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Speech by An Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar T.D., Martens Lecture on The Future of Europe, 26 April 2018


Good evening. It is a pleasure to be here today in the beautiful city of Leuven, and particularly in the gracious surroundings of this University, one of the oldest in Europe, with a long tradition of intellectual thought and outstanding education.

This is the university where Erasmus taught, the intellectual and philosopher who we remember today through the student exchange programme that bears his name.

Our links with Leuven go back many centuries, and it has long been a seat of learning for Irish people. In the late-eighteenth century, the great Irish Liberator, Daniel O’Connell, was educated for a time in this city. And today many young Irish people enjoy studying here at the heart of Europe.
I would like to thank Professor Van Hecke, in his capacity as Chairman of the Wilfried Martens Fund, and his colleagues, for initiating the series of lectures on the future of Europe. And, I am honoured to have been asked to deliver the fourth in the series.

The future of Europe is a hugely important theme, one that is exercising the minds of a great many people across the EU, and one on which I am delighted to have the opportunity to offer my thoughts.

It is also a great honour for me to speak at this event named after Wilfried Martens, a giant of post war European leadership and a founder of the European People’s Party. Wilfried Martens believed passionately in the European project as a force for good.

And, fourteen years ago, he pinpointed the reason why we should be optimistic about the future of Europe. That is our young people across the EU.

As he said, ‘Young people today are more European and think European. They are our greatest resource to overcome scepticism, because they appreciate that you can now study anywhere, invest anywhere, work anywhere, and enjoy protection anywhere.’ Young people benefit most from European citizenship, and they know it.

I was twenty-five when Martens said those words. Starting out on my own political career. They resonated with me because I saw in Europe a way of ensuring that Ireland developed economically, socially, culturally, and politically. It offered an opportunity for my country to finally achieve its destiny.

So, since my student days, I have been a strong supporter of the European Union and European integration.

The EU is a union of laws and treaties and this can make it seem complex, bureaucratic and even impenetrable, on occasion.

But, when it comes to values, it is at its purest and simplest. It stands for and demands respect for human dignity, personal and economic freedom, democracy, equality before the law, the rule of law and human rights. These are the shared values that underpin our Union alongside a commitment to peace and multilateralism.

As the Treaties say, these values are ‘common to the Member States in a society in which pluralism, non-discrimination, tolerance, justice, solidarity and equality between women and men prevail’.

These values are fundamental and irreducible and must always be defended. They cannot be taken for granted.

As you know, Bulgaria currently holds the Presidency of the Union. So, it is perhaps a good time to quote Ivan Krastev. In his recent book: ‘After Europe’, he observed that: ‘Tolerance and civility were long the defining characteristics of the European Union’ but that ‘today they are often perceived as the EU’s core vulnerabilities.’

In one sense he is right. There are those who seek to portray the EU as weak because it is tolerant. I believe it’s what makes us strong.

For a long time, the scars of war and division in Europe – the personal knowledge of what Europeans were capable of doing to each - other the cataclysmic consequences – made people wise to and wary of the dangers of populism, nationalism and anti-politics.

Decades and generations later, with the passage of time, that’s less certain. We no longer live in an age when we can take this for granted.

Of course it is essential that each generation questions and tests what has gone before – that is where innovation and progress come from.

History shows us that Europe has nothing to gain and much to lose from division and discord.

That is the inescapable truth.

Those who try to entice Europeans down the pathway of populism and nationalism offer a dark and desperate future, and they know it.

I am utterly and unshakably convinced that the European Union offers something else.

It provides the light to their darkness.

Antidote to their poison.

As my colleague, President Emmanuel Macron, said in the European Parliament last week, ‘dans ce monde, et ce moment difficile, la démocratie européenne, je le crois très profondément, est notre meilleure chance’. President Macron is correct: ‘in this world, and in these difficult times ... European democracy is our best chance.’

It is an expression of our hopes for the future.

