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Speech by An Tánaiste Leo Varadkar TD - Two Islands - 'One Future, Ireland, the UK and the EU'

Good morning from Government Buildings in Dublin.


Noelle, thank you for the introduction and for the invitation to speak today

at the first of this three-part series on Ireland, UK and EU relations post-Brexit. 


Hello to everyone tuning in. 


Many of you will be aware that my party, Fine Gael, is linked with the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung. Our think tank, the Collins Institute, and KAS, are part of the Martens Centre network.


And, we will be helping to shape the discussion on the future of Europe in the months ahead as part of the Conference on the Future of Europe.


The Irish people have always been and remain pro-European.

But it’s not a relationship that has always been plain-sailing;


  1. The Positives –

Brexit solidarity, being huge beneficiaries of the Single Market and structural funds, being founder member of the euro (price stability, low interest rates)


  1. Less Positive

The EU/IMF/ECB Troika experience, Referendum defeats linked to concerns about the diminution of our sovereignty and military neutrality

Also, it is a changing one –

We are now a net contributor and that will inevitably change how we look at things

Also any shift towards protectionism or competence creep will concern us

And of course, the impact of Brexit is profound and will forever change the web of relationships across these islands and Europe.


We are deeply grateful for the solidarity of our EU neighbours including Germany and Chancellor Merkel throughout the Brexit negotiating period.


It highlighted, in the best way possible, how sharing our national sovereignty makes us stronger in our engagement with third countries. It also demonstrates that in the EU, the interests of small countries do matter. The big countries don’t make all the decisions alone.


The idea of shared sovereignty was one of the big attractions for Ireland in joining the EU, providing a means for us to break free of our historic dependence on the UK. We could be part of something bigger, while remaining an independent state. I think for many in Britain it was the reverse, pulling away from the old Empire and Commonwealth to join something smaller and less familiar.


But as we all know, in practice, Ireland allied itself with the UK on most of the everyday issues.


As a free-trade, pro-enterprise and pro-competition champion, we tended to adopt similar positions and similar opt-outs to the UK. The UK, like Ireland, looks west to America and is Atlanticist as well as to Europe. The EU without the UK is a different place and is weaker and poorer without Britain as a member.


Ireland is now actively seeking to build new alliances to fill that gap and to advance our interests. As Taoiseach, on occasion, I was invited to the Nordic-Baltic Group meetings and we have much in common with the Benelux countries and places further afield – like Cyprus and Malta.


I now meet with a group of like-minded Trade Ministers to discuss how to position ourselves on major trade issues. This includes Germany.


We are currently reviewing the EU’s Trade Policy and I am making the case for free trade, a multilateral, rules-based order and the need to link trade to sustainability and social standards. I am doing all I can to resist covert protectionism whether it comes from member states or the Commission.


I am also highlighting the importance of rebuilding the Transatlantic Relationship – the biggest and most economically significant partnership in the world. I believe Ireland can act as a bridge between the EU and America, especially under the Biden Administration.


The Atlantic Alliance is the keystone of global security and prosperity and I want it to be restored.


But the priorities I’ve outlined are also priorities for the UK.


It would be foolish to see the UK as a competitor and to discount its role as an ally.

Prime Minister Johnson outlined his ambition for a “Global Britain” in the ‘Integrated Review’ he published last month. Our own Global Ireland Programme, which I launched in 2018, shares much of that ambition.


To quote the Political Declaration on the Future of the EU-UK Relationship:


“The Union and United Kingdom are determined to work together to safeguard the rules based international order, the rule of law and promotion of democracy, and high standards of free and fair trade and workers' rights, consumer and environmental protection, and cooperation against internal and external threats to their values and interests.”


We have a responsibility to fulfil that joint ambition – to repair our relationships – to achieve our common interests and values in the world.


I always want to approach any discussion about the EU with a positive attitude – to talk more about what we want to achieve rather than what we want to block or resist.


The policy challenges we face are increasingly global. They cannot be met by nation states acting alone.


Our response to the pandemic is a case in point. And the other major issues of our time –

  1. such as climate change,
  2. migration,
  3. international terrorism and
  4. the regulation of major companies

these can only be dealt with as Europe united.


