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National Citizens’ Dialogue on the Future of Europe

National Citizens’ Dialogue on the Future of Europe

Royal Hospital, Kilmainham

9 May 2018

 

Opening remarks by

Helen McEntee T.D.,

Minister of State for European Affairs

 

Good morning everybody and welcome to the Royal Hospital Kilmainham. On today - Europe Day - the Government is particularly pleased to host this National Citizens’ Dialogue on the Future of Europe.

 

9 May is celebrated as Europe Day because it was on this day in 1950 that Robert Schuman, the visionary French Foreign Minister, put forward his proposals for what would ultimately become today’s European Union.

 

The European Union has many achievements to its name.  But it still needs to reaffirm its relevance to the daily lives of its citizens.   We have learned from our citizens’ engagement process that this renewal needs to be constant. The Government is leading this process of public engagement on the future of Europe because we want to be among the architects of the Europe of the future – sharing our designs and ideas - and not just responding to the plans of others.  The European Union is greater than the sum of its parts.  Ireland will play its part, in a way that reflects the wishes of our citizens.

 

This morning I want to extend a warm welcome to all of our speakers but most of all I want to thank you for joining us today, especially those of you who came out to join us at the regional dialogues we had across the country in recent months.

 

You might think it’s odd to talk about the future in a building that is nearly 340 years old.  But sometimes we can learn from our past when we are trying to make sense of the future.

 

The Royal Hospital was built in the 1680s.  It took in army pensioners after the Battle of the Boyne.  In the early 1920s there was a plan to make it home to the Dáil and the Seanad but Leinster House was rented instead.  In the 1930s the RHK became Garda Headquarters but it fell into disrepair in the 1950s.  Then in the 1980s it was refurbished and became a museum of modern art and a conference centre.

 

This building has gone though many transformations and has served many different roles.

 

The European Union is not as old.  But it is getting old.  It was 60 last year and Ireland has been a member of it for over 45 years now.

 

It too needs a refurbishment and a bit of retro-fitting.  It needs to re-create itself and make sure it is ready for whatever it is the next 45 or 70 years throw at it.

 

Where else should we do that than at the RHK?  The building was modelled on Les Invalides in Paris.   In this very hall we hosted a State dinner in 1988 in honour of one of the great Europeans, François Mitterrand, and in 2004 and 2013 we hosted many EU Presidency events here too.

 

So if anyone wants to know why we are at the RHK, my answer is: where else would we be?

 

The more important question is how did we get here today?

 

Our journey started in November at the Science Gallery in TCD when the Taoiseach joined the Tánaiste and me to launch our own citizens’ dialogue on the future of Europe.  Many of you were there so many of you will remember the Taoiseach when he said: “The EU has always offered the promise of a better future, but it is a future that will not be handed to us. We must work to create it.”

 

Since then we have travelled the country, covering 2,000 kilometres getting to and from Galway, Cork, Limerick, Maynooth, Letterkenny and Navan.  Hundreds of people turned out to our regional sessions and the level of engagement at each of them was just brilliant.  Everyone embraced the idea.  People really wanted to talk about the future, not the past, and it is clear that, despite its imperfections, our citizens see Europe at the heart of their future and Ireland at the heart of Europe.

 

Ours was a listening exercise. We wanted to hear your needs and concerns, without being prescriptive.

 

We crammed a lot into each session and asked a lot from each participant.  The format was the same at each venue. 

 

Participants were encouraged to have their say on how the European Union can help us become more competitive and prosperous and how it can make us safer and more secure.  We asked for your views on a more sustainable Union that would be more socially responsible.  We got your views on globalisation: how can we shape it before it shapes us?

 

I have to say that I was very impressed by the level of participation at each session.  There was real engagement on the issues and, if there is an over-riding message, it is one based on fairness.  People want to ensure fairness in an increasingly competitive world.  You want the environment to be protected so we can hand it on to future generations in good shape.  There is also a demand for inter-generational fairness.  People want young people to enjoy the best of opportunities when they are starting their careers and their families and they want older people to be able to enjoy their retirement in dignity and comfort.

 

Today, we are asking you to draw together the many strands in this debate.

 

The Taoiseach was the first European leader invited by the European Parliament to set out his views on the Future of Europe and he did so in January in Strasbourg.

 

 

The Tánaiste set out his vision for ‘the Europe we want’ when he spoke in November at UCD.

 

 

Our MEPs have set up their own events and the first Vice-President of the European Parliament, Mairéad McGuinness, joined me in Navan.

 

 

We have travelled the country with Noelle O’Connell and her team at the European Movement and I want to thank them for a really excellent collaboration.

 

Nathalie Loiseau, France’s Minister for European Affairs, joined me and 300 students in a debate in Maynooth.

 

I went as far as Vienna for a public debate on the future of Europe with the Austrian Society for European Policy.

 

I joined Tibor Navracsics, the European Commissioner for Education, Culture, Youth and Sport, for a full house at the RIA and the European Commission organised many of its own events, including a lively one with Phil Hogan and 600 farmers in Kilkenny.

 

The Institute of International and European Affairs has helped us with analysis and engaged in its own outreach process including hosting a range of distinguished speakers from around Europe.

 

The Joint Oireachtas Committee on European Affairs has held hearings on the future of Europe.

 

For its part the European Commission has had an active programme of public engagement on the Future of Europe and is about to launch an online consultation across all the Member States

 

 

Others have entered the debate, making submissions on-line. , Yesterday I was very pleased to announce funding of €100,000 to a range of community and voluntary organisations to promote greater understanding of the EU and to bring the future of Europe debate to a wider audience.

 

We want the discussion to be as inclusive as possible.

 

 

We have brought together a cross-section of sectoral interests to stimulate the debate today.  We will hear this morning from the employers, the trades unions, the farmers and the environmental pillar. Please listen to them but most of all we want to hear from you.

 

One of the loudest messages we have heard was the importance of skills and innovation so that our future generations can have a competitive edge in an ever changing world.  Our parallel session this morning on youth, education and innovation should help us get a better sense of what is involved.

 

Our focus throughout has been on bringing the Union closer to the citizen.  Who better, therefore, to talk today about this than the European Ombudsman, Emily O’Reilly? She sees and hears on a daily basis just exactly what the European citizens want from the institutions that are there to serve them.

 

Of course, we are not alone in the European Union.  There are another 27 (soon to be 26) Member States.  Over 10% of Ireland’s population was born in another EU Member State.  Only Luxembourg and Cyprus have a higher percentage so it is vital that Ireland’s contribution to the wider European debate includes the voices of those Europeans who have moved here, exercising the four freedoms we all enjoy – the free movement of goods, services, capital and, of course, people.

 

Please stay with us for what they have to say in the afternoon and for the Tánaiste’s closing remarks on Europe’s place in the world.

 

The EU is entering a new phase and is being called on to meet new challenges. As a small country, committed to our European destiny, it is vital that we influence and shape the future direction of the EU.

 

Today is the culmination of our series of Citizen’s Dialogues on the Future of Europe. But the debate is far from over and before the summer I will publish a report on our Citizen’s Dialogues which will in turn feed into a new national statement on Ireland in Europe.

 

This will be Ireland’s contribution to the wider European debate, as we look to the planned Sibiu summit of EU leaders to take place this day next year. 

 

As our slogan says: it’s your future, your Europe.  Get involved.

 

But before we write this new page in our history, let’s take a moment to take a look back at the journey so far.