No matter what happens anywhere else, Ireland is, and will stay a fully committed Member of the European Union.

It is our home – one we have built together – and it is where we will stay.

While we didn’t need to be convinced, there could be no better example of the advantages of EU membership for a small country than the unequivocal support we have received from our EU partners in the negotiations on Brexit.

Alone, Ireland is small. Together with our partners, we are strong.

For us, Europe has unlocked our potential in ways we could not have previously imagined, removing borders, bringing people together, and integrating economies.

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

The values of solidarity, partnership and cooperation, which are central to the European project, have helped to transform Ireland from one of the least developed Member States when we joined, to one of the most prosperous today.

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 threat on our doorstep today is Brexit.

In speaking of the future of the European Union, I am conscious that it will be a different – and in some ways a lesser – place without the United Kingdom.

I deeply regret the decision of the British people to leave the European Union, while respecting their right to do so.

And I deeply regret that the British government has decided to go further still by leaving the single market which, in many ways, was a British invention and removing for young people in Britain their birth right to live, study, work and trade freely across the continent.

There is no doubt that Brexit poses serious challenges for the EU. And it poses particular and unique challenges for my country.

No other Member State is as closely entwined with the UK as Ireland. We are the only Member State to share a land border with the UK.

We are bound together by geography and by centuries of shared history, culture and trade.

We are friends. Many of us are family.

The tragic history of violence in Northern Ireland is well known to all of us. That is thankfully behind us. But it took an international treaty – the Good Friday Agreement - to bring us to this point.

We have now had twenty years of peace – fragile and imperfect, but peace nonetheless. We cannot return to the past.

That is why the Irish Government has been determined to protect the Good Friday Agreement, in all its parts, and all that flows from it; peace, power sharing and North/South co-operation.

It is why we have insisted that there can be no hardening of the border on our island: no new barriers to the movement of people or to trade.

We have been supported by our colleagues in Europe because you understand by instinct and by memory the extraordinary ability of the EU to build bridges.

Working through the task force we speak with a united voice: it is clear and it is unambiguous.

The EU has consistently recognised the unique position of Northern Ireland, and the unique situation in which it has been put by the British decision to leave the EU.

The majority of people in Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU.
And it is likely that the majority of them will be EU citizens even after Brexit, because of their right, under the Good Friday Agreement, to be recognised as Irish or British or both and accepted as such.

It will be a territory outside the EU in which the majority of residents are EU citizens or at least can be.

So, the United Kingdom has guaranteed that, whatever its future relationship with the European Union, there will be no hard border on the island of Ireland. This was agreed in a Joint Report between the EU and the UK last December.

It is a political agreement and it is now imperative that these commitments are firmly enshrined in the legal text of the Withdrawal Agreement, and embedded in the UK’s future relationship with the EU - whatever shape that ultimately takes.

Negotiations on this are ongoing. There is still much work to be done.

The European Council, which is following the negotiations closely, will return to the outstanding withdrawal issues when we meet again in June. These include the Irish border, as well as the framework for the future relationship.

It is essential that we see real and solid progress by June if the negotiations are to move forward. There is less than a year until the UK leaves. And without a solution to the Irish border there can be no Withdrawal Agreement. Let there be no doubt about that.

From Ireland’s perspective, we want the future relationship between the EU and the UK to be close, comprehensive and ambitious. That is very much in our interests and in the interests of the Union as a whole and most of all, the UK’s.

I believe the only barrier to achieving this is the United Kingdom’s own red lines. If these change, Europe’s position can evolve too.

Along with other member states who have benefitted so much from the EU, we have a particular responsibility now to lead on the future of Europe debate.

We have much to offer and much to give - and I believe firmly in that responsibility and relish the opportunity.

The party I lead, Fine Gael, is a founding member of the EPP, and support for European integration has been at the heart of our philosophy. In his memoir, Martens described the Fine Gael leaders he worked with as ‘Celtic Warriors’. Our new generation of leaders is equally determined to fight on the world stage for the same principles.

