no deal scenario, to make sure Ireland is ready to the greatest extent possible, no matter the outcome. We are also working closely with our EU partners.

Extensive work has already taken place. The Brexit Omnibus Act has been signed into law and can be commenced when necessary.

We will use the additional time afforded by the extension of Article 50 to further refine our preparations in other areas. This includes our work on more permanent and longer term infrastructure and arrangements at the ports and airports.

Many of your companies have been affected by the uncertainty surrounding Brexit. For example, it is still not clear how Brexit will impact the financial services industry, an industry that has seen strong growth as many companies from Belgium and Luxembourg have established offices in Ireland

Nonetheless, businesses and those sectors most affected by Brexit must use this time wisely. Your support in communicating key messages to your networks is invaluable. Encouraging small businesses to prepare will be one of our key focuses in the coming months.

However, while Brexit is undoubtedly an important issue for all of our countries and economies, we cannot allow it to consume all our attention.

We must be bold enough to look to the future, to see through the fog and confusion of the current challenges. We have a shared future that we must define together.

For Ireland, our shared future is a future in the European Union. Belgium and Luxembourg are physically at the heart of the EU and its institutions. Ireland, though physically more distant, feels equally close to the vision and values of the European Union and we believe that our future is very much intertwined with that of our fellow member states. This is not just the Government's view, a recent Red C Poll commissioned by European Movement Ireland showed that 93% of people surveyed believe that Ireland should remain a member of the EU.

As a Government, we recognise the importance of making sure that Ireland's voice in Europe is reflective of the voice of its citizens. Last year we launched a Citizens' Dialogue on the future of Europe. We asked Irish people for their views on how we can build a Union that better meets their needs and is ready to meet the challenges of the future.

We used the messages from Citizens' Dialogues to inform Ireland's National Statement on the European Union which will contribute to the development of the EU's new Strategic Agenda for 2019 to 2024. 

In our National Statement, we are clear that the citizens of Europe expect the EU to help drive job creation and economic growth. We believe that this economic growth is crucial to maintaining support for the Union. Together, member states have worked to rebuild confidence in the EU's effectiveness in delivering economic growth. But we cannot take this confidence or indeed, this effectiveness, for granted.

Ensuring that the EU is strong and agile enough to respond to the economic challenges of the next five years will remain a key strategic challenge. We must be prepared to progress and improve upon what has already been achieved so that the EU delivers more to all our citizens.

For Ireland, this means that we want a more resilient Economic and Monetary Union and a Single Market that is more integrated, particularly in the area of services. We want to see a European Union that is open and resists protectionism.

We see the Single Market as one of Europe's greatest achievements and we need to build on its success over the next five years in order to complete a Single Market that is fit for the digital age.

Our future growth will be dependent on digital skills, connectivity and expertise in artificial intelligence and robotics. But these changes can have both positive and negative impacts, the next Strategic Agenda will need to support those who will be vulnerable to these changes.

Climate change is a challenge whose solutions rest in partnership and cooperation. It extends beyond the borders of member states and beyond the border of the EU. Member states need to invest in a Union that is a global leader in finding climate-smart solutions. This will pose challenges for all of us. Business and Government will need to work effectively together to find solutions for one of the defining issues of our time.

But the lesson of how we need to respond to climate change can be extended to all of the key issues that we face. All sectors of society must be prepared to work together in partnership. We all have a role to play in ensuring that we can deliver better lives to our citizens and citizens of the European Union as a whole.

It falls to us to carry forward the legacy of those before us, who worked so hard to develop peace through closer cooperation and trade between our countries.

I am confident that we have both the will and the means to create a shared future that will be better than our past. I hope that you will all join us in doing so.

Thank you.

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