Historically, Ireland’s relationship with our European partners has been consistent and strong. That is no secret. It was this excellent relationship that allowed a small country, with what should have been limited influence, consistently punch above its weight. In 1973 we arrived on the European stage with relish and zeal and stayed there, until recently, as a constructive and fully engaged Member State.
It was the determination to meet our obligations and responsibilities that allowed us to benefit from our membership and to emerge confidently from our traditional reliance on our British neighbours. We were, through membership and through our own hard work, finally able to operate as a successful trading nation with real economic opportunities, culminating in the staggering period of economic growth from the mid 90s until very recently.
We all know how it ended and I see little point going into that in much detail. I will say, however, that the position we are in now is both unnecessary and unfortunate. Even if our economic house of cards had not come crashing down, I fear that our relationships with our European partners would still have suffered. With economic confidence we also acquired the less desirable trait of arrogance. Our former Government saw little need to engage fully with the European Institutions or indeed with other Member States. The arrogance is well and truly gone now, but the impact undoubtedly lingers.
Since our new Government came to office last March one of its key priorities has been re-engaging with our European partners. The Taoiseach, the Tanaiste and I have embarked, with considerable speed, on what will be a long journey. I am excited about this journey and the opportunity it presents for our country. Days after taking office I travelled here to Brussels to meet with key people in all of the institutions and I was, quite frankly, shocked at what I heard about the way in which, we, the Irish, had been conducting our business here for the last number of years. Suffice it to say that perceptions were not good.
It is something of a cliché to say that every challenge presents an opportunity but it is true. We now have an opportunity to redefine our place in Europe and reshape the relationships that have been neglected. We can also seize this chance to build new relationships with non-traditional partners. To borrow a phrase from Catherine Day, we need to restore Ireland’s “shine” and the new Government is working very hard to make that happen.
We are approaching this task in a rigorous and coordinated fashion. Since taking office Ministers have been regularly attending their respective Ministerial council meetings, which of course should be normal practice. Members of the Government have also been making determined efforts to schedule time for bilateral meetings and other supplementary engagements during their respective travels. Indeed, there has been a frenzy of activity on this front and I am pleased to hear from my colleagues across the Union that this effort is not going unnoticed. Attending Council meetings, forging contacts, establishing and cultivating relations with other member states are the most basic elements of European engagement. But they are more than that. They are necessary obligations that we have a responsibility to fulfil.
Engaging with the institutions goes beyond tending to the day-to-day business and turning up at meetings. In the past Ireland succeeded in increasing its influence as a contributor to, rather than a beneficiary from, the European thought process. But in the recent past we have been accustomed to only mobilising our resources – often at the last minute – to defend an issue of national interest. We are correct to do so, but we should also recognise the urgent need to remain both mobilised and motivated with a view to contributing to the European policy agenda in the most proactive way possible.
In my early meetings with European officials, and significantly with many Irish people living and working in Brussels, it was made very clear to me that Ireland has been quick to act when something that benefits our threatens us arrives on the table. However it was also suggested that, in recent times, we have seldom sought to influence European policy before it actually reaches the table. In other words we were keen to take but not contribute. This is a regrettable development.
How different this situation is to a decade ago when Ireland was perceived to be at the heart of European policy making. The energetic player – the giver rather, than the taker. Our high regard in Europe befitted us on two fronts (a) we were able to punch above our weight within the Union on matters that affected Ireland and other States; and (b), as John Bruton has repeatedly argued, “Not only was Ireland in the EU with guaranteed access to a huge market, but the Irish government was also very influential in the European Union, and it had the clout, and the smarts, to know how to sort out any regulatory difficulties a company investing in Ireland might face.” An investor in Ireland would be safe in a country which was on the frontline of the European market and central to the political system.
Therefore the single, simplest way of strengthening our relationships within Europe is to contribute to the success of that same Europe.
How do we achieve this?
