State of the Union Address by Tánaiste - IIEA, 30 January 2019
Speech30 January 2019
State of the Union Address
by Simon Coveney T.D.,
Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade
IIEA, Wednesday, 30 January 2019
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Thank you for the warm welcome.
I would like to begin by thanking the IIEA for inviting me to speak today and to you for turning out in such large numbers.
I have heard that when the Gresham Hotel opened its doors in 1817, it started out as a lodging house for MPs travelling to London. Two hundred years on, Irish parliamentarians still have occasion to travel to London. But for the past 100 years we have been doing so as members of our own Parliament and today we are just as likely to be travelling to Brussels or any other European capital.
2019 will see a new chapter in our relationship with the UK, as we move towards the 29 March, when the UK is due to leave the European Union.
Brexit is a major challenge and huge disappointment for us, following 45 years of close cooperation and partnership as fellow EU member States.
The complexity and scale of that challenge has become all too clear over the course of the two and a half years since the 2016 referendum. It has reminded us just how much our economies and societies are inter-twined through our EU membership. From economy and trade, to education and research, from travel and citizens’ rights, through to the Northern Ireland peace process, the EU has positively impacted our relationship in all areas.
It can come as no surprise, therefore, that we have viewed the impact of Brexit – especially a hard Brexit – with such concern.
This is why the Withdrawal Agreement is of such importance. This agreement followed two years of detailed and complicated negotiations, and represents real compromise on both sides.
It represents the best way, the only way, to ensure an orderly UK withdrawal.
The transition period it establishes can play an essential role in providing assurance and certainty to businesses and the public, as we prepare for the new relationship with the UK, post-Brexit.
Importantly, this would give us the time we need to negotiate a deep and comprehensive agreement which will provide the foundations for that future relationship.
And so, as you would expect, we watched the House of Commons votes closely last night. And we saw the Common express two preferences by narrow majorities: firstly, that a no-deal Brexit is avoided, and, secondly, that the backstop somehow be replaced by alternative arrangements. I’d like to say a few words on each of these proposals.
Firstly, we welcome and share the UK parliament’s determination to avoid a no deal Brexit. The best way to achieve this, as the Prime Minister has argued since November, is to agree the 585-page Withdrawal Agreement and the Political Declaration on the Future Relationship. The Withdrawal Agreement won’t be re-opened, but as the EU has continuously said, the Political Declaration on the future relationship can evolve if the UK Government changes its red lines.
And if the UK wishes to request an extension of Article 50, the EU27, including Ireland, are ready to consider that request and decide unanimously on it. The key factors here will be the reasons for any possible extension, and the proposed duration of it. But, as I have said before, Ireland has an open mind about this, if it is something the UK chooses to request.
The second wish expressed by the Commons last night – by 317 votes in favour to 301 against – was to replace the backstop with some type of alternative arrangements. I should start by saying that the concept of “alternative arrangements” is not a new one – it is there in the text of both the Protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland in the Withdrawal Agreement and it is in the Political Declaration on the future relationship.
The EU is committed to exploring and trying to agree alternative arrangements with the UK to replace the backstop in the future. However, there are currently no alternative arrangements, which anyone has put forward, which achieve what both sides are determined to achieve – to avoid a hard border, including any physical infrastructure or related checks and controls, and to protect the all-island economy, North-South cooperation and the Good Friday Agreement.
Believe me, this has been explored endlessly in the negotiations over the last 2 years. We have seen no alternative arrangements that meet this essential threshold. And we need a backstop or insurance mechanism based on legal certainty, and not just wishful thinking.
We have less than two months to go now until Brexit happens on 29 March. We are, quite simply, running out of road. And so, as Donald Tusk was quick to spell out last night within minutes of the vote – and as had been indicated to the British government numerous times prior to the vote – the Withdrawal Agreement, including the Protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland, is not open for re-negotiation. The solidarity across Europe on this point speaks for itself.
I want to make one final observation on the debate in the House of Commons in recent days, and it is this: there are two very large communities in Northern Ireland, one of which is unionist and one of which is nationalist. There is a diversity of views within those communities, just as there are many people who do not consider themselves defined at all by one constitutional outlook or another. It is vitally important that politicians in Westminster understand the overwhelming wish across society in Northern Ireland not to return to the borders and division of times past.
It is highly unfortunate that only one party from Northern Ireland, representing a minority view on Brexit and the backstop, takes its seats at Westminster. And it makes it all the more critical that the UK listens to other political parties, representing a majority in the Northern Ireland Assembly, and to cross-community groups like the Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce, the Confederation of British Industry and the Ulster Farmers Union over the coming weeks. What they are saying is that the backstop is infinitely preferable to a no deal Brexit. We hope, still, that those arguments are heard, however loud other voices in London become.
In uncertain times, some elements remain certain. Ireland’s journey as a committed member of the European Union will continue, and we want to do this while maintaining the closest possible relationship with Great Britain.
The wider uncertainty does dictate however that the Government must and will continue to intensify our preparations for a disorderly Brexit. And we have moved now from planning to implementation. Brexit will have negative consequences in any scenario, but we are determined to be as ready as we can. In this, we are again working in tandem with our EU partners and fellow Member States.
