Speech by Minister for European Affairs, Paschal Donohoe TD, to the Polish Institute of International Affairs (PISM), Warsaw

28th February, 2014

An Irish perspective on a European future:

A flag-filled horizon, set against the darkness of night and the shadows of buildings.

All illuminated by the flames of bonfires as tens of thousands of people struggle to keep warm in freezing temperatures. This is my enduring image of 2013.

A horizon of flags – of thousands of flags – in the darkness of any night, in a square in the middle of any city would be a striking image. But for many of these flags to be the flag of the European Union, an emblem which, inside the Union, rarely receives so much emotional support from so many, added to the impact of this sight.

The city was, of course, Kiev. The square, of course, the Maidan. My visit to this city, late last year, was due to my attendance at the Ministerial Council at the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe – OSCE – representing Ireland. I visited the Maidan, very late at night, after spending the day discussing the very values that Ukrainians were demanding through their assemblies and protests.

If this is my private enduring image of 2013, it is a crucial public challenge that the EU most now respond to. Few countries appreciate that as strongly as Poland.

Role of PISM
I am sure that much of the debate and discussion about how Europe and Poland will respond to this crisis will occur in PISM, as you have played a crucial role in the exchange of ideas about the contemporary, regional and international policy challenges that we confront.

It is, therefore, a privileged to be addressing you this morning on the theme of an ‘Irish perspective on a European future’.

Kiev, Sarajevo and Tirana
From my recent visits to Sarajevo, Tirana and Kiev, I appreciate the diversity and strength of feelings within these cities, and countries, on the role of Europe and their relationship with it.

But my conversations with the people of these countries impressed upon me the fact that the values and freedoms of the EU, enshrined in our Treaties and institutions, represent an extraordinary achievement. Given the magnitude of the global and European economic crisis it was, it is, too easy to lose sight of this.

We must work to maintain these values and freedoms. That their value merits constant commitment and endeavour. The answer to many of our difficulties inside the Union, resides in the strengthening of these values and freedoms, not their weakening.

I will explore this theme of our European values and freedoms, of our need to support them, through examining three related areas.

First – by emphasising how the Union, through these values and freedoms, has enabled a transformation in Ireland and strengthened relations between Poland and Ireland.

Second – through an analysis of how Ireland has responded to, and is emerging from, our economic crisis.

Third – by concluding with observations on the current agenda of the Union, including our collective response to the future of Ukraine.

Irish Membership of the EU – Transformation
This current agenda must always be based on an appreciation of the values and freedoms of the Union. These values are democracy, rule of law, equality and the constant search for inclusivity in how decisions are made. They are articulated in the four freedoms of the EU – freedom of movement of goods, services, capital and people.

The application of these principles have transformed Ireland.

Economically, we have moved from one of the most closed economies in the world to the second most open, with our average income moving from 60% of the European average when we first joined in 1973, to 25% greater than the average today.

Socially, Union membership has required, or inspired, better educational opportunities and a cleaner environment. Vital progress has been made to improve the daily lives of our people, through improvements to workers’ rights and enhanced gender equality.

Politically, Ireland has strenuously pursued EU membership to deepen our political engagement and influence. I am aware of all the difficulties and challenges of the Union but it provides the best platform for advancing our national interest. Central to our membership are our tenures of the Presidency of the Council of the European Union. We have now completed our seventh.

Our membership has allowed Ireland to reset our relationship with our nearest neighbour, the United Kingdom, and to build a prosperous future as we deepen our integration with Europe and the world.

Irish-Polish relations
EU membership has driven the strengthening of relations between our countries. This was due to both governments consciously and purposefully allowing European freedoms to take root and flourish between our people.

It was during Ireland’s Presidency of the European Council in 2004 that Poland joined the EU. Ireland was one of just three EU members to open its borders and welcome Polish workers, who came to build their future in Ireland and allow Ireland to further build our future.

They were warmly welcomed, playing a central role in our economy. Since then, 350,000 Poles have lived and worked in Ireland, making it their home and the country of choice in which to raise their families.

The Polish Embassy in Dublin now estimates that 150,000 of your country men and women currently live in Ireland making them the largest new community in our country.

A stronger fabric – our economy and society
Immigration of this scale was a new experience for Ireland. We had the highest levels of net inward migration in the EU in the mid-2000s, with our foreign-born share of population more than twice the EU average.

