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Speech by An Taoiseach Leo Varadkar T.D. Brookings Institute, Washington D.C.

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Thank you very much and good afternoon, everyone.

Distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen, first of all, I wanted to thank Strobe for the very kind introduction; for Tom, who I met earlier and who’s going to ask me a few questions later on. And I want to say what a privilege and honour it is to speak at the Brookings Institution today about Ireland’s approach to foreign policy and how we see our role in European and global affairs in the years to come.

To set the scene I’d like to set some reflections about Ireland’s role in the world. I think when you come from a small island like Ireland, perhaps more so than if you come from a big country or continental country such as this, you always tend to have an outward outlook because you kind of have to. You know that you’re a small country. You’re always aware of the world around you. And you always know your neighbours even if you don’t necessarily always get on with them.

And so it is for Ireland. We’re a country that trades, that travels, that engages with the world, and for us, it is second nature. There is no alternative policy.

We are, of course, first and foremost, a European country. And even though our nearest neighbour, the United Kingdom, has decided to leave the European Union, we will not. We are founder members of the Single Market; founder members of the single currency, the euro; and most recently, founder members of PESCO, the European Union’s new enhanced cooperation in defence and security. So as a country, we will always be at the heart of Europe, at the heart of the common European home, which we helped to build.

We also see ourselves as a global country, not so much an island behind an island at the edge of a continent, but rather an island at the centre of the world. And we have especially strong links with parts of the world to which our people have migrated down the centuries, including to the United States.We firmly believe in free trade and free enterprise as the means by which every country can become more prosperous in the round. We compete hard and fair for investment jobs and market share, and we’re committed internationalists and multilateralists, believing that countries achieve much more working together and that a rules-based order protects all of us. Our foreign policy is rooted in values and we aim to make a distinctive and principled contribution to the world through our commitment to international development, through peacekeeping with the United Nations, among other things.

As you know, we live in a rapidly changing world. The global order that was created after the fall of the Berlin Wall now seems less certain than has been for many decades. We face numerous challenges. For us, of course, the first of these is Brexit and the decision of our nearest neighbour to leave the European Union. There’s also increased regional instability, fuelled by geopolitical tensions and conflicts, the kind of tensions and conflicts that have brought about a migration crisis in Europe, which has given rise to an increase in populism and nationalism.

There are, of course, changing approaches to international trade, which is very much the topic of the day here in Washington. And, of course, there are the enormous challenges of governments counteracting the rise of international terrorism in all its manifestations, including cyberterrorism and even extraterritorial assassinations. And while it may be obvious and evident to all of us, it is perhaps too often denied: the fundamental shift that is going on in our world politics as economic and military power slowly shifts away from Europe and America south and east.

In our long history as a country we’ve experienced famine, oppression, occupation, sectarian conflicts, economic crisis, and mass emigration. And I think because of our experience we as a country have something distinctive to say about international cooperation and multilateralism, particularly as the multilateral system comes under increasing challenge. For us, the United Nations and its member organisations have been at the cornerstone of Ireland’s global engagement since we joined in 1955. The principles and values that are enshrined in the U.N. Charter are those we’ve always tried to live up to, to promote and protect. And we strongly support the multilateral system of collective security represented by the United Nations and the primary role of the Security Council in the maintenance of international peace and security.

We believe that the world needs an effective multilateral system because history shows us that the alternatives, whether it’s transactional diplomacy or protectionism and confrontation, pull everyone down in the end. It’s a lose-lose scenario rather than win-win.

And to the extent that we can as a small country, we want to play a leadership role in the world. As part of that we’re seeking a seat on the U.N. Security Council for the 2021-2022 term to bring the voice, experience, and commitment of a small country to the top table.

We have a long tradition of support for the United Nations on international peace and security issues, in particular. And this year marks the 60th anniversary of unbroken Irish involvement in U.N. peacekeeping missions around the world. We currently provide peacekeeping troops to six U.N. missions in the Middle East, North Africa, and Cyprus, most particularly in Lebanon, Golan Heights, and Mali. And one of our signature foreign policies has been promoting disarmament and non-proliferation. We played a lead role in negotiating the Sustainable Development Goals and are helping to bring the issues of gender and disarmament to the fore in international affairs.

