Speech by Minister McEntee on Future of Europe to the Seanad
News05 March 2019
Thank you for making time available today for this important debate on the future of the European Union.
I have to acknowledge that this debate takes place against the backdrop of ongoing uncertainty about Brexit and, rightly, we are concentrating our efforts on being prepared for 29 March.
I want to take this opportunity to re-state that Ireland and the European Union remain firmly behind the Withdrawal Agreement.
The Government’s focus is on seeing the ratification of this Agreement. But we must continue our preparations for all scenarios.
A no deal Brexit would be the worst possible outcome. It is not in Ireland’s interests. It is not in the European Union’s interests. And it is not in the United Kingdom’s interests.
But the Brexit Omnibus Bill will help to prepare Ireland for some of the immediate impacts of no deal. It is focused on protecting our citizens, on supporting the economy and jobs, particularly in key economic sectors most exposed to Brexit.
The Government is working closely across the Oireachtas to ensure the Bill will be ready for 29 March. And I want to thank both Houses for their efforts.
It is clear that Brexit of any kind means change. But, it is also just one aspect of the debate on the future of the European Union.
One thing that it will not change is Ireland’s commitment to our future in Europe. If anything, it reinforces it.
Our membership of the EU is our greatest protection not just from Brexit, but from many of the challenges that we face today.
And that is why I am particularly pleased that the House has made time for this debate on the future of Europe and the value of EU membership to Ireland at this particular moment.
Jean Monnet, who was so instrumental in the founding of the European Union, once said:
“Make men work together, show them that beyond differences and geographical boundaries there lies a common interest.”
For over 45 years, Irish men and women have been working together with friends and colleagues across Europe and we have found more than a common interest, we have found a common home.
It is a home that is founded not on transactional interests but on the Treaty-based values that underpin our Union. Freedom. Democracy. Equality. Rule of law. Respect for human rights.
Values that can never be taken for granted and values that are ever more important in our turbulent world. Values on which we will build a common future.
When President Juncker addressed a Joint Sitting of the Oireachtas in June, he said that Ireland has acted like a founding Member State – seeking the European approach, understanding that what is good for all in our Union is good for us all individually.
As a nation that has so fundamentally benefitted from EU membership, we know better than most the value of membership.
We cannot attribute all that is good or all that is bad in our society to the European Union, but it is undeniable that our country has undergone a remarkable transformation since we first joined in 1973. A transformation that was made possible by membership.
I belong to a generation that has always had the privilege of two identities: Irish and European. Like our values; it is a privilege we cannot take for granted.
As I know from the statements delivered on Europe Day, Senators are very well aware that Irish support for EU membership is high. Among the general population it reaches 92% and peaks at an almost universal 97% among of our young people. Clearly, the privilege of membership is not lost on our citizens.
But, we are also challenged to ensure that it remains relevant. Relevant in the lives of those who have known only peace, who have known only the advancement of rights, who have only ever known the freedom to travel, to study, to work and to make a life in any country in our Union. People for whom the European Union is the norm and not one of the most remarkable peace projects ever imagined.
This is something that has shaped my priorities as Minister of State for European Affairs.
I have gone around the country talking to school children, to students, to local communities - in places like Donegal, Galway, Cork, Kildare and my home constituency of Meath – to hear their hopes for Europe. I have listened to those in the charity and voluntary sector, to farmers, to fishermen, to trade unions, to employers, to businesses and to those focussed on protecting the environment. I have asked them about the future of Europe that they want.
They told me that they want to be part of a Union that lives up to its values. They spoke about peace, cooperation, unity, solidarity and community. Most of all they spoke about fairness.
They said that they want the EU to continue to do what it does best. They support investment in policies like the Common Agriculture Policy, in regional development and in Erasmus Plus.
They are also ambitious for the unfilled potential of the European Union.
In a Union that privileges the free movement of goods, services, capital and people, they want to see the completion of the Single Market. A Single Market fit for the digital age – one that includes goods and services. One that Ireland has been pushing.
They want to see more countries in the Eurozone.
They want to see trade agreements that are good for the economy.
