2024 European of the Year Award

10th June, 2024

The European Union is driven by experience of the darkest moments of our history but inspired by the necessity of shaping, with hope, our future. 

Loss after war was the guiding impulse at the creation of this project. 

Hope, today, at a time of war and vast change must be the rhythm in our thoughts and actions as we lead this project forward. 

We can achieve this, as I believe that the foundation of the European Union is based in our shared humanity. 

The belief that we have more in common than we have in difference. As sisters and brothers, as neighbours, as neighbouring countries. 

That harnessing that which we have in common, that building upon that on which we agree, is the most powerful political instrument available to humanity. 

This is best done between countries through cooperation, coordination and the sharing of sovereignty. 

This is a valuable means in itself. To achieve aims that we cannot achieve individually. But it creates an end that is more powerful that any national policy choice, even for the largest of European nations. It creates solidarity. 

Our integration may be led by function, about ‘how’ to do something, but it has created a form, a ‘what’, that is of deep value in a world that is changing so quickly and so drastically. 

I am not arguing that the EU is perfect. I am not contending that it is always easy. 

I have represented Ireland in many difficult discussion and negotiations, where the Irish flag did not have many raised flags beside it. 

As President of the Eurogroup, I have frequently put compromises to Ministers and anxiously waited for moments, unsure if the silence is because nobody supports or nobody opposes my deal.  

Success always arrives after endless, but temporary, setbacks. 

So, while I am a romantic, I do not make the case for Europe and our Union for reasons just of the heart. I am convinced that any hard-nosed and sober calculation of our national interests, and the interests of other Member States, always points to the Union. 

This Union matters so much to me, because I believe that it matters so much for our future.  

So, Taoiseach, Ministers, Commissioners, Ambassadors, Enda and Bertie, members of the European Movement of Ireland, family, friends and colleagues: 

I am therefore beyond honoured, and so humbled, to receive this award. I was moved beyond words when I received the news of this recognition, I am even more so this evening.  

Can I thank the European Movement of Ireland, and their sponsors PWC, for this honour and for their ongoing work. 

Like a baton in a race, I want to instantly pass this award back to many in this room and thank them for their essential role in this acknowledgement. 

And, more importantly, in this project that the European Movement of Ireland explains and champions – the European Union. I want to speak, this evening, to our shared future. 

In order to do this I will speak, briefly, to three themes. 

First – the place of Europe in a world that is changing so quickly; 

Second – the place of Ireland in this changing Europe; and 

Third – the political centre in all of this change. 

The Place of Europe in a Changing World

 

Those of you who know me will know that I am a person of the greatest optimism. I always believe that solutions are possible. I have always believed that our best days await.  

The most difficult of moments will pass; the brightest of moments are always closer than we think. I have been proven right in this again and again. 

Much of this optimism is vindicated in the European project, in what we have achieved together.  

How our political family has grown, to a community of 27 members. 

How the euro has become a symbol of economic resilience with such high levels of support across twenty countries. 

How as a student you can study, live and travel across countries with the greatest of ease. 

How as a business, you can sell your goods and services through a stable currency to one of the biggest market places in the world. 

How we have responded to climate change in Europe. 

These are wonderful achievements, sources of great hope.  

But optimism is not the same as naivety or the wilful diminution of great challenges. 

We live in a moment of great secular transformations. 

We live after a pandemic; during 3 wars – in Ukraine, Sudan and the Middle East; in the early phases of the seismic changes of climate and Artificial Intelligence; and at a time when the global economic and political order is reshaping. 

Throughout our European history, any one of those moments would trigger profound political change. But, all of these moments are now converging.  

We do not have the luxury of dealing with them sequentially, in an ordered queue. 

They are happening now and together.  

I believe if we did not have the European Union today we would now be creating it to be ready for tomorrow. 

Equally, I am convinced that the European Union of tomorrow will be very different to the European Union of today. Luuk Van Middelaar in his masterpiece, ‘The Passage to Europe’ expressed it beautifully when he wrote that: 

‘The European political body….long unimagined, resides in an intermediate status, half-old and half-new, that is gradually coming into its own, making a connection between events originating in the outside world and a joint response to them’

These huge events in the outside world, all happening together, demand and require change in the Union. 

What this change will look like will take more than this brief speech to outline, and in truth there is much that is difficult to predict with any certainty anyway. 

So, I hope that a simple point will suffice. A bigger European Union, which I believe is the best and most likely scenarios of the many that could occur, means a very different European Union for a Member State on a small island, facing the Atlantic, off the West coast of Europe. 

The Place of Ireland in a Changing Europe 

And it is here that my great optimism asserts itself, kicks in again. 

This is a Union of huge possibilities and opportunities for Ireland, with friendships to deepen, commerce to grow and even more effective policy alliances to build. 

But as this change takes place, over many years, it will require a careful and hardheaded assessment of how we, at national level, lead and respond. 