The 8th Congress of the party was held in Dublin in 1990, in the wake of the collapse of communism and the fall of the Berlin Wall, and it was the first one chaired by Martens.

Speaking in the city of my birth, he said ‘if the Union is to form the cornerstone of a future greater Europe’, we could not look inwards, or allow our goals to be watered down. Instead he demanded ‘new thinking’ so that we could create a ‘new world’.

Our debates on the future of Europe are opportunities to imagine that new world and provide new thinking.

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

Issues such as climate change, cyber-security, mass migration, international trade, and the regulation of major corporations are transnational, and cannot be solved by twenty-eight countries coming up with twenty-eight different solutions. We need to think and act together.

Ultimately, in the Europe of the future, all Member States will be small states in global terms. In terms of population, only one country in Europe features in the top twenty in the world - and its population is falling.

I know that population does not necessarily equate to economic or military strength, but there can be no doubt that these are also shifting east and south globally.

So, we need to stick together if we are to protect what we have and promote our values and our perspectives around the world.

Our Union must embrace the future with a positive and ambitious mindset.

We should focus on what we want to achieve together - not, as some would have it, what we want to resist.

The Europe of the future must do four things:

1. Continue to do well what it currently does well.
2. Focus on the big new challenges facing Europe and its citizens.
3. Consider its competencies - not everything has to be done at European level; where appropriate, some things should be left to Member States, regions and municipalities.
4. Engage citizens more.

On the first two points - what Europe does well and what challenges we face - we need to consider our resources and how we use these to achieve our aims.

With Ireland’s growing prosperity, we have moved from being a net beneficiary to a net contributor to the EU budget.

And recognising how we have benefitted in the past, we are willing to contribute more – so long as this brings additional European value.

For example, we need structural funds for Central and Eastern Europe to enable them to unlock their economic potential, which will benefit all of us in the long run.

And of course, the EU should continue to fund - and fund well - programmes and policies that work - like the Common Agricultural Policy.

Like Erasmus, which I mentioned at the start.

Research, Interreg, Horizon 2020.

Budgets for such fundamental areas should be protected.

We are also ready to explore how new priorities such as migration, security and defence, and action on climate change can be funded.

As you know, Ireland is a founder member of the Single Market. We were among the first to open our labour market to Europeans from Central and Eastern Europe.
And, the Single Market delivers huge benefits to us all.

So, we urgently need to complete the Single Market and the Digital Single Market in a way that serves the interests of our citizens, our public services and our businesses.

Now is the time to fulfil the promise of the Single Market – for example, in insurance, mortgages and loans - so that people can get cheaper loans from European lenders and insurers if necessary. Now is the time to complete the Banking Union.

· We need to always be an outward looking, trading Union.

· Free trade and free enterprise make everyone better off in the round.

· All EU Member States benefit from the wide network of Free Trade Agreements that deliver prosperity for our citizens and opportunities for business.

· We need to maintain a high level of ambition on our trade agenda, negotiating further free trade agreements with third countries and I welcome the progress made with Mexico and Japan recently.

· The concept of Social Europe stalled in recent years. I want to see some fire put back into its engine by following through on the proclamation issued in Gothenburg last year on jobs, employment rights and pensions.

The Social Market Economy is an EPP idea and concept and we should embrace it again.
On tax, we should not accept a situation where large corporations can avoid paying any taxes anywhere. We need a system where all companies pay their fair share of tax on time and where it is owed. Ireland has already taken steps here to close loopholes in our tax laws. And while we disagree with the European Commission’s view on Apple, we are now collecting the money pending the outcome of the court case on it.

I believe, Europe needs to be competitive economically, and this means competition among Member States.

So, decisions on national budgets and the taxation that funds these budgets should be determined by national parliaments and governments:

· Where we have tax reform, it should be done at a global level through the OECD in order to avoid handing advantage to non-EU competitors.
· The OECD now ranks Ireland in the top tier for tax transparency.

