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Better together: a united response to Europe's challenges

Better together: a united response to Europe's challenges

Address by Minister of State for European Affairs, Helen McEntee, T.D.

Lithuanian Institute of Political Science

28 February 2019

 

***Check Against Delivery*** 

 

Ladies and Gentlemen,

 

Laba diena, aciu už kvietimą [Good day, thank you for your invitation]

 

Let me begin by saying what a pleasure it is for me to be here in the beautiful city of Vilnius and to be here in the Institute for International Relations and Political Science.

 

I know the Institute has produced many of Lithuania’s modern leaders.  You, the students of the Institute, bear a special responsibility not only to uphold the reputation of the Institute, but also to use the skills and values that you develop here for the good of Lithuania, for the good of Europe, and for good of the wider world.

 

My visit to Lithuania follows in the footsteps of the President of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins, who had a wonderfully warm visit here last June.

 

He came to offer the congratulations of the Irish people on the centenary of Lithuania’s re-emergence as an independent state.

 

He also came to celebrate the strength and the depth of the friendship between our two countries. It is beyond anything that either of us could have imagined in 1918, when we too were making our difficult way towards independence. Who back then would have expected that Lithuanians would become the third largest community living in Ireland?

 

The richness of our relationship owes much to the tens of thousands of Lithuanians who have come to live in Ireland. As a country with a long history of emigration, we know how much you feel their absence. We hope that they keep their connections with you, their family and friends in Lithuania. But, we also want them to feel at home in Ireland and to know that they are valued members of our community.

 

They help to represent modern Ireland – an outward looking, open country.

 

They also represent what it is to be European – to have the freedom to travel, to study, to work and to make a life in any other country in the European Union.

 

And it is our shared home in the European Union which binds Ireland and Lithuania more than anything else. Our shared home and the shared future we are building within it.

 

This year we will take vital decisions about the future direction of our Union.

 

In May, we will elect a new European Parliament. Or at least some of us will.

 

In a Eurobarometer survey last year, only half of the people said they had an interest in the elections. If they all voted, it would be an improvement on the 43% turnout for the last European Parliament elections, when turnout dropped for the seventh time in a row.

 

For countries like Ireland and Lithuania, who are amongst the most optimistic about the future of the European Union, these figures are deeply worrying.

 

All elections are important, but I do not remember any more important European elections than these, especially for those of us who believe we are better together.

 

For us, apathy comes at a price.

 

A recent European Council on Foreign Relations report provides a worrying snapshot of the disruptive effect a one-third “Anti-European” parliament could have on foreign trade, the rule of law, migration, foreign policy, the EU budget and the appointment of the next Commission.

 

 

Those of us who care about what it means to be European are rightly concerned by the rise of Euroscepticism, but in the face of it I am reminded of something John F. Kennedy once said:

 

“The problems of the world cannot possibly be solved by sceptics or cynics whose horizons are limited by the obvious realities. We need men who can dream of things that never were.”

 

Our Union has been blessed with men and women of vision and of pragmatism. Men and women who, as George Bernard Shaw said, ask: “Why not?”

 

How improbable a Union based on peace, freedom and democracy must have seemed to a continent devastated by the Second World War.

 

How improbable that Union must have seemed to people whose lives had long been shattered by the rivalry of nation states and the pooling of blood not sovereignty.

 

How improbable it must have seemed when, one summer morning in 1961, Berlin awoke to a wall that split our continent in two.

 

How improbable it must have seemed as the Lithuanian Theatre Union staged plays - in the beautiful building which is now home to the Irish Embassy in Vilnius – mostly using puppets to defy Soviet censorship and to foster once again your citizens’ belief in your freedom to choose your own destiny.

 

And, yet, here we are.

 

A Union of sovereign states, committed to working together to face the challenges of our modern world.

 

A Union that is better together.

 

This year Lithuania celebrates 15 years of membership of the European Union.

 

As President Higgins recalled during his visit, we, in Ireland, are particularly proud that that historic moment occurred in Dublin, during Ireland’s Presidency of the Council of the European Union in 2004.

 

We named the occasion ‘The Day of Welcomes’. The most significant enlargement in the history of the European Union. As the President said when he was here last summer:

 

“It was a moment of healing and of hope – hope for the founding ideals upon which the Union was built.”