Understandably, everyone’s attention is on 29 March.
But the EU27, which has maintained such solidarity on Brexit, has also been planning for the future which lies ahead.
A future that is fuelled by our shared values and ambitions as a Union of 27 Member States.
Ireland will be at the very heart of that future and we will work to make it so.
That’s why we have been upping our game and engaging systematically and strategically at all levels - political, diplomatic and official - not just in Brussels but also in capitals across Europe.
We are the only small Member State with an Embassy in every other Member State and this has been an invaluable asset in fostering support for our concerns in the Brexit negotiations.
We are building on this through Global Ireland – the Government’s initiative to double our global impact by 2025. We have already added senior officials to our Embassy teams in Brussels, Berlin, Paris and London. This year we will strengthen further our diplomatic ranks in Madrid, Rome and Warsaw and widen our footprint in Germany through the opening of a new consulate in Frankfurt.
We will have European Parliament elections in May, a new President of the Commission in June and a new Commission in November.
Heads of State and Government will discuss priorities for the next institutional cycle when they meet on 9 May in Sibiu, Romania. The discussion in Sibiu will help the Taoiseach and his peers set the Union’s Strategic Agenda at the European Council in June.
This will be Europe’s Strategic Agenda for the next 5 years until 2024. It will be based on contributions from all the Member States and we want to make sure that Ireland’s contribution is fully reflected in the final plan.
At the end of 2017 I launched our citizens’ dialogue on the future of Europe together with the Taoiseach and Helen McEntee, our Minister of State for European Affairs.
Today, I would like to thank the IIEA for the role it has played in that dialogue, producing its own series of thematic reflection papers and broadening its engagement through initiatives such as the ‘Emerging Voices’ group.
I set out a vision for the Europe we want in a speech in UCD in November 2017.
In the meantime, Helen has led debates right across the country, listening to the concerns and expectations of the Irish people.
Participants said they want to be part of a Union that lives up to its values.
They see real value in cooperating on challenges like climate change, migration, terrorism, cyber-security and cross-border crime.
Our citizens want the European Union to continue doing what it does best.
They support investment in policies like the Common Agriculture Policy, regional development and Erasmus Plus.
They want more investment in young people, in education, in training and in innovation.
They want to tackle social exclusion and to see stronger interventions at a European level to combat discrimination, integrate migrants and improve access to services.
Businesses and consumers want to see the completion of the Single Market, especially in services and the Digital Single Market.
It is also felt that the European Union has a moral imperative to do more for countries to the south and east and to promote education and empowerment in Africa.
These are our hopes for the Europe of the future. They are set out in some detail in the narrative report we published in October and they will inform our contribution to the EU’s Strategic Agenda.
But our Strategic Agenda is also about honouring existing commitments.
How many times have we promised to complete the Single Market? We could add an extra trillion euros a year to the GDP of the Union if we completed it, especially the Single Market in Services and the Digital Single Market. What is holding us back?
Where is the urgency about completing the Banking Union? A Banking Union would help protect consumers from another financial crisis. We have promised to deliver it but it is still unfinished business.
The progress we have achieved on migration since the crisis began in 2015 has often been on the basis of ad hoc arrangements. We re-commit constantly to a “comprehensive approach to migration” but we still don’t have one. This is quite frankly an embarrassment; one which leaves us open to ridicule from the populists who want to exploit the status quo for their own ends. We have made a commitment - let’s honour it.
Too often there is a tendency to take a narrow transactional view of our membership. But we have to remember what the real value of European membership is. The economic and political advantages are immense, as everyone here agrees. But we must also remember that, for citizens, it is their freedom to live, work, study, travel and access education anywhere in the European Union. If we look only at our position in terms of our net contributions to the budget we miss the point.
But the budget matters; not just because we are now net contributors but because the allocations in the budget are a measure of importance we attach to each issue. I think it might have been Catherine Day who once said that a budget is policy in numbers.
The EU’s long-term financial plan is the Multi-Annual Financial Framework. The MFF is negotiated once every seven years.
The plan for the next seven years is currently being negotiated by Ministers in the Council. The current objective is for the Council to conclude its discussions on the MFF in the autumn and then to agree it, and of course the great mass of associated sectoral legislation, with the European Parliament. I have vivid memories of my role in bringing the CAP and CFP negotiations to a conclusion in 2013.
We want the MFF that goes to the Parliament in the autumn to reflect the issues the Irish people have prioritised in the citizens’ dialogue process.
That is why we want to protect the Common Agricultural Policy and cohesion funding.
It’s also why we favour more funding for research, innovation, digitalisation, environmental protection and the mobility of young people, and for partnerships with third countries.
If we want to shape a European Union that is fit for purpose and ready to meet our needs and concerns, then we have to follow the money.
And whenever we follow the money, we have to understand the process.
In that process the European Parliament plays a central role.
For that reason, and of course for many others, the make-up of the next Parliament will, therefore, be crucial. I hope its membership will support the priorities we have identified as important to us.
In May we will be electing thirteen Irish MEPs.
