I am delighted to be celebrating Ireland’s National Day with you here in the Japan National Press Club. For almost half a century the Press Club has provided a forum for journalists and opinion makers to meet and discuss the great issues of the day.
At the time the Press Club first met, the European Economic Community was just twelve years old. Twelve years is not a long time – just think where you were and what you were doing in 2005.
60 YEARS OF THE TREATIES OF ROME
When the Treaties of Rome were signed on a spring day in 1957, just twelve years had passed since the end of the war in Europe in which the six signatories had been belligerents. But in that short time Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg and the Netherlands were able to come together in common cause to lay the foundations of what is now the European Union.
Sixty years later we recall the signing of the historic Treaties at a ceremony in the Palazzo dei Conservatori on the Capitol Hill in the heart of the ancient city.
In the period since then the European Economic Community first grew into the European Community and then the European Union. It now includes 28 Member States and more than 500 million people. It stretches from the borders of the former Soviet Union in the east to Ireland on the Atlantic seaboard in the west, and from the Arctic Circle in the north to the Mediterranean in the south.
And it has grown from being a Customs Union into a Single Market, with people, goods, services and capital flowing freely between Member States.
Because the Four Freedoms of the Single Market are just that, freedoms. They are not a vague legal concept but the basis on which we travel around Europe and trade around Europe. They are the freedoms that unite us.
Of course it has not all been plain sailing over those sixty years. Of course there have been challenges along the way. And of course there are new challenges we need to address.
But let us not forget the very real achievement of the European Union as it has grown from a union of just six member states to a union of twenty eight. And as we celebrate the sixtieth anniversary of the Treaties of Rome, let us not lose sight of the vision of the founding fathers in the years following the catastrophe that was the Second World War.
The period since then has been one of unparalleled peace in Europe, and the European Union has played no small part in that. For many Member States whose post-war histories have not been as benign as Ireland’s, membership of the European Union has been part of their road to freedom.
The European Union is rightly described as one of the great post-war peace projects. So it was fitting that in 2012 the European Union itself was awarded the Nobel Prize for PEACE. Why did it receive the award? In the words of the Nobel Committee, it was because the Union and its forerunners had
for over six decades contributed to the advancement of peace and reconciliation, democracy and human rights in Europe.
IRISH MEMBERSHIP OF THE EUROPEAN UNION
Forty four years have now passed since Ireland joined what was then the European Economic Community. It was a brave step into a wider world for a small country that for generations had exported its people but had never really engaged with that wider world itself.
In the four and a half decades since we joined what was the EEC, Ireland has benefitted enormously from EU membership.
It has given us unfettered access to a market of more than 500 million people and has seen a dramatic increase in trade and foreign direct investment.
It has supported job creation, with an estimated 700,000 jobs created in Ireland during the years of our EU membership.
And Irish citizens have the right to move, to work and to live freely throughout the Union.
During that period Ireland has been a major recipient of financial support from the European Union. Between 1973 and 2014 Ireland received more than €70 billion from the EU. During the same period we contributed approximately €30 billion to the EU’s budget. Surely the best measure of the success of that investment is that Ireland now contributes more to the EU budget each year than it receives from it?
But more than that, Irish views and interests are now reflected in the policies of the European Union towards the rest of the world. We are no longer a small island on the fringe of Europe, but an active participant in the world’s biggest union.
THE NORTHERN IRELAND PEACE PROCESS
For its part, the peace project that is the European Union has played a key role in the peace process in Northern Ireland. One of the EU’s key policies is its regional policy, known as Cohesion policy. Spending in support of Cohesion policy accounts for around one third of the EU’s budget. ‘Cohesion’ means sticking together. It is what the European Union is all about.
In Ireland I am the Minister responsible for Cohesion policy, and one of the ways the European Union has supported the peace process is through the PEACE Programme between Northern Ireland and the border region of Ireland. Over a period of more than 20 years the EU has provided significant funding to support the process of peace building and reconciliation in the region.
Last December I travelled to the border city of Derry in Northern Ireland where, along with my Northern Ireland counterpart, I visited peace projects funded by the European Union. The progress that has been made since the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 was really brought home to me by when – in the company of a unionist Mayor and a republican Minister – I walked across the spectacular EU-funded Peace Bridge that lies at the heart of the city and brings the two communities together.
The Irish Government is determined to see such programmes continue, even after the UK leaves the EU.
The Irish Government has also emphasised the need for the swift resumption of the power-sharing institutions after the recent elections in Northern Ireland, and we will remain closely engaged with the political parties and the British Government in the days and weeks ahead.
THE CHALLENGE OF BREXIT
The sixtieth anniversary of the Union will also see the start of a process that will lead to the first Member State leaving. Like most people in Ireland I was disappointed that the UK – our closest neighbour – made the decision to leave. Like most people in Ireland, I believe the UK has been stronger because of its membership of the EU. And I believe that the EU has been stronger because of UK membership.
But we accept that the UK will be leaving the European Union. We are under no illusion about the nature and scale of the challenged posed by Brexit. And we are prepared.
Our priorities for the negotiations ahead are clear:
- we want to minimise the impact of Brexit on trade and the economy;
- we want to protect the peace process in Northern Ireland;
- we want to maintain the Common Travel Area between Ireland and the United Kingdom;
- and we want to influence the future direction of the European Union itself.
IRELAND’S FUTURE IN THE EU
I also want to be clear that Ireland’s future is in the European Union. Membership of the European Union has brought great benefits to our country and remains in our interests.
We value our access to the single market and the benefits our exporters derive from EU trade agreements with other countries.
More broadly, we value being part of a Union with other likeminded countries who share our values and interests.
THE FUTURE OF EUROPE
Next week the EU’s Heads of State and Government will gather in Rome to celebrate sixty years of the Treaties. As well as recalling the achievements of the Union, this will allow for discussion about the future direction of Europe. I hope it will be a lively discussion.
Recently the European Commission published a stimulating White Paper on the Future of Europe. It is an important contribution to the debate and its publication is timely.
I have no doubt there will be many other contributions over the coming months to what will be an important debate that will have implications not just for Europe but also for the wider world. And I hope it will be a positive debate aimed at building on the achievements of the Union into the future.
Because we cannot allow the future of the European Union to be defined by one Member State leaving it.
60 YEARS OF IRELAND AND JAPAN
As well as sixty years of the Treaties of Rome, 2017 also marks 60 years of the diplomatic ties between Ireland and Japan. I am delighted to be able to celebrate this on St Patrick’s Day here in Tokyo. It is an important landmark in the rich and vibrant relationship that exists between Ireland and Japan.
I am aware that in the Asian Zodiac 60 years denotes the transition to a new cycle, or rebirth. The anniversary of our diplomatic ties, and the celebratory events taking place in our two countries, gives us an opportunity to broaden and deepen our relationship.
Ireland and Japan are also likeminded countries. We are committed to human rights, to the rule of law and to the peaceful settlement of disputes. We have shared values in the United Nations, in Development Cooperation and in issues such as Disarmament and Non-Proliferation.
And we have an important business and trading relationship. Japan is Ireland’s eighth largest export market and is the largest source of foreign direct investment into Ireland from Asia.
This is a relationship we want to see prosper and grow. And as the only English speaking country remaining in the European Union, and the only native English speaking country in the Eurozone, we offer an attractive location for people and companies looking to establish or expand operations in the EU.
So I am delighted to be here today on St Patrick’s Day, not just to look to the past but to look to the future, to the next sixty years.