This is a good week to be discussing British Irish relations. We have lots to talk about!
May I first congratulate the British Irish Chamber of Commerce on this event.
I see today is devoted to Innovation and Competitiveness, two themes which are central to the objectives of the Irish Presidency.
We have been using a single slogan about our Presidency which is the simple phrase “stability, jobs and growth”. Ireland is a relatively small and highly export-driven economy. We here know the impact of the loss of international competitiveness, although I think it is true that recent figures show that we have regained a great deal of what was lost.
But we know that as a truly open economy we are dependent on innovation to keep us ahead of our rivals, and to bring about the increase in employment and growth which we so badly need. We have identified a number of policy areas for our Presidency where progress will help us, and other Member States, improve our positions.
We want to promote the digital economy and the Digital Single Market, which will include advance agreement on issues such as Intellectual Property Rights, Cyber security, e-Identification, Data Protection, and high-speed broadband rollout.
The Digital Single Market is the European Union most important untapped resource. 35% of Internet users avoid shopping online because of concerns about the security of payments or a lack of legal certainty regarding their consumer rights.
A Digital Single Market where services can flow freely within a market of 500 million consumers is a crucial driver for competitiveness and economic growth, providing highly-qualified jobs and facilitating the EU’s convergence into a knowledge-driven economy.
Real progress in promoting and e-Commerce and reassuring customers will deliver for Europe’s business and consumers and allow increased access to better quality and better value goods within the Union.
Companies with an online presence have access to markets which are just not otherwise attainable and this fact is of critical importance to entrepreneurs and SMEs.
We are also determined to advance agreement on the Horizon 2020 framework programme for all the benefits this will bring. Horizon 2020 will substantially increase funding and support for research, development and innovation – driving forward competitiveness and increasing the knowledge base which will underpin sustainable economic growth.
I know that these are themes which are close to your hearts, and I have no doubt that we will have the full support of the UK in making progress on these issues.
The bilateral relationship between Ireland and Britain has never been better. Britain is still our most important trading partner and Ireland remains one of Britain’s most significant export markets. Trade between our islands is worth €1 billion per week, supporting many jobs across these islands.
Our common membership of the EU has helped us forged ever closer ties with the UK and the momentous visit of Queen Elizabeth almost two years ago moved our relationship to a whole new level.
Since then, work has intensified further between the two Governments as well as with the devolved administrations, building on progress we have made to date. Last March the Taoiseach and Prime Minister agreed an ambitious programme for Irish-British cooperation over the coming decade. They also committed their two Governments to working together in Europe and on the wider global stage in addressing challenges of mutual interest.
This broad focus has continued over the past year in a series of high level meetings with a strong economic focus. Our governments have also commissioned a Joint Study of the economic relationship, including areas of energy, agri-food, and research and innovation.
If I may return to “that speech”, I would like to make one or two points:
We know that the historical experience of Ireland and Britain is very different. For that reason, and for reasons of geography and of size, Ireland has always found membership of the European Union benign. Even as the most committed Europhile, I do not claim it is perfect, but I do say Ireland as always – for forty years – been much better off as a member, than it would be outside.
I know that this is not necessarily the perception throughout the United Kingdom and that the continued relationship has not been popular. It is understandable therefore that the UK might want to reassess its level of commitment to and also the direction of the European project. Personally I welcome the fact that Prime Minister Cameron’s speech sets out a strong case for the importance of the UK’s continuing and active membership of the EU.
The Prime Minister’s speech was a pro-European speech. It reaffirmed David Cameron’s commitment to the UK remaining within, and at the heart of the EU.
This debate is one for the people of the UK, and the decision is one for people of the UK. It is not for us to tell the UK what is good for it. But equally we have every right to give our opinion as to the impact of British re-negotiation or withdrawal on the Union itself and on Ireland.
In the course of the debate within the UK the dangers and disadvantages of leaving the EU have been made clear by many in the domestic debate. You are all familiar with them, and I need not rehearse them – the disruption to trade and investment flows, the isolation on the world stage, the souring of relations with partners.
A UK departure would be disruptive for Ireland. The prospect of disrupted trade and movement of people, the prospect of complications with the Union’s external border - these give us some cause for concern.
We are all aware of the British contribution to the development of the European Union and that - if the Union has a strong single market, if the Union trades with the outside world, if the Union has a strong voice on every continent, if the Union is one that many countries are queuing up to join – this is because of what the UK, amongst others, has made it.
Britain is the staunchest advocate of the Single Market, and we agree that it is fundamental to our economic success. While Britain is not in the Eurozone, it is an essential part of the Market, and I do not believe that any effort by any of the Eurozone members, individually or collectively, will be made to harm Britain’s interest.
But I believe that it is important that we understand that the European Union is not just an economic venture. It is a political venture.
I do not know and I don’t believe that anyone knows exactly how far “ever closer union” will bring us. But personally, I believe that this political commitment is at the heart of what the Union does and aims to be. This is worth preserving and protecting.
These will be interesting and difficult days ahead, but I have no doubt that the dramatic improvement in mutual understanding and communication over the last number of years, will stand us, as neighbours, in good stead as we try to move forward.
Ladies and gentlemen, this is a challenging time for the EU and its Member States. However, history has taught us is that when we act together, the nations of Europe can reap rewards not just for our businesses but also for our citizens.
The EU is not perfect – no more than any of our governments – but it has consistently reformed itself for the better. The process of renewal and reform is continuous; Ireland and the UK are at the very centre of that process – shaping the policy which can, and will affect our future, and for the better.
With crisis and major challenges come opportunities and the EU is moving towards a level of integration few would have predicted a few years ago.
Just as it has expanded to its current membership of 27 states, we need to ensure that the Union is more adaptable and dynamic for the future.
We want the UK to remain a strong voice within the EU so that together we can secure the changes needed to renovate, restore and renew our Union.
We see our Presidency as an opportunity to contribute to the economic renewal of this continent and the States within it. In this globalised world the 27 member states of the European Union have a choice – to renew together or decline in isolation.