They want to see Europe play its role in shaping the wider world and the future. They want to work together on the big issues that we face – climate change, migration, cyber security – challenges that no-one country can tackle alone.
One of the things that has become clear to me, however, is that our own people are not always aware of what the EU is doing on their behalf or of some of the existing European policies that are already in place. On the other hand, sometimes, they look to Europe to play a role in matters that rest with the Member State.
The European Ombudsman, Emily O’Reilly, joined us at our National Citizens’ Dialogue on the Future of Europe in Dublin on 9 May. For all the big aspirations that we have heard from our citizens, she reminded us that most people do not spend their time thinking about the future of Europe. For them, politics continues to be local and about the reality of their daily lives.
So it is also important to recall the human stories showing the value of membership. To connect with real stories and real lives.
In September, I had the pleasure of joining the Leas-Chathaoirleach of Seanad Éireann, Senator Paul Coghlan at the formal launch of the European Commission Representation in Ireland’s publication 45 Stories: 45 inspiring stories celebrating Ireland’s 45 years of EU membership.
Touching on almost every aspect of Irish life – culture, education and research, community, health, agriculture and fisheries, transport, business, environment and the consumer – the report gives concrete examples of the tangible difference EU Membership makes to individuals and to local communities.
There are the foreign family holidays made possible by cheaper airfares brought about by the EU’s Single Market for Aviation.
The calls and texts home made easier by the EU’s roam-like-at-home initiative.
The life changing medical treatments facilitated by the EU Cross Border Healthcare Directive.
The cross-border communities who have quite literally pulled together through the EU’s Programme for Peace and Reconciliation.
I commend the European Commission for this and other initiatives to show how the EU is supporting our citizens in their everyday lives and their local communities.
There is an onus on all of us to think about how we acknowledge and convey the benefits of EU membership.
Deputy Michael Healy-Rae also joined us at our Europe Day event in Dublin. I listened to him carefully.
He reminded us that we must resist the temptation to blame Europe for problems and seize credit for its successes.
This is particularly important this year when we – politician and citizen alike - take vital decisions about the future direction of our Union; not least the election of a new European Parliament in May. We must encourage our citizens to vote for the Europe they want.
In turn, that Parliament will elect the next European Commission President and vet and approve the new European Commission.
Also in May, the leaders of the EU27 will meet in Sibiu in Romania to discuss the priorities for the next institutional cycle. The Taoiseach will bring the voice of our citizens into that debate and into the preparation of the EU’s Strategic Agenda from 2019 to 2024.
We are currently working on a cross-government statement that will set out Ireland’s priorities for the discussions in Sibiu.
In parallel, my colleagues and I on the General Affairs Council are discussing the EU’s next long-term financial plan – the Multi-Annual Financial Framework – the MFF. It is negotiated once every seven years.
There is still a lot of work to be done to reach a common position.
Each Member State has its own priorities, as will the incoming European Parliament, and negotiations are always difficult.
Budget negotiations may not capture everyone’s imagination, but in how we allocate our resources we can find a very tangible expression of what it means to be European.
I take into these discussions what I have heard from our citizens.
Ireland’s top priority is to agree a budget of an adequate size and structure to meet the needs of our Union and our citizens, and to deliver on our shared ambitions.
As a Net Contributor, the Government is open to contributing more to the Budget, so long as European Added Value is met. A well-funded Common Agricultural Policy is a classic example of European Added Value. Likewise, we are strong defenders of the need to protect the Structural and Cohesion Funds.
We also believe that it is essential that we continue to fund other Programmes that work well such as Erasmus Plus and Horizon Europe, which will support the necessary investment in research and development to create the jobs of the future.
There is a saying that: “The best way to predict the future is to create it.”
As citizens of Ireland and of the European Union that is what we are tasked with doing now. Creating a future that matches the needs and expectations of our citizens. A future that lives up to our European values. A future that builds on what we already have. A future that prepares us to meet new challenges. And a future that allows the generations that will follow us to thrive.
I look forward to hearing your vision for that future.
5 March 2019