Statements in the Dáil on Ireland’s Engagement with Europe – Europe: why, how and to what end?

27th February, 2014

Ceann Comhairle,

The concept of ‘Europe’ is an old convention, reaching back as a geographic term to the time of Homer in the 5th Century B.C.

Stretching from the Azores to Severny Island it covers 10 million square miles, 750 million people and 37,000 years of civilization.

As impressive as these facts are, and as much as they provide a sense of perspective and depth in any survey of our surroundings, they present us with the obvious questions:
What are we talking about when we talk about ‘Europe’?

Why are we engaging with it?

How are we doing it and to what end?

These are important questions which go to the centre of the Government’s actions in Europe as well as our overall engagement with European issues as parliamentarians and, most importantly, citizens.

This is why I welcome the debate today, allowing this House to address the fundamental questions of ‘why’, ‘how’ and ‘what’.

I will do this in three stages:

1. Why Europe matters.

2. How are we engaging?

3. What will this achieve?

The Why

The great Scottish Philosopher, David Hume, once said:

“It’s when we start working together that the real healing takes place… it’s when we start spilling our sweat, and not our blood.”

I do not need to remind Deputies of the foundations of the modern European project, forged as it was out of the horrors of war, but I do want to remind colleagues of how precarious peace is and what it is that keeps those horrors from resurfacing.

We have all been gripped by the tragic events in Ukraine and reflecting on why Europe matters could never be timelier when we consider the loss of life and anguish of the people in their longing and desire to be a part of what we all too often take for granted.

Let none of us here today forget that Europe does not consist purely of the EU, as important as that is, and that the EU is not purely about economics or the financial markets and is not solely about Directives and Regulations.

It is, always has been, and will to continue to be, a project of peace.

It is a catalyst composed of ideals, values and beliefs which transform our encounters with other countries into relations which produce the benefits many of us assume have always been there – the ability to move freely, to live, work, travel and trade across dissolved borders without restrictions.

This ability is tied in closely with the concept of ‘globalisation’– that interconnection, integration, interdependence which now characterizes the world in which we live.

This, I believe, is the contemporary rationale – the biggest ‘why’ of the European project.

I have spoken in the past about this ‘contemporary rationale’ for the European project as the goals and objectives of the Union have grown and developed as its constituent Member States have drawn together.

And we must continue to work together, because on our own we could not manage, prosper or hope to influence a world in which everything is linked.
To quote another Philosopher, Isaiah Berlin:

“injustice, poverty, slavery, ignorance – these may be cured by reform or revolution. But men do not live only by fighting evils. They live by positive goals, individual and collective, a vast variety of them, seldom predictable, at times incompatible.”

This is the ‘why’ of our engagement – a Europe based on values, enabling countries to best manage challenges and opportunities too big to grasp on their own.

These are the positive goals we live by when we engage with Europe.

The How

The ‘how’ we engage has two fundamental and interwoven strands – through the Institutions of the Union and directly with countries.

There is a tendency to view Ireland’s relationship with Europe solely within the framework of the European Union. Given the events of the last five years, this is perhaps understandable.
However, in doing so, we risk overlooking the importance of the bilateral dimension of our relationship with all European countries and fail, in turn, to fully appreciate the extent to which strong bilateral links helped to generate goodwill and positive sentiment towards Ireland.

This Government is strongly committed to enhancing Ireland’s bilateral political, trade, economic and cultural relations with European countries. This is, and will remain, a key feature of our engagement with Europe.

How do we do this?

The most important component of Ireland’s agency in Europe is our network of bilateral diplomatic missions. With the opening of a new Embassy in Zagreb, we will have a presence spanning all EU Member States and covering the entirety of Europe.

It is because of this that I have invested significant time in undertaking bilateral visits across Europe.

To date, I have made over 20 different visits to European countries and EU Institutions to further develop Ireland’s profile and advance our interests.
For example, I will travel to Poland tomorrow where I will have meetings with my counterpart, the Minister for European Affairs, Piotr Serafin, as well as with the State Secretary at the Ministry of Infrastructure and Development.

