Check Against Delivery
Good Evening Everyone,
I am delighted to be here this evening to speak to you all.
I would like to thank the IIEA for organising this event and bringing us together. As we seek to strengthen and develop Ireland’s place in the EU, we are fortunate to be able to draw on their invaluable expertise and knowledge. In particular, the Future of the EU27 programme has made an important contribution to enhancing public engagement and understanding of the policy challenges facing Ireland in the EU.
It is this shared future of the EU27 that I have been invited to speak about this evening. The next few months are a particularly crucial period in shaping of our shared future. We will see the election of a new European Parliament and new appointments to high level positions.
In June, the European Council is expected to adopt a new Strategic Agenda to guide the work of the Union to 2024. The previous strategic agenda, which began in 2014, comes to an end this year.
The EU has undergone profound changes since 2014. Some of the most important changes were not anticipated and were perhaps impossible to anticipate. Most obviously, the Brexit vote in the UK has shaped much of the discussion around the EU in the past five years. But we have also been faced with the challenges of the migration crisis, the rise of populism and increasing pressures on the multilateral political and economic order in which the EU operates.
Reflecting on these events, it would perhaps be an understatement to say that we live in interesting times.
But living in interesting times need not be a curse. Interesting times can challenge us to reconsider and reaffirm our values. They can lend a sense of urgency to our actions that would perhaps otherwise have been absent. They create the space and opportunity for genuine progress to be made. Along with the Commission and our fellow member states, we are determined to seize this opportunity.
On the 9th of May, the Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, met with fellow EU Heads of State and Government in Sibiu to discuss the new Strategic Agenda. A key priority for the Government is to ensure that Ireland’s own contribution to these discussions reflects the needs and concerns of our citizens.
To understand these concerns, last year the Government launched a Citizens’ Dialogue on the future of Europe. We asked Irish people for their views on how we can build a Union that is prosperous and competitive; safe and secure; sustainable; socially responsible; and how we can best equip ourselves to meet the challenges of the future.
You won’t be surprised to learn that not everyone has the same ambition or the same vision. The EU cannot be all things to all people, but it can and must be better.
The overriding message from the Citizens’ Dialogues has been one about fairness.
People want the environment to be protected so that we can hand it over to future generations in good condition. They want inter-generational fairness. They want young people to have the best of opportunities.
In an increasingly competitive world, they want to ensure fairness for people of all ages and in all walks of life. Everywhere, people emphasised the importance of education.
It was also striking to see how much our citizens see our membership of the EU through the prism of values. Words like peace, community, education, solidarity and diversity were replicated throughout the country.
It is clear to me that these values must be at the heart of the decisions we take about the future of our Union. Despite its imperfections, our citizens see Europe at the heart of their future and Ireland at the heart of Europe.
In fact, in a recent Red C Poll commissioned by European Movement Ireland, 93% of people surveyed believe that Ireland should remain a member of the EU. We are determined to build on that positivity.
Taking the time to listen and engage with our citizens regarding their concerns is extremely important in developing Ireland’s vision for the EU. But the Citizens Dialogues are not an end-point. The messages gathered in the course of the Citizens Dialogues have been used to inform Ireland’s National Statement on the European Union which will, in turn, contribute to the development of the new Strategic Agenda.
In our National Statement, which is available on the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade website, we focus on a range of concerns, from immediate economic issues, to longer term challenges and goals that nonetheless require immediate and proactive thinking.
We want a more resilient Economic and Monetary Union and a Single Market that is more integrated, particularly in the area of services. We want to see a European Union that is open and resists protectionism.
Reflecting the resounding calls for fairness that we heard in the Citizens Dialogues, we want to ensure that the EU champions opportunity and encourages economic and financial policies that are socially responsible and place the citizen at their centre.
We recognise that the digital transformation is already upon us and cannot be ignored. Our future growth will be dependent on digital skills, connectivity and expertise in artificial intelligence and robotics. But the positive impact of this transformation must not blind us to the challenges that it will pose. The next Strategic Agenda will need to support those who will be vulnerable to these changes.
We are clear in our statement that the EU has an even more important role to play today in fostering stability. We need to ensure effective coherence between the EU’s internal policies and its external action, including on development cooperation.
Recognising our shared neighbourhood interests and challenges, we must facilitate more effective political dialogue between the European Union and Africa. We must also ensure that next Strategic Agenda recognises sustainable development as a fundamental principal.
Climate change is an issue that extends beyond the borders of member states and beyond the border of the EU. It can only be tackled through shared responsibility and action. Member states need to invest in a Union that is a global leader in finding climate-smart solutions. This will pose challenges for all of us, not least Ireland. Time is running out.
Finally, we believe that the EU must be socially responsible. Delivering on the European Pillar of Social Rights and the SDGs can sustain and protect the Union’s legacy for the next generation. In spite of the current challenges that we face, we need to maintain a long-term vision.
The contributions that we have brought forward through our National Statement are inspired by the voices of our citizens and their common calls for fairness. We look to the next Strategic Agenda as a chance to enact the vision that was put forward to us by our citizens and we want to ensure that all member states will be able to do the same for their citizens.
However, it is not to Governments alone to carry these messages forward. Individually, we can all make a contribution to the shaping the future of the EU. Most obviously, we have the opportunity to make our voices heard through our votes in the European parliamentary elections, and I encourage you all to do so.
Perhaps more pertinently, standing here today, I am inspired to see so many Irish people who are working at the heart of the EU. In this room, there is a clear appreciation of the importance of this remarkable project. Please do not underestimate the importance of your own contribution to the European vision through your own work.
We can all contribute to the shaping the EU. We must ensure that it remains true to its values and that it remains agile and strong enough to respond to the challenges of our time and future challenges to come.
These interesting times may continue, but I am certain that Ireland and the EU will emerge from them better and stronger than before.