What do we do? How can Ireland position herself? 

These suggestions are not based on starting any work. All of this focus already happens but I believe it will be even more important in the future. 

I suggest that there are 4 Es and one C that will be important in the time ahead; that is the Es of Economy, Energy, Enlargement and Engagement. 

Economy: Ireland has now established itself as an economy with a budget surplus and as a net contributor to the budget of the European Union. Our rates of borrowing now place us a core Euro area economy.  

These are not academic qualities but it will allow us to continue to play an energetic role in critical economic policy debates within the Union. We should. 

Energy: The historical roots of the European Union are in energy, in coal. The future of the European Union will involve energy of a very different nature, that of a clean and renewable kind.  This is central to our economy too, as we have ambitious but credible plans to be net energy exporters.  

We can therefore play a big role in this new energy future, and in all of the debates about how to achieve it. And we should. 

Enlargement: It is precisely because the enlargement process is taking place on the other side of Europe that Ireland should continue to play an active role in it. It really matters that we are active, as it will allow us to help forge a better future for Europe. The expectation that we might not always be present in this debate is the very reason that we should.  

Energetic Engagement: Our politicians and our civil servants must continue to prioritise engagement with the European Union, its members and its institutions. There can be few better example of this than An Taoiseach, Simon Harris, in his earliest days in Office travelling to Brussels.  

Travel, languages, bilateral visits, the presence of embassies in all Member States,   the placement of staff and diplomats in institutions, student and culture exchanges. 

These are the ‘bread and butter’ issues of active and energetic engagement. We must keep at it. And we will. 

So, I hear you say, what’s the C? 

The C of Competitiveness. As President of the Eurogroup, I can see this so clearly. We, Ireland and the European Union, have so much to do here. It’s why I have devoted so much time to Capital Markets Union and to Banking Union.  

Our place in the global economy is not what it should be. The consequences of this could yet be severe. Ireland has a role to play in this, together we have to act. And we will. 

The Political Centre 

And what does this mean for the conduct of Irish politics?  

Of course, there’s the final C, the big one, the Centre.  

I have constantly made the case for the centre in Irish politics, for a centrist approach to our great opportunities and challenges. An approach that has had a good couple of days in Ireland and in Dublin Central. 

What does the Centre mean? 

Recognising that enterprise is at the centre of our economy, that it must be rewarded, but accepting that enterprise alone does not make a decent society. That an active and fair State must play its role, but that it cannot do everything. 

Recognising the importance of consent in the debate about the future of our island. 

Making the case for the benefits of openness and tolerance, but knowing that with every right there comes a responsibility. 

Making the case for the value of our institutions, arguing that they are not consequences of a rigged system, but of a society looking to order itself in a fair and inclusive manner, and that these institutions are both durable and fragile. 

And always making the case for the European Union, for friendship with our neighbours in the United Kingdom and across the Atlantic. And for continued engagement with all our friends across the world, many of whom are present here this evening.  

Or to give it a more formal phrase, multilateralism, a concept that has its deepest expression in the European Union.  

We should never turn inwards, or turn in, we should always turn up and turn out.  

There will be challenges – so, to end where I begun:  

I believe the European Union is the daughter of the Enlightenment, a consequence of the belief that reason and an appreciation of humanity can achieve progress.  

But the passage of centuries demonstrates that there is not an inevitable arc towards progress. That we must strive to create this arc. 

Our political project remains our very best way of achieving this. Hannah Arendt, the great German philosopher, in a different context wrote of ‘an isolated island of certainty in a sea of uncertainty’. 

That is why we must strive to build and to improve this Union. It is not an island, because it is not stationary, but far more than a life craft, as it has a firm and stable anchor.  

And, on that note of anchors let me offer with a very personal thanks. 

To thank the civil servants, in many Government departments, who work so faithfully and with such expertise for the people of Ireland. 

To thank my advisory teams too for their incredible work, wisdom and humour for many years. 

To thank the Taoiseach for his attendance and bringing to life the concepts that I have made the case for, this evening

To thank my friends, from college, from Phibsborough, from Fine Gael who have stood by me through ‘thick and thin’.  

I have the best political team any politician could have, the best advisors, volunteers, friends and strategists. My best moments are entirely due to them.  

And above all, to thank Justine, Oscar and Lucy for their incredible support over many years in my pursuit of these beliefs.  

They are the rock upon which I build. How lucky am I to have you.  

And due to all of you and them, let me end by making the case for optimism. 

The ‘blood-dimmed tide’ may have surged, but we are not over-whelmed.  

Far from it. 

From the pandemic, to the wars, we have surprised ourselves by reinvention in pursuit of our shared values.  

That reinvention must continue. We must look ahead, to horizons that will be challenging but can be better, can, indeed, be wonderful. 

But we must be ambitious and confident. We must look ahead.  

The European Union has saved us from the worst in our history. I am convinced that it is still our best hope for the future.  

Thank you.

ENDS