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Response by An Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, to the President of the European Commission Joint Sitting of the Houses of the Oireachtas Thursday 21 June 2018

 

A Cheann Chomhairle, a Chaithaoirligh,

President Juncker, distinguished members.

It is an honour to lead the responses at this joint sitting for President Juncker’s speech. Let me begin by thanking the Commission President for his fine contribution.

Four years ago, President Juncker was chosen as the European Peoples’ Party candidate for the Commission presidency here in Dublin.

And, since taking office in November 2014, President Juncker has repaid in full the trust placed in him by that year’s EPP Congress.

The three values he highlighted at the start of his tenure:
· experienced and efficient leadership;
· solidarity among people and nations; and
· a strong vision for the future;
have come to epitomise the Juncker Commission.

Having served as President of the Eurogroup from 2005 to 2013, he played a central role in leading Europe safely out of the financial crisis. His careful stewardship of the post-crisis period is reflected in the favourable economic climate across Europe today: rates of economic growth at a ten-year high; unemployment at a ten-year low; low interest rates and low inflation.

The European economy has so far created over 8 million new jobs during the President’s mandate.

We have the highest levels of employment ever recorded in the EU. Today, there are almost 238 million men and women in employment in the EU28, including over 157 million in the euro area.

Investment has returned, debt burdens are easing, and public finances are back close to balance. 2018 looks set to be the first year since the beginning of Economic and Monetary Union in which all Member States will manage budget deficits of less than 3% of GDP.

When Luxembourg held the Presidency of the Council in 2005, President Juncker designed the reformed Stability and Growth Pact. Although it has taken a little longer than he expected, the arrival of balanced budgets, it is still an important milestone.
If the European ideal is to be meaningful, it must be about improving the lives of our citizens. As Prime Minister, re-elected many times, President Juncker understood this from the beginning, and last October’s agreement on the European Pillar of Social Rights will surely rank among his finest achievements.

President Juncker has created a political compass that will help guide our collective actions in the years ahead. At both national and EU levels, the Pillar will help us chart the best course in dealing with 21st century globalisation. Best of all, it will enable all our citizens to participate effectively in a world of accelerated change.

We share a vision of how to support vibrant rural communities, the beating heart of so many countries. EU agricultural and rural development policies keep that lifeblood flowing.

So it is with particular pleasure that I acknowledge the distinguished role played by our own Commissioner, Phil Hogan, in keeping this portfolio firmly at the top of the EU’s political agenda. And that includes preparing for the post-2020 European budget.

Not that long ago, some people including some in this house claimed that European politicians were damaging our economy and delaying our recovery. Events since then have provided the strongest rebuttal. It has become clear that the EU is the strongest bulwark we have for an open, rules-based multilateral order. So it has never been more important that we stand strongly together.

Seventy years ago, the European ideal was created out of the fires of a continent that had been ravaged and destroyed by hatred and conflict.

It was built on a dream for a future that few believed was possible.

A vision of a better Europe, it succeeded in bringing peace and prosperity to a continent. By creating the circumstances for economic growth and opportunities, it also secured personal and political freedoms.

So providing the framework for Ireland to develop economically, socially, culturally, and politically.
Over that period within the EU member states, every generation faced its own challenges, and each generation overcame them.

This generation faces many challenges, not least the challenge of Brexit, which is starting to resemble a proverbial ‘riddle, wrapped in an enigma’.

History will record the important role President Juncker has played at a very difficult time.

In recent years we have had many upheavals such as the rise of populism and euroscepticism, nationalism and anti-democratic forces. Our Union has retained its solidarity, supported by a renewed sense of purpose.

The EU is a union of laws and treaties, which can occasionally make it seem difficult to navigate.

But it is at its purest and simplest when upholding our shared values:
· respect for human dignity;
· personal and economic freedom;
· democracy;
· equality before the law;
· the rule of law and human rights;
· commitment to peace and multilateralism; and
· free trade and free markets, as the best way to secure greater living standards for all.

In Ireland we believe that these values are fundamental and irreducible and must always be defended.

They cannot be taken for granted.

They must be defended.

The vision that delivered peace in Europe opened the door to peace in Ireland. Removing borders, bringing people together and integrating economies.

For us, Europe enabled our transformation from being a country on the periphery of the continent, to an island at the centre of the world, at the heart of the common European home that we helped to build.

The greatest challenge we face on this island is to unwrap the enigma, and solve the riddle of Brexit. It’s as tricky as it sounds, so we are grateful for the diligence and understanding shown by the Commission’s lead negotiator, Michel Barnier, in his conduct of these very difficult negotiations for the EU.

Mr Barnier, you are very welcome back to this House once again, and on behalf of the people of Ireland, thank you.

We all recognise that Brexit poses unique and particular challenges for Ireland.

We want to ensure that the future relationship between the EU and the UK is as close, comprehensive and ambitious as possible. That is in our interests, and the interests of the EU as a whole.

So we want to move into the detailed negotiations about that relationship as soon as possible.

However, the backstop for the Irish border, agreed in December, must be legally operative in the withdrawal agreement, to apply ‘unless and until’ an alternative solution is agreed.

The Good Friday Agreement was made possible by shared membership of the European Union and the single market. It removed borders and differences between us.

The removal of that foundation leaves us no less determined to protect the Good Friday Agreement, in all its parts, and in all that flows from it.

We are so deeply grateful for the remarkable solidarity and support we have received from the EU Institutions and fellow Member States, none more so than from President Juncker.

There has been consistent recognition of the unique position of Northern Ireland, and the unique situation in which it has been put by the decision of the UK to leave the EU.

There is no stronger evidence of how small countries benefit so much from EU membership and how membership matters.

In the 19th century, the great Luxembourg poet, Michel Rodange, used the character of Renert the fox to satirise those who thought only of themselves and exploited those around them.

It is a useful way of thinking about these challenges. In the 21st century we must reject the cynicism of self-interest, and approach the most pressing issues of our time in a spirit of mutual interest, trust and affection. The EU can lead through its example.

The moral and political compass of President Juncker has helped to provide direction for Europe, creating more opportunities for our citizens and a better future for all.

So let me extend my special thanks again today to Commission President Juncker, a longstanding friend of Ireland.

Tá áthas orm a bheith in ann mórbhuíochas a ghabháil le hUachtarán an Choimisiúin Juncker, buanchara d'Éire le fada.

Chuir treoir mhóralta agus pholaitiúil Uachtarán Juncker go mór le maoirseacht láidir na hEorpa, rud a chruthaigh níos mó bhreiseanna d'ár saoránaigh agus todhchaí níos gile do chách.

Your proven commitment to the European ideal will always find a home here, and our friendship will be steadfast as we work together towards a better Europe.