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Brexit and the Future of Europe

Brexit, European Union, Ireland, Minister Simon Coveney, Speech, Great Britain, Ireland, 2017

“Which Brexit After the UK Elections”

Opening Event of theDCU Brexit Research and Policy Institute

Keynote Speech on

‘Brexit and the Future of Europe’

Helen McEntee T.D. Minister of State for European Affairs

Thursday, 14 September 2017

Check Against Delivery 


Distinguished guests,


Thank you for the warm welcome and thank you, in particular, to the Principal of the Institute, Federico Fabbrini, for inviting me to open today’s conference.    As this is the Institute’s opening event, I want to take this opportunity to wish it every success in its endeavours.  The list of distinguished speakers lined up to intervene today is impressive and augurs well for the capacity of the Institute to bring real added value and insights to the Brexit debate and, I hope, to the ever urgent discussion on the future direction of the European Union.  Allow me at the outset to acknowledge two very special speakers, Baroness Armstrong, who will speak later this morning, and my Greek colleague, Georgios Katrougalos, who will close the proceedings this evening.  Both of you are very welcome and I am sure each of you will have an attentive audience, eager to hear your perspectives on the issues under consideration today.


It is ten years now since I graduated from the School of Law and Government here in DCU.  It is always a pleasure to return to one’s alma mater and standing at this podium today is a special privilege, not least because it means I am not at the back of the hall trying to jot down notes on the lecture!


DCU’s backstory is a fascinating one that brings together our historic links with the United Kingdom and the transformation membership of the European Union has brought to Ireland.  It would be wrong to say that it is the perfect place to discuss Brexit and the future of Europe because there is no upside to Brexit, only a multitude of downsides.  But we could, perhaps, say it is an apposite place to have this debate.


It is hard to imagine that, in 1973 when Ireland and the United Kingdom joined the then EEC, DCU was a nothing but a big field.  It was the site of an agricultural college, the Albert College, which was named after the Royal Consort, Prince Albert, when he visited a model farm here in 1853.  Today it is the fastest growing university in Ireland.  It is also the leading ‘young’ university in Ireland, featuring the in top 50 universities in the world that are under 50 years of age.  It has over 50,000 graduates, myself included, and caters for 16,000 students from 110 different nationalities.  It is an outstanding example of all we have achieved with the support of the European Union by investing in education and innovation.


About one hundred years ago, research at the Albert College led to a breakthrough in the study of the fungus which causes potato blight which, as everyone knows, brought devastation during the Great Famine of the 1840s.  More recently, the Common Agricultural Policy has transformed farming and rural life in Ireland, allowing us to move in a generation from subsistence to sustainable food production that is feeding the country and supplying lucrative export markets around the globe.  Who could have imagined just forty years ago, standing here in an empty field, that one day this site would be a hub for multi-disciplinary research into health technologies, the digital society, sustainable economies and democratic structures?


If you want to know what the European Union stands for and what it can achieve, look no further than our immediate surroundings.


While I want to focus this morning on the future of Europe, there is no doubt that the current phase in that debate was triggered by Brexit.  Here in Ireland we are, understandably, preoccupied by the implications Brexit poses for us but it also carries profound implications for the European Union as a whole.


Paradoxically, the United Kingdom has decided to leave the European Union at a time when many of the EU’s neighbours to the East are eager to join the Union, seeing it as a beacon of peace and stability. Unfortunately, Brexit coincides with a multitude of challenges – the migration crisis, shaping the recovery from the financial crisis, the emergence of populism, concerns around the unequal distribution of the benefits of globalisation and the threat of international terrorism.  Any one of these issues would be problematic for the European Union; but taken together they constitute an enormous, but unavoidable, agenda.  To be honest, our working lives would be much easier if we could give these pressing and important issues our undivided attention without the added burden of Brexit being tossed on top of them in the proverbial in-tray.


In Ireland we have undertaken extensive analysis of the consequences of Brexit and our unequivocal conclusion is that our future interests are best served by remaining a fully committed member of the European Union, notwithstanding the UK’s departure.


We have worked hard to ensure that Ireland’s priorities are at the heart of the European Union’s own negotiating guidelines.   The inclusion, therefore, in the guidelines of persuasive and detailed language in relation to Ireland’s particular concerns and priorities, including on protecting the Good Friday Agreement, avoiding a hard border and maintaining the Common Travel Area, was especially welcome.


As you know, we are currently engaged in the first phase of the EU-UK negotiations, dealing with the so-called article 50 ‘divorce’ issues which include citizens’ rights, financial matters and, of course, the Irish issues.