Beyond the EU, I have also given particular attention to developing Ireland’s relations with the countries of the Western Balkans.

In the past two months along, I have visited Tirana in Albania and Sarajevo in Bosnia, as well as meeting the Foreign Minister of Kosovo during his visit to Dublin. I also intend to visit Serbia and Kosovo in the near future.

The second strand of our engagement is through the European Institutions – the Commission, the Council and the European Parliament.

This Government has prioritized, and Deputies will recognize this from the record of attendance, active Ministerial participation at the Council of Ministers and regular, substantive engagement with the Commission.

The Government has also committed to regular engagement with the European Parliament, including Ministerial presence at each Plenary session.

I myself have just returned from Strasbourg, where, in addition to meeting with a number of influential MEPs, I also had the opportunity to discuss developments in Ukraine with Commissioner Stefan Fuele.

What will this achieve?

The future of Europe is never far from the minds of anyone involved or interested in European Affairs. Everyone wants to know where Europe is going and what is the ultimately goal of all these efforts.

Well, there is no end point.

The European project is a perpetual vehicle of collective action designed to enable countries to continuously work together to the benefit of all and to successfully overcome difficulties through compromise and negotiation.

Though the wheels of democracy and, indeed, bureaucracy, turn slowly, this is what Europe does every day.
To make this engagement effective we have clear priorities which focus on creating jobs and stability, fostering an environment for investment, developing the Single Market and harnessing the Semester process.

Banking Union, a topic which will be very familiar to the Deputies, encapsulates how Ireland’s engagement with Europe is delivering on these priorities.

It’s not that long ago that the collapse of the Euro was being openly and widely predicted, including by celebrated economists and analysts.

This did not happen because of this Government’s actions, in tandem with the European Institutions and other European countries.

We now have a much more robust and stable architecture in place. It is also worth reiterating that 18 Member States now share the common currency, with Latvia’s adoption of the euro on 1 January.

But our work is not done. Restoring and reinforcing economic growth, and securing the stability of the Euro, remain the key tasks for both Ireland and the Union.
Delivery of what has been agreed in relation to the banking union, and not least the June 2012 agreement to break the link between the sovereign and banks, is key.

Implementing Banking Union will go a long way to copper fasten economic recovery and secure the stability of the economic and monetary union.

To complement the stronger economic and financial governance which will derive from Banking Union, we are continuing to press for growth enhancing measures, including the deepening of the Single Market, enhancing business access to credit and stimulate external trade.

The European Investment Bank is a prime example of our efforts in increase and foster an environment for investment.

In 2013 alone, the EIB agreed to provide €600 million to Irish projects, including €200 million to SMEs as well as support for DIT’s Grangegorman campus development.

The European Semester process is another area in which our engagement with Europe will yield significant benefits.

As the House is aware, this fourth European Semester cycle is the first in which Ireland will be a full participant on foot of successful exit from our EU IMF programme.

Of course, another issue which is to the fore of all our minds at present are the European elections in May.

As co-legislator with the Council, the European Parliament’s role in shaping and determining European policy has never been stronger. It matters like never before.

The Government has recognised this. This is why we have committed to building on the strong connections forged across the Parliament during our Presidency.

Government Ministers have attended plenary sessions of the Parliament in Strasbourg in each of the last five months, meeting with key MEPs to discuss priority files and this will continue.

The scale of the institutional transition will be substantial. It’s vital that we develop strong relationships with the Presidents of the Commission, European Council and Eurogroup, reinforcing the excellent contacts, and good will, established during our Presidency.
Our task now is to draw on the goodwill and strong relationships generated through our bilateral relations, and reinforced by our programme exit, to deepen our influence and enhance our effectiveness within Europe and the EU.

If the past year has shown the resilience and adaptability of Europe, it has also shown the resilience and adaptability of this country.

I look forward to the work ahead, confident of the path Ireland is on, of our commitment to Europe and the strength of ties we enjoy within it.

For engaging with Europe is not just the responsibility of the Government, but each member of this House and, indeed, every citizen of this country.