 

Cynics and sceptics could not have conceived that moment.

 

They could never have imagined all that it means to be in the European Union. Some of them still can’t.

 

And, yet, cynics and sceptics seem to be gaining a foothold.

 

Populism is loud. It claims to speak for “the silent majority”, but I believe that the will of the majority is in the remarkable achievements of the European Union over the past 60 years.

 

I believe it is in the very fabric of our society.

 

So we need to fight for the Europe we believe in.

 

We need to vote for the Europe we believe in.

 

Last year, Ireland celebrated 45 years’ membership of the European Union.

 

Our European destiny was not always obvious.

 

We first established diplomatic relations with the European Economic Community, as it then was, in 1959. At the time we did not even have diplomatic relations with all six of the founding members.

 

It took more than a decade from our first application for membership in 1961 to the moment of our accession in 1973.

 

Our applications were so deeply intertwined with those of the United Kingdom, that each time their application for membership was vetoed, our prospects also ended.

 

But, even without this, there were doubts about our capacity to make a success of membership.

 

Ireland was seen as remote, underdeveloped and unprepared for the obligations of membership.

 

And, yet, people with vision persisted.

 

In the face of disappointment, they stretched the obvious horizons.

 

So that now, more than 45 years later, Ireland stands transformed by our membership of the European Union.

 

There is an Irish saying: “Ní neart go cur le chéile.” It translates as: “There is no strength without unity.” We have experienced both unity and strength at the heart of the European Union.

 

Never more so than during the difficult negotiations surrounding the United Kingdom’s departure from the European Union.

 

 

Brexit poses a unique and unprecedented challenge for the European Union and for Ireland

 

We are profoundly grateful to each and every one of the Member States, including Lithuania, for the extraordinary solidarity which they have all shown to Ireland in the context of Brexit.

 

The invisible border is the most tangible product of the Peace Process on the island of Ireland. It has allowed relationships and communities to be rebuilt following 30 years of violent conflict. 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 European Union has always played a crucial role in fostering peace and reconciliation.

 

While we deeply regret the UK’s decision to leave, we respect the choice of the British people.

 

The EU has also respected that choice.

 

The Protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland, including the ‘backstop’, was negotiated on the basis of the EU and the United Kingdom’s shared understanding of the need to address the unique circumstances on the island of Ireland.

 

It is there to protect the hard won peace on the island of Ireland and acts as an insurance policy to avoid a hard border in all circumstances. It cannot, as some have suggested, be time limited. A backstop with a time limit is simply not a backstop.

 

Recent events in Westminster have only reinforced how important this is.

 

Brexit is deeply disappointing for all of us who remain committed to the European Union. But EU membership is also our greatest protection from the challenges that it will bring: We know that we are better together. Experience tells us so.

 

We also know that solidarity is at the very foundation of our Union and it is reciprocal.

 

A very tangible expression of European solidarity is found in how we allocate our resources.

 

We are currently negotiating the EU’s next long-term financial plan – the Multi-Annual Financial Framework – the MFF. It is negotiated once every seven years.

 

There is still a lot of work to be done to reach a common position.

 

Each Member State has its own priorities, as does the European Parliament, and negotiations are always difficult.

 

For Ireland, our top priority is to agree a budget of an adequate size and structure to meet the needs of our Union and our citizens, and to deliver on our shared ambitions.

 

As a Net Contributor, Ireland is open to contributing more to the Budget, so long as European Added Value is met.

 

For Ireland, a well-funded Common Agricultural Policy is a classic example of European Added Value. Likewise, we are strong defenders of the need to protect the Structural and Cohesion Funds.

 

As a country that has benefited enormously from the investment in our infrastructure that was made possible by these funds, we understand why they matter so much to countries like Lithuania.

 

We also believe that it is essential that we continue to fund other Programmes that work well such as Erasmus Plus, which is particularly valuable to our young people. Another example is Horizon Europe, which will support the necessary investment in research and development to create the jobs of the future.

 

In this vital year for our Union, we need to focus on what unites us as Europeans and how we ensure that we are better together.

 

We are part of a generation with two identities – national and European. We can enjoy each of those identities without compromising the other. But we cannot be complacent about the values that underpin this unparalleled privilege.

