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Brexit and Beyond: The post-Brexit EU, from Ireland’s perspective

Brexit and Beyond:

 The post-Brexit EU, from Ireland’s perspective


Remarks by Tánaiste


Helsinki, 5 September 2018



Good morning and thank you for braving the rush hour traffic to be here. I’m delighted to be in Helsinki, the Daughter of the Baltic, on a much too short visit to this beautiful city. It has been a busy few hours. I had a very good discussion last night on arrival with my good friend, Timo Soini. And I am travelling on to Tallinn and Vilnius later today for additional meetings with Foreign Minister colleagues.


This morning I’m delighted to have the opportunity to talk to you all about Ireland’s perspective on Brexit and the post-Brexit EU. I’d like to thank the Finnish Institute for International Affairs (FIIA), particularly Director Teja Tiilikainen  and EU Programme Director Juha Jokela  and their colleagues for their assistance and hospitality.


Ireland greatly values our relations with Finland - as, I think, is evidenced by the increasingly well-worn flight path between Dublin and Helsinki. I understand that I am the fifth representative of the Irish Government to pay an official visit to Helsinki in the last year. This speaks not just to the warmth of your hospitality, but also to the depth of the bonds which have grown between us in the 25 years since we first opened a resident embassy in Helsinki.


There are so many parallels between Finland and Ireland. We are small nation states with larger neighbours on the peripheries of Europe. Ireland and Finland joined the UN on 14 December 1955 and our armed forces serve side by side with the UN in Lebanon. We are both open, trading nations, looking outwards, at the cutting edge in encouraging entrepreneurship and the development of new technologies. And at the same time, we retain a strong attachment to our beautiful countryside, our literature and music, our rural traditions, and to preserving our pristine environment.


In 2016, Ireland commemorated the 100th anniversary of the 1916 Easter rising, which led us on our path to Independence. In 2017, Finland celebrated its centenary of Independence. This year, Finland celebrates the 100th anniversary of the Finnish flag, while we celebrate the 170th anniversary of our national flag, the Irish tricolour. You have celebrated the 100th anniversary of your Foreign Service this year, an anniversary Ireland will mark next year. And this year Ireland celebrates 100 years of women – some women at least – having the right to vote, a short distance behind Finland which led the world on this in 1906.


This year, in Ireland, we have marked the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, which brought peace to our island, and has allowed us to deal with our painful past and promise our children a better future. We will never forget the contribution of two outstanding Finnish statesmen to that process: the late former Prime Minister Harri Holkeri and former President Martti Ahtisaari, who I had the pleasure of meeting in Dublin last year.


But beyond all these shared bonds, our friendship with Finland has been transformed, enriched and continually deepened by the fact that we are both members of the European Union and Eurozone. Ireland has benefitted enormously from our participation in the Union and it is accepted by the overwhelming majority in Ireland that our future prosperity and well-being lies with continued EU membership. 92% of Irish people agree with that sentiment – for young people aged between 18 and 24, support is almost universal at 97%.


Brexit, however, poses a unique and unprecedented challenge for Ireland. We will be more affected than any other EU Member State by the UK’s departure, given the depth and strength of our historic, human, political, economic and cultural ties. Ireland and the UK both joined the European Union in 1973 and the UK has been a trusted partner and close ally at the negotiating table ever since. So while we respect the UK’s decision to leave the European Union, we profoundly regret it.


The complexity of the UK’s departure, and the scale of the challenge it presents, has become even clearer during the course of the Article 50 negotiations. And the decision to depart has presented a particularly unique challenge with regard to the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland, which has in turn become one of the most prominent issues in the negotiations. The currently invisible border, and the frictionless cross-border trade it facilitates, was made possible in large part due to the UK and Ireland’s shared membership of the Single Market and Customs Union. 


This is of critical importance to the 7,000 businesses in Northern Ireland that trade across the border, supporting over 160,000 jobs. Cross-border trade represents the first export market for some 73% of Northern Ireland’s small and medium sized companies. Any introduction of customs checks or divergence in regulatory regimes would create a real impediment to the operation of these businesses.


But the border is about far more than just trade. The invisible border is the most tangible product of the Peace Process, and has reinforced that peace in turn. It has allowed relationships and communities to be rebuilt following 30 years of violent conflict. It allows people as well as goods to travel freely throughout Ireland. Psychologically, it allows people in Northern Ireland to make a reality of the Good Friday Agreement entitlement to be Irish or British or both. And with an average of 30,000 border crossings every day for work or study, it allows commercial, political and social relationships to thrive across the island.


The Good Friday Agreement has provided the framework for peace, political engagement and reconciliation in Northern Ireland. And in the Article 50 negotiations, the EU and UK affirmed in December’s Joint Report the paramount importance of protecting the achievements of the Peace Process and the Good Friday Agreement. As a vital part of that, both the EU and the UK committed to ensuring no physical infrastructure or related checks or controls are introduced on the island of Ireland.