Ideally, we would partner with the UK on as many of these global issues as possible. I’m not naïve to think things can carry on just as they used to, but politically it makes sense to have a common approach on as many of these issues as possible.


Ireland and the UK will always share common geography, culture and values. The UK is our closest neighbour where many of our friends and family live and where many of us will go to work and study.


Yes, the relationship is strained, but it can be repaired.


The Good Friday Agreement, signed 23 years ago last weekend, had the foresight to provide mechanisms to strengthen the relationship between our islands.


It is not just about cross community power sharing in Northern Ireland.


Under Strand Two, the North South Ministerial Council and North/South bodies ensure closer co-operation and joint action between North and South.


Under Strand Three, the British-Irish Council covers matters of mutual interest, bringing together representatives from 8 jurisdictions, including Guernsey, the Isle of Man and Jersey.


The BIIGC provides a formal structure for enhanced relations between the two sovereign governments.


And we are exploring other ideas to enhance UK-Irish dialogue, such as the Nordic Council model which the Taoiseach has spoken about.


Whatever form it takes, we are agreed that there needs to be more engagement between the UK and Irish Governments.


We just hope the British Government feels the same way.

We appreciate that while we see Britain as our larger and nearest neighbour and our biggest market, that is not true in reverse.


This engagement happened, as a matter of course, at the fringes of EU Council meetings in Brussels and Luxembourg and in the daily interactions of officials in the corridors of the EU institutions.


We need to fill that gap.


Brexit, as a policy, was always going to be disruptive. And it was always going to have a disproportionate impact on the island of Ireland. But what we have seen on the streets of Northern Ireland in recent weeks is really concerning.

What politicians say matters. And so I will keep my words brief and to the point and careful.


We understand the genuinely held concerns of people in the protestant, loyalist and unionist community who fear divergence from the rest of the UK. We never wanted any trade barriers North/South, between Northern Ireland and Great Britain or between Great Britain and the Republic of Ireland.


That’s why we were against Brexit. It’s why we advocated the UK staying in the Single Market and/or Customs Union. It’s why when that was not possible we negotiated a Single Customs Territory or “the backstop”. The rejection of these gave rise to the Protocol.


Now, we just want to make it work.

And so the Irish Government will continue to advocate for flexibility, common sense and generosity in terms of solutions. Any disruption to trade, human movement or animal movement between Northern Ireland and Great Britain should be minimised.


But we cannot support anything that would undermine the integrity of the single market. And no change can be made to EU/UK treaty unilaterally. It can only be by agreement in Brussels, London and Dublin and ideally Belfast.


Unilateral action won’t work so we need agreed solutions.

I believe the way forward is through dialogue – through the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement and the EU-UK Joint Committee and Specialised Committees under the agreed framework.

The Protocol was hard-won – it is carefully constructed – designed to ensure that the disruption for Northern Ireland is the least it could be – and preserves the delicate balance that the Good Friday Agreement established.


It provides Northern Ireland companies with unfettered access to both the EU Single Market and UK Internal Market. As Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, I would like to see politicians and stakeholders in Northern Ireland exploiting that unique advantage.


The Irish Government does not want to see disruption to the Northern Ireland Economy or to the flow of goods between it and Great Britain.


But we also shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that the Protocol is not just about trade – it’s about protecting the rights of citizens in Northern Ireland. And it’s also up to the Northern Ireland Assembly to decide, whether it wants to disapply it and no majority of any form exists, at present, for that.


I don’t think that the next assembly elections will change that reality but of course that remains to be seen.


Before I finish up, I just want to thank European Movement Ireland and KAS again for organising this series.


I think it’s timely as we begin a new chapter for Europe and consider our collective future as part of the Conference on the Future of Europe.


Ireland favours a policy-focussed, citizen-first approach to the Conference. In a time like this, our citizens want to see us respond to the issues they care about – rather than a focus on institutional issues and mechanisms. While we do not seek Treaty change, we do not, of course, rule it out.


We are currently preparing an inclusive programme of events that will ensure a broad representative range of perspectives are canvassed.

Like today’s event, we want to facilitate as much discussion and interaction as possible. Less of me and more of you!

Thanks again for the opportunity to speak and I look forward to your comments and questions.




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