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IIEA Webinar - The EU: Facing the challenges of COVID-19

Speech by Tanaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Mr. Simon Coveney, T.D.

IIEA Webinar - The EU: Facing the challenges of COVID-19


8 May 2020



Thank you for the warm welcome.


I would like to begin by thanking the IIEA for inviting me to speak today, and to all participants for logging in in such large numbers. The current circumstances of course mean that we cannot hold events like this in person, but I commend the IIEA’s hard work and innovation in continuing to deliver an ambitious and inspiring programme. We are all getting used to working differently.


Tomorrow we mark Europe Day, 70 years since Robert Schuman first set out his vision of a peaceful and united Europe.


We have come a long way since Schuman first presented his proposal for a European Coal and Steel Community. Schuman delivered his speech just five years after the end of the Second World War, and against the backdrop of the Cold War.


Schuman’s primary concern at the time was to prevent another war tearing through Western Europe. As the lived memories of the survivors of that era pass with age, we must grasp the responsibility of energising his legacy with a renewed commitment to peace, solidarity and respect for the rule of law.


The solidarity and unity between European states that is often taken for granted today was hard-fought for over many years. Europe Day provides a timely opportunity each year to acknowledge and recommit to this achievement.


Irish attitudes towards the EU


On Europe Day, we should also reflect on the European Union as it is today. Red C and EMI carry out a poll around this time each year which gives us a useful snapshot of the attitudes of Irish people to the EU and its policies.


This year’s poll was carried out at the end of March, just as the coronavirus took hold across the continent, and as the Union, like its member states, struggled to respond quickly to the new reality. 


While the results of the poll should be understood in that context, it is of course disappointing to see support for Ireland’s membership of the EU fall to 84% this year from a high of 93% last year.  The proportion of people answering “don’t know” on whether they agreed with EU membership rose to 9%, up from 2%.


While these figures show higher support for EU membership in Ireland than in many other Member States, they are nonetheless a reminder that support for the Union in this country should never be taken for granted.  We must, and can, do more to enhance the debate that we have in Ireland about our membership of the European Union.


EU response to Covid-19


Let me talk a bit about the EU response to Covid 19.


While the Union has taken unprecedented measures in support of Member States, most Europeans have looked to the nation state to protect and guide them through the current phase.  The EU has been perceived as somewhat peripheral to the key decisions related to the domestic medical response, lockdown and re-opening of societies.


But recovery - and economic recovery in particular - will depend on EU solidarity and decisive, swift action. Thousands of businesses and millions of jobs would be lost were it not for the financial support facilitated by the EU and ECB.


It would be fair to say that, at the beginning of the crisis, the EU struggled to communicate the comprehensive nature of its response. Some of this initial hesitancy can be explained by the fact that health is a national competence, and is not shared at EU level.


Understandably, Member States activated their own emergency planning to prepare their health systems for the onslaught of the coronavirus, first in Italy and then as the virus spread across the Union.


And some initial responses - such as closing borders - were taken perhaps in an uncoordinated manner, adding to negative perceptions of the European response.


But the truth is that the EU is carrying out a series of unprecedented measures to address the health and socio-economic consequences of the coronavirus crisis.


For example, to counteract the problems caused by border closures, the Commission worked immediately with Member States to create “Green Lanes”, which removed cross border blockages hindering the free movement of people and goods and keeping supply chains open.


It also provided guidelines for border management measures to protect citizens’ health, all while preserving the integrity of the Single Market.  Ensuring the availability of goods and essential services is of vital importance to us all.


Also vital is research on the coronavirus which will help develop much needed vaccines and treatments. The European Commission very quickly announced funding of €48.5m from Horizon 2020 to fund projects, including one which is coordinated by the Irish company Hibergene Diagnostics.


The EU also set up joint procurement processes for EU Member States, to help provide quicker access to vital medical equipment and Personal Protective Equipment.


And individual European countries have assisted each other, for example, in treating French patients in hospitals in Germany.


At the same time, the EU has tackled the economic crisis provoked by the pandemic.


On 18 March, ECB President Lagarde announced a €750bn response to the pandemic. The ECB’s Pandemic Emergency Purchase Programme is a temporary asset purchase programme of private and public sector securities, which aims to ensure that all sectors of the economy can benefit from supportive financing conditions that enable them to absorb this shock. This applies equally to families, firms, banks and governments.


Two days later, the Commission proposed the activation of the general escape clause of the Stability and Growth Pact. This allows Member States to take measures to deal with the crisis, while departing from the budgetary requirements that would normally apply under the fiscal framework.