Good progress has been made on the Common travel Area and last week the Commission Taskforce published its guiding principles for dialogue on Ireland and Northern Ireland.  The guidelines reiterated the need to protect the gains of the peace process and of the Good Friday Agreement and they included a timely reminder that the invisible border on the island of Ireland is one of the major achievements and benefits of the peace process.  The guidelines do not put forward solutions for the border.  The onus to do that is on the United Kingdom.  The UK has created this problem and it is their responsibility, not ours, not the EU’s, to ensure that withdrawal from the EU takes place on terms that protect the specific circumstances that apply on the island of Ireland.  A unique solution will be needed and the ball is in the UK’s court.


The clock, of course, is ticking and the next significant rendez-vous will be in Brussels on the 19th and 20th of October when the leaders of the EU27, including the Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, meet to make an assessment of progress.  ‘Sufficient progress’ is needed in the article 50 talks before discussions can move in parallel to look at the framework for the future relationship between the EU and the UK, including on trade. Ireland is keen to see the negotiations turning to the next phase since we are equally keen to get clarity on the future relationship, not least on trade, as soon as we can.  But we are in total agreement with the phased approach and we will continue to take a firm line on the need for progress on all three of the key exit issues.  We are not looking for these issues to be fully resolved by the end of phase 1.  But making decent progress is about building confidence. We must deal with the past and lay the foundations of a trusting relationship before we can build the future. But we are worried that, despite the best efforts of Michel Barnier and his team, it is looking increasingly likely that it will not be possible to declare sufficient progress by next month’s meeting.  There is still, of course, time to make more progress but that depends entirely on the UK and their willingness to negotiate in earnest and engage constructively across all the exit issues in the time available.

It is too soon to have a clear idea of the shape of the Brexit negotiations outcome.  The UK says it will leave the single market and the customs union.  But we would prefer if they didn’t; not least because we want to maintain the trading relationships that have existed on these islands for decades.


Membership of the single market and the customs union have been core elements of our economic strategy.  They give us tariff-free and barrier-free access to a market of 500 million people and they have been instrumental in bringing to Ireland the foreign direct investment that provides so many jobs in the local labour market.


There is little to be gained in waiting for the outcome of the Brexit negotiations before turning our attention to the future of the Union as 27.  Ireland will be a member of the single market, the customs union and, of course, the EU itself, regardless.


Almost as soon as the outcome of the UK referendum was known last year, the leaders of the EU27 met in Bratislava and acknowledged:


“The EU is not perfect but it is the best instrument we have for addressing the new challenges we are facing. We need the EU not only to guarantee peace and democracy but also the security of our people. We need the EU to serve better their needs and wishes to live, study, work, move and prosper freely across our continent and benefit from the rich European cultural heritage.”


The emphasis in Bratislava was on meeting the expectations of citizens and on re-committing to our core values.


This emphasis on citizens is at the heart of the Commission’s White Paper on the future of Europe and in the five reflection papers the Commission has produced in the meantime.  The Commission has engaged in an extensive consultation process, inviting submissions from the public and here in Ireland I am very pleased that the Joint Oireachtas Committee on European Affairs has launched a consultation process of its own.


Communication will be key to this process if we are to settle on an Irish position that truly reflects the views of the wider public.

At the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade we are engaging with organisations such as the Institute of International and European Affairs and the European Movement Ireland and together with the Minister, Simon Coveney T.D., I will be leading a process of public engagement and debate across the country.

One of our immediate challenges is to formulate a coherent response to the Commission’s White Paper. It sets five scenarios ranging from simply carrying on to being more ambitious and doing much more together.

The Reflection Papers are wide-ranging and, again, they provide a set of options.  They deal with:

  • the social dimension;
  • harnessing globalisation;
  • deepening economic and monetary union;
  • the future of European defence; and
  • future arrangements for the EU budget.


It is important to note that the options in the White Paper and the Reflection Papers are not exhaustive.  The issues involved will require a great deal of careful analysis and we are keen that Ireland makes its own contribution to the debate, rather than simply responding to ideas proposed by others.  We will need to get ahead of this debate, therefore, if we are to shape it to our best advantage.

There will in any event be some tough choices to be made.

What is the appetite among the electorate for change? For more Europe?

Would we prefer to deepen, broaden, lessen or simply maintain the current competences of the Union?

Clearly, we don’t want a two-tier Europe.  But how would a multi-speed Europe fit with our needs, given, for example, existing arrangements such as the Eurozone and the Schengen area? 

How can we ensure that the values enshrined in the treaties - pluralism, non-discrimination, tolerance, justice, solidarity and equality – prevail across all the Member States?