The Single Market, our network of Free Trade Agreements, our competitiveness policies, and social Europe deliver considerable benefits. However, there will be no prosperity without security, so it is necessary that we cooperate in this area too.

With the launch of PESCO last December – which Ireland is pleased to be a founding member - we are coming together to deal with new threats.

As you know, Ireland has a proud history of military neutrality, active participation in UN Peacekeeping and EU Common Security Defence Policy Operations.

The challenges we face in the 21st century include cyber-attacks, international terrorism, natural disasters, mass migration flows and drug and human trafficking – these require responses at European or international level.

We want to be involved in these actions, and we will therefore participate in PESCO in ways consistent with our long-standing traditions.

In looking ahead, we have to acknowledge the challenges posed by mass migration.

2015 and 2016 saw the arrival of unprecedented numbers of refugees and migrants, and this highlighted some fundamental differences in approach between member states.

For several reasons, including geography, Ireland has not been as affected by the recent mass immigration as other countries have. We have sought to play a full part in the shared and comprehensive EU response. We are accepting refugees from Greece and Italy and have sent our Navy to the Mediterranean.

I support calls for the establishment of a common asylum policy and system, to replace the current one which is clearly not working. A small number of countries are shouldering the responsibility of providing refugees with a fresh start in Europe.

All of us can and must do more.

We also need to tackle the root causes.

The EU is the biggest aid donor in the world. And we are also the world’s largest trade bloc. So we can offer leadership and partnership.

Look at the transformation that has taken place across Asia over the past forty years. Successful development there has transformed countries to which we gave aid, into countries with which we now trade. Free trade, free markets and political stability have lifted a billion people out of poverty.

In the 21st century, let’s do the same with Africa.

We are already working closely together on a joint EU-African Union action plan, and the post-Cotonou Agreement.

I believe we need to develop a dynamic, responsive and political relationship that produces results. This is in our own interest and in the interest of African countries. So let’s make it part of Europe’s mission.

If binding together gives us strength, we should welcome those who aspire to - and who are ready to take on - the responsibilities and obligations of membership.

The prospect of membership of the Union can be a powerful motivator. I am thinking in particular of the Western Balkans.

I strongly believe that we should welcome those who share our values and meet our standards. I salute the ambition shown by the Commission, which has recommended that accession negotiations should now be open with Albania and Macedonia.

Of course, there can be no fast track or shortcuts. The Copenhagen Criteria apply and membership of the EU brings responsibilities, as well as advantages.

We believe that further enlargement will bring much-needed stability to the region and enhance the security of us all.

So we need to look outwards and to engage. And we also need to look within, to ensure that all we do as a Union is aligned with the hopes and aspirations of our citizens.

The debate on the future of Europe needs to take place at all levels – in schools, in colleges, in communities, in conversations like this one.

As leaders, we need to listen as well as speak.

Politicians have two ears and one mouth and we should use them in that proportion.

In Ireland, we have a strong focus on this engagement. Last year we established a Citizens’ Dialogue on the Future of Europe, which took as its starting point the ambitions and ideas of all our citizens.

I have been heartened to hear about the level of engagement so far.

While there has been some criticism about aspects of the Union, it is the kind of critical reflection that is healthy and necessary. What is evident is that the Irish people are deeply committed to Europe and want to play an active role in its future.

The European ideal took shape in the second part of the twentieth century.

Although, at the time, the world was riven by animosity and fear, some were imaginative enough to envisage a future in which we were joined together by mutual interest, trust and affection.

European values are the values that we advance in Ireland, within our European family, and in our relations with the wider world.

Europe is one of the most successful political projects of the last century.

So much has been achieved that once seemed the stuff of dreams.

Decades of peace, the single market, European citizenship, enlargement and the defeat of Communism.

With the successes and achievements of the past as our foundation, and our values to guide us, I believe that we can provide strong direction for Europe, creating more opportunities for our citizens and a better future for all.

That future is in our hands.

Thank you.