There will be plenty of time closer to the date to engage in party politics. But now is the time to frame the debate before the campaign starts in earnest.
The signs are already there that euro-sceptic populists could return in larger numbers, unless we come together and face them down.
If we stay at home on polling day, we run the risk that people on the fringes, with nothing in common except the same narrow and self-regarding agenda, will take control of the budget and shape an agenda to suit their own inward-looking agenda.
Turnout here in the last European elections was only 52%; so half of our electorate did not turn out.
Given the role the European Parliament has in setting the budget, in co-deciding on legislation, and in approving international agreements - including of course related to Brexit - staying at home comes with a price.
The cost of complacency could be a Parliament that re-directs funds away from the CAP and from the investment in innovation, research and young people that we need to meet the challenges of the future.
Earlier this month, I addressed our Ambassadors in Dublin Castle on the international and domestic challenges posed by the march of populism globally and how EU Member States can and should respond. My colleague, Paschal Donohue, has spoken here at the Institute more recently on similar themes.
There are many answers to populism, all of them imperfect.
One answer in May has to be to vote in large numbers for 13 Irish MEPs who are committed to the agenda set forth by the Irish people in the citizens’ dialogue and committed to voting through a budget that gives the Union the resources it needs to implement that agenda.
The elections in May will be an opportunity to expose the populist claim that only they represent the “real people” and renew our faith in the checks and balances provided by institutions such as the Parliament, the Council and the Commission.
It is easy to be seduced by simple slogans like “Take Back Control” and “Drain the Swamp”. But in his book, “The Populist Temptation”, the economic historian Barry Eichengreen has pointed out that “political institutions are a key ingredient of political stability and hence the capacity of society to pursue policies making for growth and an equitable distribution of its fruits.”
As we celebrate the centenary this month of Dáil Éireann, we should remember the words of Jean Monnet who said that “nothing is lasting without institutions.”
There might not be enough space on the side of a 15-metre bus for all of the letters in “Multi-Annual Financial Framework” but, if we want a European Union that can navigate to a brighter, more sustainable future over the next five to seven years, we should try to acquaint ourselves with at least some of its complexities.
As Foreign Minister, I am especially concerned with how populism can spill over into foreign policy. The Irish academic, Judy Dempsey, has written recently about how domestic political infighting by populist leaders can take precedence over diplomatic considerations. She reminds us that the EU stands for something different, basing “its foreign policy on the promotion of norms and standards of democratic governance, especially in its neighbourhood.”
Of course, the EU and its Member States must all continue to live up to these norms and standards themselves. There are alarming signs that our values are under some internal pressure. Ireland believes in standing up for these values and in pressing others to do the same – in a respectful and well-informed, but still firm way.
I spoke earlier about honouring existing commitments. These include the values listed in article 2: democracy, the rule of law and a society where pluralism and tolerance prevail. Ireland, like every other Member State, is bound by these commitments. The Union is founded on these values and respect for them is legally binding. Our values can never be ‘optional extras’; that applies to Member States and it is what we expect of accession States.
I am an advocate for EU enlargement and I was very pleased to see that enlargement was popular among participants in our citizens’ dialogue process. The new Romanian Presidency of the European Union is the third presidency in a row, after the Bulgarian and Austrian Presidencies, to put the Western Balkans high on the Union’s agenda. Helen will visit Tirana and Skopje next week together with her Finnish counterpart, and this is an especially encouraging signal since Finland will take over the Presidency in July.
But we need to go beyond talking about enlargement. I hope, for example, that we can open accession negotiations with Albania and the Republic of North Macedonia in June, following the historic ratification in Skopje and Athens of the Prespes Agreement.
This year also marks the 10th anniversary of the Eastern Partnership, through which the EU governs its relationship with the post-Soviet states of Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine. This is a milestone and the progress made by our Partners in this unpredictable environment must be acknowledged.
In this unpredictable environment too, Europe and the European Union is increasingly seen as a last major defender of multilateralism and values-driven external policy.
This year, we celebrate the 70th anniversary of the Council of Europe, the organisation which gave us the European Convention on Human Rights and put respect for human rights at the heart of post-war re-construction. The Council of Europe has also studied populism. It found that populism damages democracy by limiting debate, squashing dissent and reducing pluralism. It dismantles checks and balances, undermines human rights and the protection of minorities, and challenges checks on unrestrained State power.
It would be wrong to dismiss all Brexiteers as populists and yet the Brexit debate has become a stunning example of all that can go wrong when more attention is paid to slogans and sound-bites rather than policies that are properly thought through and properly costed.
Jack Lynch warned about this as early as 1972 during the debate in Dáil Éireann on our accession to the then EEC. Back then he said: “the extraordinary thing is that the most vocal opponents of membership have shown boundless confidence in our capacity to survive and prosper on the basis of an alternative relationship with the Community, the terms of which are not known.”
Over 45 years on, I think we can say with some certainty that we have made a success of our membership, that we have a vision for the type of Union we want and that we are well-placed in our networks and our know-how in terms of bringing that vision to bear on the Europe of the future.
This is our Europe - let’s shape it.
Thanks for welcoming me here today.
30 January 2019