Speech to Brookings Institution Webinar on Rebuilding the trans-Atlantic relationship after COVID-19: Europe’s response to COVID-19: A view from Ireland

16th June, 2020

I would like to thank Brookings for the important work you are doing, and to Tom for the kind welcome and introduction. The work of Brookings is indispensable in forging new thinking for a changed world, and I am particularly proud to see Tom playing such a leading role in their work.

With the challenges we are all facing, it has never been so important that we continue to engage and interact. We are all adapting to new ways of doing so, and becoming ‘digital diplomats’.

Over the last couple of weeks, I have been on a ‘virtual visit’ to Washington, meeting with senior figures in the White House, the US administration and Capitol Hill, and engaging with US businesses.

The one down side, is that I wasn’t able to visit your great city, and its wonderful bookshops, something I’m particularly conscious of as today is Bloomsday, when we celebrate one of our greatest writers, James Joyce. But I hope to be there soon. And I hope that Kramerbooks and Politics and Prose are open when I visit.

We are living through an extraordinary time. Often it feels like we are witnessing huge historical shifts compressed into months and weeks.

Lenin’s observation that ‘there are decades where nothing happens and there are weeks where decades happen’ has rarely felt more apposite.

In the space of a few months, the coronavirus has swept around the globe, leaving a wake of human suffering and economic damage.

The World Health Organisation reports there are now almost 7.5 million cases of infection and over 400,000 lives have been lost from this pandemic.

Last week, the OECD said this is the worst health and economic crisis since the Second World War.

This has created extraordinary uncertainty.

We may need to adapt our economies and societies to living with this new coronavirus for some time.

This crisis is of such a scale that no nation can successfully address it alone.

Irish and EU response

Around the world, governments and central banks have taken unprecedented steps in fiscal and monetary policy to protect public health, jobs and incomes.

These policy responses are transforming the economic landscape.

The Irish Government has already committed exceptional financial supports for workers and businesses, amounting to €13.3 billion or 7.5 per cent of gross national income. 

We have been able to act decisively and proportionately because we managed our public finances with care in recent years.

Action at EU level has also been ambitious and essential. Confidence in the European project is a vital condition of our economic recovery. European leaders have acted to provide this confidence.

The Eurogroup played a key role, reaching agreement on a first, €540 billion package of safety nets for workers, businesses and governments.

This is on top of actions taken by the European Central Bank, through its €1.35 trillion Pandemic Emergency Purchase Programme, and the triggering of flexibilities in the Stability and Growth Pact and in state aid rules by the European Commission.

The contrast with the EU’s response to the global financial crisis a decade ago is stark.

Looking to Recovery

As the virus recedes, our priority now is to return our economies to health. And to deliver the right policies to support job creation and growth, as so many of our citizens have lost their jobs in circumstances they could hardly have imagined.

But as the historian Adam Tooze put it recently, ‘it is easier, it turns out, to stop an economy than it is to stimulate it’.

Certain industries will face huge challenges to the changes in business and consumer behaviour that have been wrought by the pandemic, while others that are more resilient will survive and thrive. Again, Europe is acting decisively.

The European Commission has published an ambitious €1.85 trillion package, embedded in the EU budget, to address the immediate damage wrought by the pandemic and kick-start a sustainable recovery.

This includes a €750 billion recovery fund, “Next Generation EU, which aims to target funding to regions and sectors that have been most affected by the crisis.

It also seeks to accelerate the digital and green transitions that will be so crucial to the economy of the future.

This is both welcome and necessary – and a tangible demonstration of EU solidarity like never before.

We must aim for a recovery which lifts all member states and their citizens together, so that everyone benefits from the recovery.

A recovery which all members of the European Union can contribute to and benefit from.

The EU Recovery Fund must focus on the most pressing economic needs to reboot the economy.

It should prioritise sectors and regions that have been most impacted, as well as those that can generate and enable sustainable economic growth in the post-Covid economy.

Ireland will work closely with our EU partners in a spirit of solidarity to build consensus for early agreement. 

The Global Context

We are all aware of the challenging external landscape, which the coronavirus has made more complex.

The pandemic struck at a time when the anchors of globalisation and mutual interdependence were already under sustained pressure.

If the interdependence of financial systems created higher risks in the last economic crisis, then the interdependence of supply chains has created risks during this one.

The pandemic has revealed vulnerabilities in the way supply chains are structured, for example impacting on the production and delivery of medical equipment and devices for our health services.

Undoubtedly, we will see a re-evaluation of how parts of the global economy are structured as we emerge from this crisis.

In particular, we must acknowledge that the existing model of globalisation, for all its benefits, created vulnerabilities for citizens and states.

The answer lies not in rejecting globalisation but by building a better global system that mitigates the risks of economic and political interdependence.

What does this mean for how we restructure the global economy?

Rather than seeking to unravel globalisation or pronounce its demise, we should work to adapt it to ensure a more resilient global economy, through diversifying supply chains and manufacturing, working to reform the WTO, improving competitiveness, and investing in innovation, research and development. 

In the process we need to reassess the balance between the efficiency of supply chains and their resilience.

And amidst this change Ireland will, again, identify strategic opportunities and pursue them. As a country that is deeply embedded in global and European supply chains, I recognise that this potential for change is a significant development for Ireland.

But, with an economy that is based on expertise and diversity, I am confident that this is an opportunity that we can rise to.

We need to do this with care, so that Ireland and Europe do not replace one vulnerability with another, or risk fragmenting the global economy. 

The future of the Transatlantic relationship is vital to this global journey.

The EU and the United States together account for over 1/3 of total global GDP. Working together, we can be an engine for growth and recovery.

With our unique ties with the US, Ireland will continue to support a strong and dynamic trans-Atlantic relationship and act as a bridge between the EU and the US.

We will also continue to invest in multilateral processes that are so necessary for the global economy and international peace and security.

We need more international cooperation and understanding, not less, if we are to tackle this crisis, as well as climate change, migration and the many other global challenges that demand global solutions.

And I believe that the European Union is showing its commitment to this form of action and cooperation.

Despite our small size, Ireland has always been willing to make a global contribution. We will learn tomorrow if we are elected to a non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council.

And we will continue to make the case for a values based, mutually beneficial relationship – flowing across the Atlantic.


On this day, on Bloomsday, it seems appropriate to end with Joyce, just as I began with him.

Joyce, in ‘A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man’ wrote: ‘The past is consumed in the present and the present is living only because it brings forth the future’.

We need, when the challenges are so great, and when fractures appear too deep, to re-dedicate our efforts to bringing forth the future.

To making the case for cooperation, for moderation and for inclusivity.

If we think of the pandemic as a common global experience, the case becomes clear for greater global cooperation on a coordinated health response, the search for a vaccine, the safe reopening of our societies and the rebuilding of our economies. 

I believe we can build the common ground necessary to do so.