We strongly support the U.N. and want it to be effective. And therefore, we recognise the need to ensure it remains a strong in the face of new and evolving challenges. And in that vein, we very much support the Secretary General and his attempts to reform the U.N. system.

Our approach to issues such as conflict and peace-building is, of course, heavily informed by our own experience of sectarian conflict and violence in our own country. Next month, as you may know, marks the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, an agreement which ended decades of deadly conflict in Northern Ireland, secured lasting peace for our people, and transformed political relationships which had been stunted for generations.

Both the United States and Europe played crucial roles in helping the Irish and British Governments to find a durable solution to what once seemed to be an intractable, frozen conflict. And as with any peace, reaching an agreement is far from the end of the journey. The path to reconciliation and stable politics can be a long and winding one, and sometimes can be a bumpy ride.

As many of you would be aware, continuing differences between the political parties representing the two communities in Northern Ireland mean that there hasn’t been a power sharing executive and cross-community assembly, and functioning North-South bodies for over a year now. The absence of these, I believe, is corrosive and damaging. It means there’s no effective political engagement on issues of relevance to the lives of people in Northern Ireland, economically and socially, and it undermines the operation of the other institutions under the agreement.

Just as important, it means that the direct voice of the people of Northern Ireland is not heard in the negotiations on the terms under which the United Kingdom will leave the European Union, even though these will be of great consequence to people in Northern Ireland and in the border counties in particular. We shouldn’t forget that the majority of people in Northern Ireland voted to stay in the European Union. And even now the majority wants to stay in the European Union Single Market and Customs Union. And for me, I think that makes Brexit a real threat to the Good Friday Agreement because it threatens to drive a wedge between Britain and Ireland, between Northern Ireland and Ireland, and between the two communities of Northern Ireland.

So it’s our duty to work closely with the British government and the Northern Ireland parties to find an agreed basis for the restoration of the institutions. And given the wider circumstances, the task could not be more urgent.

In this we, of course, deeply appreciate the ongoing support and engagement of our friends and supporters here in the United States. While we deeply regret the decision of the United Kingdom to leave the EU, as we see it there are few upsides to it. Nonetheless, we must respect that decision.

After decades of moving closer to its European partners, the UK has taken a decision to move farther away from us and that’s why we must defend our national interests. We must insist that there’s no return to a hard border on our island; that the common travel area and all that goes with it is protected; and that the rights and freedoms of Irish citizens in Northern Ireland are defended and advanced because Irish citizens in Northern Ireland are European citizens, as well, and will remain so after Brexit. And, in fact, anyone in Northern Ireland, whether Catholic or Protestant, unionist or nationalist, or none of the above, will retain the right to Irish and, therefore, European citizenship even after the UK leaves the European Union, putting us in a truly unique situation.

Over the past 20 years, the peace process and our common membership of the European Union has made it possible to render the border on our island all but invisible. The economic benefits of this invisible border have been hugely significant in terms of north-south trade and the all-island economy; and also, and perhaps most importantly, in normalising the wider social and political relations across the island. And we’re determined to ensure that these hard-won advances are not reversed in the coming years.

More widely, Brexit poses a serious challenge for Ireland. And given the strength of our ties and engagement with the UK, we will suffer more negative economic impacts than any other EU member state, perhaps even more so than the United Kingdom itself. Our relationship with the United Kingdom is unique in terms of our shared history, geography, and culture. And while it represents an ever-decreasing share, the UK remains our single most important economic partner.

So it should come as no surprise that Ireland wants there to be a deep and comprehensive future relationship between the European Union and the UK, one that maximizes economic engagement and trade, one that ensures ongoing and continuing cooperation in areas such as combating terrorism and international crime, and also common foreign and security policies. Of course, the extent and possibility of this new deep and comprehensive relationship is limited only by the United Kingdom’s own red lines.