How can we get the best return on our investment in order to make sure it keeps delivering for our citizens and for the citizens of the Union as a whole?

Now that Ireland has become a net contributor to the EU budget, we must avoid taking a purely transactional approach to the Union.  The EU is much bigger than the sum of its parts and membership is not a zero-sum game.

It is, as the EU leaders declared in Rome this year, a unique undertaking “with common institutions and strong values, a community of peace, freedom, democracy, human rights and the rule of law, a major economic power with unparalleled levels of social protection and welfare.”

Yesterday’s State of the Union speech by the President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, was a welcome contribution to the debate.  His emphasis, for example, on a Union that works for its citizens and the importance he attaches to Europe’s values - a Union of freedom, equality and the rule of law - echoes our broad approach to the debate, especially our commitment to completing the single market, completing the banking union and opening up new markets around the globe.


Membership of the European Union has been central to the transformation of Ireland’s economy and society over the last forty years.  When we were setting out our Brexit priorities we made it clear that we will continue to underline the EU’s core values, celebrate its political, economic and social achievements and work to ensure that all our citizens understand that our future peace and prosperity are best preserved through the European Union and our membership of it.

Influencing the future direction of the European Union is an important part of our Brexit strategy since we have to adjust to a new reality which means that very soon our nearest neighbour will no longer be beside us at the table in Brussels.  This will mean many things, strengthening existing alliances and building new ones.


It will also mean ensuring we have Irish officials working where we need them in institutions such as the European Commission, the Council Secretariat and the European Parliament.


Over the years, Irish EU officials have occupied key positions within the European institutions, holding many of the most important posts. There have been six Secretaries-General of the European Commission since 1957, two of whom have been Irish – David O’Sullivan and Catherine Day. Considering Ireland’s size, this is an impressive achievement.


However, the number of young and early career Irish staff in the institutions is declining, particularly as many Irish staff who joined the institutions shortly after our accession approach retirement, and the success rates of Irish people in the EU recruitment competitions in recent years has been somewhat disappointing. This matters for all kinds of reasons. Not least because the decisions made at EU level - the policies and proposals designed and drafted by these officials in Brussels, Strasbourg, Luxembourg and elsewhere - have such direct impact here in Ireland. Having people who understand Ireland working in these roles matters a great deal. Ultimately, it means that our national circumstances and viewpoints are taken into account as policy is being developed. This is as essential for the EU institutions as it is for Ireland. After all, the EU aims to reflect, and benefit from, the diversity of backgrounds and experiences that exist across all its Member States.


Since we are on campus, I want to emphasise that it is vital that we encourage today’s graduates to consider a career at EU level. And I should of course mention the work currently being undertaken by the institutions to increase their Irish language capacity and the opportunities there. The EU Jobs Ireland campaign, coordinated by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, is there to help candidates through the process. This invaluable resource offers information services, advice and support for anyone considering an EU career.


I would like to stress, therefore, that now is a great time for an Irish person to apply to the institutions. Ireland’s reputation in Brussels is high. The demand for intelligent young professionals with fluent English and good communication and networking skills – the kind of graduates DCU has always produced – has never been stronger, and the opportunities have never been greater.


Overall, our thinking on the future of Europe debate should reflect Ireland’s priorities.  At this stage I do not want to be exhaustive on this but, from my perspective, our priorities should include:

  • the completion of the internal market, especially in services and the digital single market;
  • the reduction of administrative burdens and compliance costs on small and medium enterprises;
  • combating youth and long-term unemployment;
  • investment in infrastructure and in research and innovation;
  • the negotiation of trade and investment agreements with third countries;
  • the completion of the Banking Union;
  • promoting access to low-carbon energy;
  • tackling climate change; and
  • preventing international crime and terrorism.


This is how we will deliver in areas that have a concrete and positive effect on peoples’ lives.

Over the course of this future of Europe debate we will be talking to our partners, seeking out the like-minded and building coalitions in favour of this agenda.

At the end of the day, what we want is what we said in Rome in March together with the leaders of the EU27:

We want a Union that is safe and secure, prosperous, competitive, sustainable and socially responsible, and with the will and capacity of playing a key role in the world and of shaping globalisation. We want a Union where citizens have new opportunities for cultural and social development and economic growth. [And finally] we want a Union which remains open to those European countries that respect our values and are committed to promoting them.” 

Can I conclude by wishing you every success in your discussions today?  I have no doubt that today’s proceedings and the work undertaken here at the new Institute will add to our understanding of these important issues and will complement DCU’s proven record of engaging in ground-breaking research of real added-value that will help change the landscape here again to suit our needs.


Thank you.