Our preference is, of course, for an overall EU-UK relationship which would take care of this. But both the EU and UK have agreed that we need a backstop which provides certainty that in any circumstance, and no matter what the outcome of the negotiations on the future relationship, a hard border will be avoided. In March, Theresa May wrote to Donald Tusk outlining her commitment to a legally operable backstop along these lines.


We now need to agree the legal text to make this a reality. The EU has proposed a legal text that fits the description of what was agreed in December. The UK has said it doesn’t like that text and needs it to be amended – and that is ok by us – this is a negotiation after all. What is important here is the outcome – no physical infrastructure and no related checks or controls. This needs to be the overwhelming focus of the UK and EU teams over the coming weeks.


Alongside this, of course, negotiations continue on the framework for the future relationship. We have always said we want this to be as close as possible. We were pleased to see the UK finally agree a negotiating position at Chequers. And if negotiators on both sides show imagination and flexibility over the coming period – while respecting the integrity of the Single Market and Customs Union the UK is choosing to leave – then the type of partnership Michel Barnier speaks of – one that is “unprecedented in scope and depth” – that should be within our grasp.


Through all of this – the negotiations and the planning, the back and the forth of all the politics of Brexit - the solidarity of our EU partners has been remarkable and humbling.


Your own solidarity is perhaps not surprising, given the contribution that Finland has made to peace on our island, but I do not – for a second - take it for granted.


One of the first EU colleagues that I had the pleasure of welcoming to Ireland following my appointment last year was (your Foreign Minister) Timo.


We travelled together to the border region where Timo saw for himself the transformation brought about by the Peace Process. A present day so different from his memories of a landscape that had been scarred by wire fences when he visited in the 1980s.


The visit also gave us time to reflect on what our countries have in common.

And more importantly, it provided an opportunity to look, as the title of my speech suggests, beyond Brexit as well.


The late Belgian Prime Minister Paul Henri Spaak said: “There are only two kinds of states in Europe; small states, and small states that have not yet realised they are small.”


Finland and Ireland know that we are small countries, but we are also ambitious countries. Countries with big ideas and aspirations. Countries that have benefitted from European integration and with a shared future in the European Union.


But we must also acknowledge that Europe’s place in the world is changing.


In 1900, Europe represented about a quarter of the world’s population. In 40 years, no single European Member State will have more than 1% of the world’s population. We are becoming the oldest continent in the world. Our share of global GDP is getting smaller too.


We must ensure that we are ready to adapt to these changing circumstances.


One of the European Union’s greatest achievement is the single market. But it is incomplete.


The Prime Minister of the Netherlands, Mark Rutte, recently suggested that by completing the single market – in goods and services and in the Digital Single Market – we could gain one trillion euros a year. What, I ask, are we waiting for?


The Single Market, the digital agenda, trade and EMU reform all have the capacity to deliver real benefits to our citizens.


That is why we have been working closely with Finland, together with the other Nordic/Baltic states and the Netherlands, on a number of important policy initiatives. These include identifying the remaining barriers to completing the Single Market; establishing a competitive Digital Single Market that supports innovation and growth; proposing common values to help us build a stronger Economic and Monetary Union; and advocating together for the proposed Capital Markets Union, which we believe has the potential to promote sustainable growth to the benefit of citizens, investors and companies. 


I am glad to see increasing opportunities for strategic engagement between Ireland, Finland, and other like-minded countries in the Nordic-Baltic region and the Netherlands. It is vital that, in an EU of 27, small states work together to amplify their voices and to improve the lives of our citizens.


There are other challenges – climate change, migration and cybersecurity – where even a perfectly coherent common European position will not be enough. Rather, we need to ensure that the EU’s relationship with Africa is fit for purpose – a real political partnership of equals for the gravity and urgency of the shared challenges we face. We will need to show greater European leadership in the Middle East Peace Process too, especially following the deeply disappointing US decision last week to cut funding for UNRWA and its vital humanitarian work in Palestine. As with the EU’s relations with Russia however, these are perhaps topics for another day.


Regardless, for Ireland and Finland, multilateralism is the best way to deliver the world we want.


Our best defence is to work together and to stay united. Our co-operation in the UN peacekeeping mission in the Lebanon is just one example of where such collective action, such unity of purpose, makes a tangible difference to the lives of citizens.


All countries which wish to succeed in the new world have to look outwards, building new relationships while strengthening older ones.


Beyond Brexit and irrespective of Brexit, we need to work together, within the EU and internationally, to build the future we want. A future that is loyal to our values and fulfils the ambitions of our citizens, securing their place in an ever changing world.


Thank you for welcoming me here today. Kiitos