Both the Government and people of Ireland are strongly committed to the European Union. In recent polls over 80 percent of Irish people say they support ongoing EU membership. As a small country, we know that our interest and values are best advanced and protected through a union of 500 million people rather than standing on our own.

We also really value the relationship we have with the United States, one that’s based on shared values of democracy and the rule of law, respect for freedoms, and the dignity of all. For years this relationship has helped provide a bridge between the European Union and the United States. In recent years, though, I fear there’s a danger that the European Union and the United States may drift apart. There are growing divisions and growing differences in policy and attitude when it comes to trade and tax and climate change and security, among many other areas.

Such a development, in my view, would not be in the interests of people on either side of the Atlantic. And Ireland can and is willing to act as a bridge between the United States and the EU, to interpret one to the other, and help ensure that positive and constructive relations are maintained and developed. And I think our role in the European Union as a potential bridge between the United States and the EU becomes all the more important when the UK is no longer sitting around the table.

Our relationship with the United States is grounded in strong bilateral economic ties. Both Ireland and the United States are two of the fastest growing economies in the transatlantic economy at present with robust, integrated, and deep economic relationships. Every week €2 billion in goods and services is traded in both directions across the Atlantic. And while the story of U.S. investment in Ireland as a gateway to the EU Single Market is well known, it is less well appreciated the extent to which investment, trade, and jobs flow in both directions.

For example, Irish companies employ over 100,000 Americans across 50 states, with their enterprises present in every one of those. And we are among the top 10 investors in the United States. So jobs, trade, investment, tourism go in both directions, and we’d like to see more, not less of all of that. So alongside our EU partners we oppose any steps that would raise barriers to trade, whether through the imposition of tariffs or otherwise, such as restrictions on investment.

We all know that our world is getting smaller. And sometimes the world becoming smaller can actually seem to magnify problems, but I think that’s more a question of perspective rather than scale. This institution does a valuable job in providing some of that perspective.

In Dublin last month, Homi Kharas told us that eliminating extreme poverty was now possible and could cost less than Ireland’s GDP. He reminded us of some of the great strides that have been made, particularly in Asia, in reducing poverty, a place where capitalism has lifted a billion people out of poverty already. However, he also identified some severely off-track countries, notably in Sub-Saharan Africa where urgent action is needed if progress towards eliminating extreme poverty and providing opportunity is to continue.

Seventy years ago, the Brookings Institution helped to make the dream of the Marshall Plan a reality by making recommendations to the Senate to enable its implementation. And today, I believe we need a similar vision for the continent of Africa, an EU Marshall Plan for Africa perhaps or maybe a Marshall Plan for Africa partnered by both the EU and the United States.

As a country we’re committed to playing our part in making the world’s problems more manageable. There are humanitarian tragedies across the world, in the Sahel, in the Horn of Africa, and, of course, in Syria and Yemen, where politics has failed in a spectacular and tragic way.

As a country we want to build on our reputation for quality development cooperation, to do more and to do it better. Back in 2014, the Brookings Institution rated Irish Aid, Ireland’s international development agency, as the outstanding development aid programme among 31 donors, and we intend to continue in that vein, increasing our international development budget in the years to come. We will need to work with our partners, including governments in Africa, civil society, the European Union, and the multilateral system, in particular the United Nations. And we’ll also need to work in new and innovative ways, listening carefully to our partners and their needs, and working with their strengths.

For the title of his recent book, Tom used a quote from one of the greatest American presidents, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, that came from a speech he made in 1939. And in that same speech FDR argued, and I quote, “In meeting the troubles of the world, we must meet them as one people.” And I believe that the major challenges that we face today, whether in Ireland, the United States, or across the world, will best be dealt with by acting together and not in isolation; confident, despite the doubts of the day; certain that our united strength is a solution to global instability. This is where Ireland stands today in terms of foreign policy.

I look forward to your questions. Thank you very much.