Speech by Minister of State Helen McEntee T.D. at Institute for International and European Affairs
Speech27 September 2017
Thank you for this timely invitation to join my Swedish colleague, Ann Linde, to discuss our respective perspectives on the future of Europe and thank you, Ann, for your contribution today to this ongoing debate. The Institute for International and European Affairs has always been a catalyst for new thinking and I have no doubt that, in its research and through events such as today’s, it will bring together the best from the private and public sectors to work with us on new solutions and policy options for Europe’s future.
Sometimes when you want to anticipate the future, you have to understand the past. It’s easier to plot a course for the future when you have a fix on what is driving the present. What are the policies and arrangements which brought us this far? How did we get to where we are today? These are questions which help us work out the next steps and help us get a better grip on what might work and what won’t.
Earlier this year, the EU27 celebrated the 60th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome, the 1957 Treaty which founded the European Economic Community. It is the founding document of what we call today the European Union. Back then it was designed to serve the purposes of six founding nations but, several revisions later, it still serves as an inspiration for today’s much broader membership and can still guide us when charting a course for the EU27.
Most historians cast the Treaty and the European project as a great coming together after the ravages of the Second World War and as a novel, unprecedented move to bring peace and security to the continent. That is true. But it was also a response to the economic exhaustion prevailing after the war. International trade had gone into hibernation and, although fascism was well and truly discredited, politics was up for grabs with more than a few countries ready to experiment with other –isms, including communism. Just one year earlier, two European powers, France and the UK, discovered the hard way during the Suez Canal crisis that they no longer had the clout they thought they had; their hands were tied by Washington.
At the same time, Europe was facing a new threat – from the Soviet Union – and it is hard to imagine today that it was of two minds: do we face down this threat with Germany or without Germany. In the meantime, the UK was trying to make up its own mind about Europe. Should it join or should it not? During the Treaty negotiations the former Foreign Secretary, Herbert Morrison, famously said joining the Common Market “would be the end of a thousand years of history.” So it didn’t join … but later it did!
In short, in 1957 Europe was struggling to meet the needs of its citizens, had no real voice on the international stage and was confused, to put it mildly, as to what direction it should take.
What is striking, therefore, is just how prosaic the language of the Treaty was. Given the challenges, we might have expected a text that was much more rhetorical. Instead, what jumps off the page is pragmatism:
- the improvement of living and working conditions;
- eliminating barriers;
- balanced trade and fair competition;
- the progressive abolition of restrictions on international trade;
- reducing differences with less favoured regions;
- pooling resources to strengthen peace; and, of course,
- ever-closer union among the peoples.
The Treaty also included a call to “the other peoples of Europe” to join their efforts. Since then, Ireland, Sweden and many others have answered that call and more again are engaged in the accession process.
60 years on we are looking once again for the clarity that led Europe so successfully out of the confusion that reigned within its borders, around its neighbourhood and across the globe.
Most discussions on the future begin by emphasising how complicated and turbulent the world has become. Multiple challenges are cited – the financial crisis, the migration crisis, climate change, Brexit, the emergence of new powers, the decline of others and a general sense that voters have less and less confidence in the leaders they elect. It would be wrong to ignore or under-estimate any of these challenges but it would also be wrong to let them overwhelm us.
When the leaders of the EU27 met in Rome in March they came close to capturing the approach we need to take in the future of Europe debate when they said: “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.”
Almost all of the challenges we face and the things we want have a cross-border element to them.
Ann has set out Sweden’s ‘wants’. Sweden wants the EU to focus on job creation, especially among young people. So do we. Sweden wants a digital single market that helps SMEs do businesses digitally and helps consumers avail of services on-line. So do we – and, indeed, we spent some time over lunch discussing our co-operation on digital issues. Both countries want ambitious trade agreements that respect the high standards our citizens expect; agreements that provide better opportunities for jobs and growth. Likewise, Sweden and Ireland are advocates for strong environmental policies and greater solidarity among Member States in tackling the migration crisis.
In short, both of us recognise the fundamental importance of the European Union in dealing with the issues affecting us. 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. Like Sweden, we see it as the best instrument we have for addressing the new challenges we are facing, serving the needs of our citizens who want to live, study, work, move and prosper freely across the continent.
In 1900 Europe accounted for 25% of the world’s population; by 2060 it will represent less than 5%. Long term trends would suggest that Europe’s share of the world’s GDP will fall from 22% to much less than 20% by 2030. Thanks to longer life expectancies, the average age in Europe will be 45, making us the oldest continent in the world. By contrast, the average age in Africa will be just 21 years in 2030.
Will we be better off dealing with this brave new world on our own or together with our partners in a major economic power with unparalleled levels of social protection and welfare? When we try to find new markets for our exports, will it be easier to gain access on our own or with the weight of one of the world’s biggest trading blocs behind us? In a world of asymmetric threats and international terrorism, do we go it alone or work in solidarity with our partners, sharing intelligence and putting in place protective mechanisms?
If you ask me, I would argue that we would be better together. Much better.
Together with Sweden, we will work with our friends and allies in Europe on crafting a common agenda that meets the needs of our citizens.
It is timely, therefore, to have a full debate on the type of Europe we want.
Of course, we also want the future of Europe debate to be fair and honest. An honest debate should be one that confronts the myths about Europe and a debate that is citizen-focussed will be more about outcomes than institutions.
An honest debate will also be one that recognises that the European Union is not perfect. The leaders of the EU27 acknowledged this last year in Bratislava when they launched the debate. It might be a statement of the obvious but if the EU was perfect, it would not be in need of renewal. The reality is that it does, indeed, need renewal.
What we don’t need in this debate is empty rhetoric. We should take the same level-headed and dispassionate approach as the architects of the Treaty of Rome and look for pragmatic solutions that work. In my opinion, we need to ask how the EU27 can deliver on three promises:
- prosperity and stability,
- freedom and values, and
- peace and security.
I am already 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.
I know that the Institute is working on responses to the Commission’s White Paper and the five Reflection Papers and we await your reports with interest. Others, such as the President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, and the President of France, Emmanuelle Macron, are busy making proposals. But it is important that we in Ireland get ahead of the debate and make our own contribution and that our contribution reflects the concerns and expectations of the Irish people.
All too often when we engage in debate on Europe we get torn between euro-fanatics and euro-sceptics. The euro-fanatics leave us feeling the Union is a club that knows what’s best but too complicated for you and me to understand. The euro-sceptics demonise it and fog the debate, as we saw in the Brexit referendum in the UK, with lies, straight bananas and fake news
This is a process which has many dimensions. It will depend on the wise counsel of organisations such as the IIEA and it will depend enormously on the quality of our engagement with the wider public.
The European Union still enjoys immense popular support in Ireland. But we should not be naïve and take that support for granted. Notwithstanding the support the Union commands, we should expect a robust debate in Ireland.
That is why we need a calm, considered and inclusive debate. To quote Jean-Claude Juncker: “The future of Europe cannot be decided by decree.It has to be the result of democratic debate and, ultimately, broad consensus.” Please join that debate.