 

We have to safeguard and protect the fundamental values of our Union – freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights. These are what it means to be European. Europe’s history reminds us that they cannot be taken for granted.

 

Our shared values are the foundations on which we will build our future and meet the challenges that we face.

 

And we are facing challenges - challenges which could scarcely have been imagined by those who had the vision to create our Union.

 

When the leaders of the EU27 met in Bratislava shortly after the Brexit referendum they declared:

 

“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.”         

 

As we move forward, we have pledged to focus on the expectations of Europe’s citizens, to listen and to respond to their concerns.

 

In Ireland, I travelled across the country leading a series of Citizens’ Dialogue on the Future of Europe. The over-riding message that I heard is that Irish people want the European Union to be fair.

 

They want the European Union to continue to do what it does best. They support investment in policies like the CAP, in regional development and in Erasmus Plus.

 

Business and consumers want to see the completion of the Single Market, particularly in services, and to adapt to the increasing digitalisation of our economies and our lives. These are overdue commitments. They are what the European Parliament calls “the cost of non-Europe”.

 

That is why we have been working closely with Lithuania, together with the other Nordic-Baltic partners and the Netherlands, on a number of important policy initiatives, in these and other areas which we believe will deliver real benefits. 

 

Throughout the country when I asked people about what the EU means to them, they repeated words like peace, cooperation, unity, solidarity and community. They want to be part of a Union that lives up to its values.

 

They believe we are better together.

 

You have had a similar citizens’ consultation initiative – My Europe - here in Lithuania.

 

I know that one of the key concerns raised here was about the need for the EU to be more active in response to emerging threats and challenges.

 

We live in an increasingly globalised world. We are challenged by new issues such as mass migration, climate change, cyber threats and international terrorism. These are issues that pay no heed to national borders and that are too big to be dealt with by any single Member State acting alone. We are better facing these challenges together.

 

One of the founding fathers of the European Union, Paul-Henri Spaak once said that there were only two kinds of countries in Europe: small countries and small countries that have not yet realised that they are small. It is telling that that quote has been gaining currency of late – even in Germany.

 

We in Ireland have always known that it is a small country. We also know that membership of the European Union is one of the best ways we have to amplify our voice and project our Treaty based values.

 

In a time when some are choosing to retreat from multilateralism, it is vital that we ensure that the European Union – a collection of small to medium sized states - has the capacity to work together to be a strong actor on the world stage.

 

There are challenges which simply cannot wait.

 

This year also marks the 10th anniversary of the Eastern Partnership, through which the EU governs its relationship with many post-Soviet states – including Georgia and Ukraine. I know the European perspective of both these countries was also something which featured in your Citizens’ Dialogues. I commend your solidarity with your neighbours.

 

The 10th anniversary is a milestone during which we should acknowledge the progress made by our partners in an unpredictable environment.

 

I was very pleased that the Political Directors of both Ireland and Lithuania’s Foreign Ministries travelled to Ukraine last year for joint political consultations.

 

Coming from a country that both remembers the long wait to become a member and has benefitted hugely from accession, I believe that we have a responsibility to welcome new members who can demonstrate that they are ready and able to take on all of the responsibilities and obligations of membership.

 

I recently visited North Macedonia and Albania. The enthusiasm that these countries have for membership is palpable. It reflects the true value of membership. We, who are privileged to have it, must not take it for granted.

 

Next May, EU leaders will gather in Sibiu in Romania. They will discuss Europe’s priorities for the next five years, with a view to agreeing the Union’s Strategic Agenda for 2019-2024 at the June European Council. They will be guided by what we have heard during our citizens’ consultations. They will be guided by you.

 

I want to leave to you today not with my vision of the future of Europe, but with the vision of an “ordinary” Irish citizen who came along to one of our Citizens’ Dialogues. It was a vision of:

 

“A safe Europe, a united Europe, a prosperous Europe, a fair Europe, an enlightened Europe.”

 

That is a vision of Europe we should all aspire to. A vision of Europe where we will truly be: Better Together.

 

Thank you. Aciu už demesį, laukiu jusu klausimu. [Thank you for your attention, I look forward to your questions.]

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