Massive change like this can cause difficulties. Ireland is no different. However our country has been strengthened by the breadth of cultures that now make Ireland their home.

Our social fabric has been enriched, our economy strengthened. Poland and its people have been integral to that.

This was achieved through the application of European freedoms – of freedom of movement and all the rights and responsibilities inherent in this.

A sporting example of this is the fact that in 2012, more than 35,000 Irish fans visited Poland for the European championships. The recent drawing of our countries in the same group for 2016 will, I hope, add to this sporting relationship.

Growth through governance
While I have emphasised the positive change in Ireland, our recent economic journey has been very difficult.

Unemployment and emigration have been a grim reality for too many families. But we are making strong progress thanks to the sacrifices made by our people.

Ireland has now successfully exited the EU-IMF programme of
assistance, without the need for official support.

Our bond yields have decreased from well over 14% to under 4%. We have exceeded our budget deficit targets for the last three years and will achieve our 3% target in 2015. This is from a height of 11.9% in 2009.

After the loss of 250,000 jobs in 3 years, more than 60,000 new private sector jobs were created in Ireland last year, and unemployment has now declined for the last 19 months in a row. Unemployment is still too high. But we are moving in the right direction.

Irish and Euro governance
But how did we get there?

Four steps were vital. All achieved by the sacrifice and stamina of Irish people:

First, we implemented a fiscal adjustment equivalent to 20% of our national income. This was crucial in restoring sustainability in our national finances.

Second, we improved unit labour costs by a forecasted 21% against the Eurozone average.

Third, our public and civil servants fundamentally changed how they work, despite their wages being substantially reduced.

Finally, by recognising the stability offered by the Union and passing, by way of referendum, the Fiscal Compact Treaty. We are also fully participating in the European Semester.

All of this is creating an economy with diverse sources of growth that is powering Ireland towards recovery.

Irish Membership of the EU
We, therefore, know that EU membership is not without its challenges and obligations. There are strong differing views about the Union at home. As a country that votes often on our relationship with the EU, we know this well.

It is for that reason that I respect any debate on the future of the Union. The debate taking place in our nearest neighbour, the United Kingdom, is clearly of strategic interest to Ireland.

This is due to the mutual asset of membership of the EU, our sharing a border on the same island and the scale and breadth of our economic, political and social relationship.

The British debate could have Irish consequences. Ireland has, when deemed necessary, made different strategic choices to the UK towards the EU and in the EU. Our membership of the Euro area is an obvious example of this. Based on our national interest Ireland will continue to do so.

We also believe that the UK is stronger in the EU and that the EU is stronger with the UK in it.

Let me be absolutely clear about this – EU membership was an essential element of the progress Ireland has made and will be an essential political and economic element of the progress we will achieve. This Government is determined that our continued membership of the Union will play an equally essential part in our journey in the future.

I will therefore conclude with comments on the crisis in Ukraine and the shared policy agenda between Ireland and Poland in the EU.

Ireland & Poland : A Shared Agenda
This agenda is based on an appreciation of the economic, social and political advantages of deepening the freedoms of the Union. Sharing a conviction that this strengthening, not weakening, is the best response to our mutual economic and political challenges.

It includes:

– Deepening the Single Market, with particular focus on the digital and services sector.
– Working to use current Treaties to strengthen the operation of the EU.
– Constructive engagement on the Energy and Climate Change proposals.
– Strong implementation of Eurozone governance mechanisms to deliver a strong and secure single currency zone to facilitate Polish membership.

Conclusion : Flags in Ukraine
So we see how membership of the Union has been crucial to Ireland, has shaped our history and will shape our future. I believe the same to be true of Poland. And so it should come as no surprise to see those European flags flying in the Maidan.

The people of Ukraine know what that flag represents. It represents freedoms that we too often take for granted. It represents hope for a brighter, more prosperous future, where the dignity of people is respected, where their rights are protected, where all voices are heard. It represents peace.

If we take the European Union for granted, it is because it has been a success for so long. It has given us peace; a freedom to chart a secure way forward in an uncertain world.

Luuk Van Middelaar, the Dutch political philosopher, recently wrote of the European project that ‘No one ever sails on an ocean of certainty’ and argued that ‘when a storm becomes too fierce and the wind blows your boat towards an open sea, it is better to have a good compass than an anchor’.
The Union, with all its imperfections and difficulties, is that compass. How we use it is our choice.