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Speech of An Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar T.D., Hist 250 - Moving Beyond Brexit, Trinity College Dublin, Wednesday, 4 March 2020.


 Check Against Delivery



Chairman, members of the College Historical Society, ladies and gentlemen.


It’s an honour to return to the College Historical Society as a former member and as a serving Taoiseach and to join such a distinguished line-up.


I think it is a reflection of the international prestige of the Society that this afternoon we will hear from a former President of the European Council, two former Presidents of the European Commission, and a Secretary General of the European Commission.  With the meeting chaired by her predecessor, who is also a former EU ambassador to the United States and, more importantly, a former Auditor of this Society.


My own time in the Society was less illustrious. An active member as freshman  I missed out on election to the Committee by a fraction of a vote, and instead channelled my energies into Fine Gael.  I fear things went downhill from there!


I learned a lot from my time in the Society.  I learned how to construct an argument, I learned how to think on my feet and, most importantly, I learned about the value of listening to opposing points of view and taking them onboard. I learned how the skill of debating - making a case in favour of an argument you don’t actually agree with - can help you understand an issue much better.


I found myself being challenged every week by new ideas and new ways of seeing the world.  I was encouraged to think differently about my own beliefs, and it provided an intellectual framework as I began my career as an aspiring politician who wanted a career in public service.  



Today, we meet in the theatre named after the statesman whose earlier club inspired the founding of the Hist 250 years ago.  Burke provided the inspiration and the driving spirit in those early days.  And we meet on the anniversary of the birth of someone else who features prominently in that early history – Robert Emmet. 


Both had different visions about Ireland’s role in the world.  For Burke, it was as an equal part of a larger political system, for Emmet it was for Ireland to take her place as an independent republic among the nations of the world.  


So many members of the Society over the two hundred and fifty years have made that dying request a reality.  


Over the years, the Hist has been called many things – some of them not quotable!  It has been called a school of oratory - a sphere of ideas - a place where creative minds have been challenged and inspired.  In doing so, it has performed a vital function in the service of democracy and society, and its legacy has been international as well as national.


Every new generation challenges what has gone before and demands new ideas and new thinking.   


This is particularly needed today when we think about the future of Europe.  


The ideals of a united Europe – freedom - economic and individual, peace, prosperity, democracy, free trade, the rule of law, equality, the social market economy, free movement - helped bring peace, reconciliation, jobs and wealth to Europe.  More recently they helped to build peace in Ireland, protect our reconciliation, and defend our prosperity.


We believe in the principles of the European Union, because we know first-hand the value of European unity.  


So, it is right that the theme of this afternoon’s event is moving beyond Brexit, because we must not let Brexit define us or define Europe.   



Yes, it is defining the UK, and probably will for a generation or more.


But we are in control of our destiny, and we must decide how we want to shape it.


I believe there are lessons we in Europe can learn from recent events.


First, the learning from Brexit should be that working together, as we did in the past, we can solve the most intractable of problems. We can manage the further enlargement of the Union, migration, the negotiation of a new EU budget and the challenges and opportunities of climate action.  


Second, the past three years have shown that the EU is a union of nations, as well as of peoples.  One in which small states are protected and respected.  


We have seen how much we can achieve when member states, all 27, think together, work together and have common objectives.  When Europe acts as one, it is a truly powerful force for good in the world.  United we stand but divided we fall.  


This is something we can and should take forward into future negotiations on other issues and in our relations with the United States, China, Russia and our neighbours in the middle-east and Africa.


Third, we need to become better at telling the story of the strength of European unity and how it benefits us all.  How it will help us face transnational issues where we need to think and act together.


This will also help us face down the spectre of populism. We need to be better at presenting and defending what we do, otherwise our narrative is shaped by others. So we have to become better at presenting the real news.


My vision for the future of Europe is of a Union built on values.


This means a free trade policy that champions growth, while protecting the vulnerable. Strengthening the eurozone and deeper fiscal co-operation. Ensuring the European economies are competitive in an increasingly multi-poler world.


This means completing the Single Market in all its aspects, including in services.  


It means future enlargement in to the Western Balkans so they to can have a European perspective and a European role.


This means Europe becoming a leader in the digital economy, so we can meet the social and economic challenges posed by digital transformation.


Enhancing European citizenship and social Europe with common minimum and rising standards when it comes to workers rights, environmental protection, social protection, health and safety.


This means taking a lead role on climate action and on sustainability, encouraging others to scale up their short- and long-term ambition under the Paris Agreement. Becoming the early adopter and inventors of new green technologies.


The momentum is there and we need to keep driving it forward.


On shared security issues, such as terrorism, I believe we need to work more effectively together to build peace and security, within Europe on our border and in our neighbourhood.  We also need to better protect our societies from malicious cyber activities, hybrid threats and dis-information.


Of course, to achieve this more perfect Union, we need a new budget equal to the task.


Agreement on the Multi-annual Financial Framework, the EU’s 7 year budget is the next step. This is proving difficult and will require further dialogue across Europe. At almost every EU summit, we call for more action and deeper co-operation on one issue or another. This is not sincere if we do not allow ourselves the budget adequate to do this.



The Union needs a budget that continues to fund well successful programmes like CAP and Cohesion –reformed and refocussed on the challenges of the future, including climate action and biodiversity.


The same goes for ERASMUS, Horizon and Interreg.


I am also keen to secure a €1 billion Peace Plus programme for Northern Ireland and the border counties.


The world is not divided between dreamers and realists.  It is driven forward by dreamers and realists who believe in creating a better future.


The greatest strength of the Hist is that it brings together dreamers and realists – students as well as invited guests - so together let us imagine the future of Europe.  


Thirty years ago Nelson Mandela was released, Germany was reunified following the collapse of communism, and the worldwide web was invented.


We saw that no one could set the boundary on freedom or programme democracy and say thus far and no further.  In the next thirty years we need to continue that march.


Europe has the potential to be a force for greatness in the years ahead, but only if we convince people that we are accountable, that we are stronger together, and that our strength comes from being united in our actions and values.


The post-war generation of my parents knew instinctively that a united Europe could bring an end to war on our continent and set us on the path to peace, democracy, the rule of law and prosperity after the horrors of the two World Wars.


My generation saw how a united Europe could defeat communism, bring down the Iron Curtain, and bring democracy and freedom and economic opportunity to millions in central and eastern Europe.  



For young people today, the horrors of world war and the evils of fascism and communism are not in their memory.  For them, Europe needs a new project, a new raison d'être.  I believe dealing with challenges that can only be overcome through collective, multilateral action must be that raison d'être, with climate action first among them. Others include security, migration and the regulation of large corporations and markets many of which dwarf nation states and making sure that European values are sustained and protected as global economic, military and political power shifts south and eastwards.


The European Union, with Ireland playing its part, succeeded in bringing peace and prosperity to a continent.  It created the circumstances for economic growth and opportunities.   It also brought freedom to all our people – individual, economic, political.  


So let us drive on to the next stage of an ever more united, inclusive and prosperous Union. A better Union.


Thank you.