For Ireland, the EU has approved two separate state aid packages, worth €400 million in total, which allows us to support our affected companies during the pandemic.


Through these financial measures and EU state aid approval we can make sure that support reaches those who have lost their jobs because of this crisis.


Following intensive work by the Eurogroup throughout April, EU leaders agreed a crisis response package of €540 billion. The initiatives outlined under this package are due to be operational by 1 June. They will be vital in helping us to support our businesses that have been impacted by the pandemic, as well as the workers who have lost their jobs or require temporary income support.


Most importantly, these measures show the solidarity, and support for innovation that is needed to devise an unprecedented response to an unprecedented crisis.


Work is also ongoing for an EU Recovery Fund, while the Commission is revising its proposal for the EU’s budget to support programmes designed to kick-start the economy.


Again, these measures will ensure EU solidarity with the most affected member states.


Consular assistance


One of the core roles of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade is our consular work – that is, supporting and assisting our citizens overseas.


At no time has this been more important all around the world than during the COVID-19 crisis.


Since the outbreak of the virus, my Department has advised and assisted many thousands of our citizens overseas. Over 5000, in fact. What started as a country-specific situation rapidly evolved into the coordination of the biggest repatriation effort in the history of the State.


Cooperation with fellow EU Member States and like-minded partners has been a crucial factor throughout. The sharing of information, and coordination of action, with EU partners has been an enormous strength. Whether through sharing flights, information or resources, we have been far more effective, and better able to support our citizens by working together.


EU coordination efforts have ensured that EU citizens can avail of places on repatriation flights organised by individual Member States. I am delighted that Ireland has already been able to charter two special flights - one from Peru and one from India - and we have repatriated citizens from a number of other EU Member States, and the UK, on those flights.


Irish citizens – 627 of them to date - have been repatriated on special flights from 126 different locations organised by other partners, making use of the Union Civil Protection Mechanism.


We have protected our citizens abroad to an extent that would not have been possible if we were not a member of the Union.  The Union has made a concrete difference for our citizens’ lives and health.


We continue to work closely with partner EU Member States, as well as our British friends, the US, Canada and others, as we support and assist Irish citizens overseas. Let me also take this opportunity to note the cooperation we have received from airlines and the aviation industry, which have played a crucial role in our efforts.




It has become increasingly clear that only a global effort will contain and minimise the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic until a vaccination can be developed and rolled out globally. As Dr Mike Ryan of the WHO has said: “No one is safe until everyone is safe”.




The EU is playing a leading role in the fight against the pandemic.


 On Monday of this week, President von der Leyen co-hosted a Coronavirus Global Response Pledging Conference which raised €7.4bn for global efforts to defeat the coronavirus. Pledging €18 million on the part of Ireland, the Taoiseach said on Monday that “the virus did not respect borders … Covid19 is a shared enemy of all of humanity and all governments”.


On 8 April, EU Development Ministers endorsed the ‘Team Europe’ package of support for partner countries. The EU will help the most vulnerable countries in Africa, in the EU’s neighbourhood and further afield.


Total financial support for this EU collective action, from the Commission and the EIB, will amount to over €15.6 billion. Combined with contributions from Member States, the total amount is expected to reach at least €20 billion.


At a time when there has been a move by some countries away from the principles of multilateralism and towards nationalism, the pandemic has shown how we will all suffer if we fail to work together. It is right that the European Union shows leadership in this way.


Exiting restrictions


Although the start of the crisis was marked with some uncertainty and perhaps incoherence, I very much hope that the easing of restrictions across Europe will be much more coordinated.


The EU has developed a Joint European Roadmap towards lifting COVID-19 containment measures to help strategically plan the recovery. While it is for Member States to make their own decisions about the timing and scope of removing restrictions, based on their own circumstances, it is helpful for the EU Institutions to work on a coordinated approach with Member States.


Many other European countries have published staged action plans similar to our own, and we have much to learn from each other’s experiences as they ease restrictions in different sectors.


However, it is important to recognise also that Member States are at different points in the pandemic, and the vital message to citizens is that we must continue to slow the spread of the virus and not ease up on our efforts.


Although the COVID-19 emergency has rightfully dominated our politics for the past few months, we remain focused on other key priorities, including the EU’s ongoing negotiations with the UK on its future relationship with the Union.




Ireland is working as part of the EU27 to ensure that our collective approach to the Future Relationship negotiations reflects our values and interests. To date we have had two full negotiating rounds and a number of more technical exchanges. For Ireland, alongside a Free Trade Agreement in goods, with a level playing field for our businesses, we continue to take a close interest in justice and security cooperation, fisheries, transport connectivity and data exchange.