Starting with the institutions, the Commission is willing to engage openly in a dialogue with the Government regarding key policy development and the direction of legislative proposals. Indeed, the Commission has pleaded for more engagement from the Government at the early stages at these processes. There is a huge opportunity for the Government, at Ministerial and Departmental level, to express ideas and opinions to the Commission at an early stage of policy formation. Ministers must offer leadership to our civil servants in this regard and so far I am satisfied that this is happening within the new Government.
Under the terms of the Treaty of Lisbon, the European Parliament now plays a greatly enhanced role in EU decision making. In advance of the Irish Presidency of the EU in 2013, we will engage in intensive relationship building with European Parliament. No Presidency can succeed under the Lisbon arrangements without significant buy-in by the Parliament. Members of the Government have already dramatically stepped up engagement with the European parliament, meeting not just Irish MEPs, but also beginning the process of engagement with relevant Committee Chairs and Rapporteurs.
As Minister for European Affairs I have primary responsibility for coordinating this activity and for fronting the Government’s liaison with the Parliament in advance of the Irish Presidency. Last month I met with Klaus Welle the Secretary General of the Parliament, as well as meeting with Sharon Bowles, the Chair of the Econ committee. I also met with President Jerzy Buzek and am delighted that he will make his first official visit to Ireland on July 12th and 13th.
Our bilateral relations are absolutely essential to furthering our interests and building a bank of support to progress our own ideas within the Union. The government has been noticeably active on this issue and the importance of that action cannot be underestimated. As I mentioned our renewed activity is being noticed. Establishing new, strong bilateral relations, while strengthening existing ones, will lay the foundations of any future achievements on the European stage. I am strongly of the view that it is vital to have a bilateral element to all travel by members of the Government with as much time allocated to the process as possible. This is now standard practice across government.
All of the ideas and strategies I have outlined will not work without a strong implementation plan. At present we are in the process of re-organising some structures in the Department of an Taoiseach to ensure we have the best possible systems in place to monitor, identify, influence and further the many interests we have across the European Union. These new structures will also keep a check on the progress and engagement of other Government Ministers and their Departments as they seek to restore Ireland to the heart of European public life once again.
Strengthening our relationship with our European partners is not an easy task. There are 26 other member states striving to achieve exactly the same goal. We have to become co-ordinated, proactive and effective. This Government is determined to ensure that the right structures are in place.
Structures are vital, but a passion and a vision for the future of Europe, and Ireland’s place in Europe are essential components of this Government’s mission. We must play our role in ensuring that Ireland, along with all of the other EU Member States, recognises clearly, that our goals as Member States, our ambitions as sovereign nations, are only achievable through a strong, coherent, decisive and united European Union.
Europe’s economy, as determined in Gross Domestic Product terms, has increased by 50% since 1990. This is a remarkable achievement you might say, until we look at another crucial economy – China. In that same period, China’s economy has grown in GDP terms by 500%. It is the economic powerhouse which will easily and breezily overtake both the EU and the US as the world’s leading economy by 2020. The rapid growth of economies such as China’s, challenges the future prospects of Europe’s citizens in terms of job opportunities, the cost of living, financial security and social solidarity.
We cannot hope to face these challenges if Europe is divided and conflicted by increasing levels of nationalism and sometimes selfish, short-sighted domestic interests. We have every chance of ensuring a secure and prosperous future for our citizens if we have the courage to stand tall and proud together.
Ireland cannot simply sit back and expect other countries to lead the way. We have the capacity, the drive and the tenacity to lead this charge ourselves. We can move from being a country narrowly and myopically defending national interests, to one which leads the field in seeing our national interest and our neighbours interests, best served by advancing the common European interest. Ireland’s interest, France’s interest, Poland’s interest, Spain’s interest and every other Member State’s interest can only be served by defending and advancing the overall European interest.
This is something we understood very well in Ireland in the past. It is time we reignite that understanding. We must reignite it amongst our citizens and amongst our politicians. We must do so for the sake of our future – for Ireland’s future, for Europe’s future, because our fortunes are so entirely interconnected and so necessarily interdependent.