Both sides now have a fair idea of where there is clear convergence or divergence between our respective positions.


Progress has been much slower than we hoped.  The restrictions of COVID-19 and talking by video conference are part of the reason for this – but not the only reason.


The UK’s level of ambition is much lower than the EU’s, and fundamental differences remain between the two sides on some of the most important issues. These include level playing field provisions and governance, as well as fisheries.


Two further negotiating rounds will take place in the coming weeks. Michel Barnier has been very clear that we need to see much better engagement from the UK in these rounds.


June will be a key moment.  At a High Level Conference, the EU and UK will jointly consider the progress made at that point and what this means for the period after.


The end of June is also the last point at which the Joint Committee can decide to extend the transition period. This would have to be a decision made by the EU and UK jointly. 


The UK Government continues to say very clearly, both publicly and privately, that they will not agree to an extension. This is the reality that must be factored in - both for the future relationship negotiations and preparing for the end of the transition.


A second separate, but related, stream of work is the implementation of the Withdrawal Agreement and the Protocol on Ireland /Northern Ireland.  Implementation is vital as the Protocol underpins a more permanent set of arrangements to address the challenges of Brexit on the island of Ireland.


Ireland has attended and participated in the recent meetings of the Joint and Specialise Committees.  These meetings have considered the preparatory work needed for a number of decisions the Joint Committee must take under the Protocol, and the range of work that the UK needs to take forward to implement the Protocol. 


Together with the EU, we have strongly underlined with the UK how important it is that the UK now makes clear, detailed progress on implementation of the Protocol. Implementation of the Protocol will mean some changes. We are all aware that this will be complex work, requiring run-in time and engagement with stakeholders to ensure the Protocol works for Northern Ireland and the all Island economy.


We welcome the UK’s continued commitment to fully implement the Protocol.  We hope to see further, more detailed engagement from the UK at the upcoming meetings of the Specialised and Joint Committees.


I would agree with Michel Barnier’s view that “faithful and effective implementation of the Withdrawal Agreement is absolutely central” to the progress of the negotiations.


The third stream of ongoing work is on preparedness - to assist citizens and businesses get ready for the end of transition.  


The Withdrawal Agreement and the Northern Ireland Protocol ensures we are no longer faced with a No Deal Brexit and the challenges that brings. 


However, Brexit represents a substantive change in our relationship with our closest neighbour.  It will fundamentally affect how we do business together across many areas. 


The UK has left the EU.  At the end of the transition period, the UK will leave the Customs Union and Single Market.  Even the best possible FTA between the EU and UK will impact supply chains and trade flows and result in checks and controls in both directions on EU-UK trade.  


With less than 7 months to the end of transition, we remain committed to doing everything in our power to ensure that citizens and businesses are as ready as they can be for the end of transition. 


We continue to develop the infrastructure and systems at our ports and airports.  We are working with our partners and the Commission to ensure the UK Landbridge remains an efficient route to market.


Brexit comes at a time when business are already struggling in the face of the challenges brought by COVID19.  Brexit preparation will necessarily be part of a wider business recovery agenda, and we will look at how best business supports can be deployed in support of Brexit challenges.


There will be a lot of uncertainty in the months ahead.  Ireland’s best interests will continue to be served by us playing our part as a member of the EU27.




In the short-term, our response to the COVID-19 emergency will dominate the agenda for some time to come.  But our recovery in a post-virus world will be the defining issue for the Union over the lifetime of every government in every member state.

The path ahead is not clear.  This is a profound shock that has a direct impact on the life of every European.  Even after the virus is defeated, its aftershocks and the new constraints it imposes will define what Member States and the Union do for the next decade.


The emergency and recovery will change politics, economies and societies across Europe. Citizens’ attitudes will also change – their views on the state, on the proper organisation of society, on work.


The future role and relevance of the EU will be decided both by how it performs during this crisis, and by how it facilitates the recovery.


Ireland will have to be agile in adapting to the changed political and policy environment.


Existing alliances have shifted and will continue to do so. Solidarity with fellow Member States will be sought and expected. Greater EU resilience and autonomy in strategic supply chains will be inevitable. Brexit negotiations will be influenced by the impact of the crisis both in the EU and the UK.


Now and in the coming months, we must take a critical look at the assumptions behind our existing positions on the dominant EU issues and assess how they might be impacted by COVID, if they remain fit for purpose and, if not, how they should change.


Our discussion here is part of that critical examination.  I would like to thank the IIEA again for their work, and I look forward to hearing your questions.


Thank you.



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