“Ireland and Europe’s Future – from Brexit to the Digital Agenda and beyond”, Keynote Address by Dara Murphy TD, Minister for European Affairs, EU Digital Single Market and Data Protection, Commerzbank, Berlin, 21 November 2016


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Distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen,
It is a real pleasure to be here at Commerzbank in Berlin and to have this opportunity to make this keynote address today. My visit to Berlin is a timely opportunity to engage with our German friends and partners in Government, in parliament and in the private sector to deepen the partnership between our two countries and people and to work together on the way forward for the European Union in these very challenging times.
When the history books are written about 2016, there will certainly be no shortage of momentous events to draw upon.
Although I am conscious that there are still a number of weeks to go until the end of the year, I feel confident that from an EU perspective, the British referendum on EU membership will be our landmark moment of 2016.
The outcome of that referendum is one that I’m sure everyone here, and certainly Ireland, did not want.
From an Irish perspective, we and the UK started on the road of EU membership together, with Denmark, in 1973 and we regret that our paths will diverge at this point.
That said we respect the decision which has been taken by the British electorate and Ireland, as all other EU member states must now focus on the challenges that lie ahead.
From my own point of view as Europe Minister, I feel very strongly that all of us who will be involved in this complex process must ensure that we achieve the best outcome from forthcoming negotiations for the EU and all its Member States.
There is no doubt that the UK’s exit from the European Union will pose enormous challenges for Ireland, as Britain’s closest neighbour.
Thankfully, facing into post Brexit uncertainty, Ireland’s economic recovery is now firmly established, with key economic indicators pointing to continued and strong economic growth, despite a challenging regional and global environment.
Our unemployment rate has been halved in the last 5 years, from a peak of more than 15% in 2012 to 7.7% today, and our public finances are today on a sustainable footing.
Of course, the Irish economy is particularly exposed to the UK’s decision to leave the European Union but economic and fiscal policies implemented over recent years have placed Ireland in a stronger position to weather the shock.
Some of the challenges posed by Brexit we share with Germany and other partners such as the impact on our economy, and – very importantly – the impact on the EU itself.
But some of the challenges presented by the Brexit vote are unique to Ireland, particularly in relation to Northern Ireland and the Common Travel Area that we share with the UK.
First however, I feel it important to re-state, as the Irish Government has done on many occasions that, Ireland’s position on EU membership is fixed: we remain a firmly committed member of the EU and of the Eurozone.
The Irish Government was clear and unequivocal on this point throughout the UK referendum campaign and we have not wavered from this position since the 24 June.
And we do so, strongly supported by public opinion in Ireland.
The Irish people have consistently endorsed our membership of the EU, including during the financial crisis when we faced our most difficult economic challenges since independence.
In addition, a poll taken shortly after the British referendum found that 86% of respondents were in favour of continued EU membership for Ireland, even in the event of a British departure.
I can understand that, sitting in Berlin or any other EU capital, people might wonder why this is the case – particularly given the unique historical, political, social and economic ties that Ireland shares with the UK, not least in relation to the politically sensitive situation in Northern Ireland.
Well, I believe that Irish people are both pragmatists and Europeans, understanding the importance of the values we share as well as the benefits of EU membership.
We understand that membership of the European Union has brought great benefits to Ireland and that membership remains profoundly in our national interest.
Many commentators have described the “transformative” effect of EU membership on Ireland and I would agree with this assessment.
Membership of our Union has been central to the success of our open, competitive economy and has been the foundation for much of the social progress we have made since we joined the then EEC just over forty years ago.
Let’s take our economic model: as a small open economy, it is fundamentally based on our membership of the Single Market and our place within the world’s leading trading bloc.
Whatever the options may be for the United Kingdom, for Ireland to leave the Union would be economically catastrophic.
While our economic relationship with the UK remains hugely important, since we joined the EU the level of dependence on it has fallen sharply.
Total trade with the Euro Area is now worth about 2 ½ times that with the UK.
Indeed, Germany is now Ireland’s 4th largest trading partner. You are our third largest source of visitors to the island, the 6th largest importer of Irish food and drink and our second largest source of Foreign Direct Investment.
Leaving the EU would probably mean returning to a UK sphere of economic influence and effectively to the sterling area.
Frankly, that would be politically as well as economically unacceptable.
The Single Market is constantly developing, including by addressing the new economic realities of the digital sector, and of trade in services, in a more closely integrated European economy. Around the EU table, Ireland is at the heart of these agendas.
We benefit greatly from the EU’s existing trade agreements and we look forward to others.
The social dimension of the EU, with its focus on workers’ rights, on gender equality and on non-discrimination reflects a distinctly European set of values shared by Ireland.
The Union also allows us the chance to address shared problems, such as climate change, in an integrated way.
More broadly, we value being part of a Union with other like-minded democracies which share our values and interests in - let’s face it - a very turbulent world.
The European Union’s contribution to the longest period of peace and solidarity in European history is essential and we are proud to take our place within that project.
For the past – almost – 60 years, the EU has provided an invaluable context, an enabling environment, which has encouraged and allowed neighbours to engage peacefully with one another.
This is certainly the case in Northern Ireland, where the EU has – quietly, but very effectively and with real, practical support – underpinned the peace process of recent decades.
As you can imagine, a key part of my role in the Brexit negotiations is therefore to work to ensure that the eventual outcome protects rather than damages the progress made in Northern Ireland.
EU membership has also transformed our links with you, Germany and our European partners, and in most cases is the principal focus of our relations with you.
Clearly the EU faces a crisis of confidence at the moment. It is right and proper that we face up to this now and seek ways to recapture a sense of purpose and to reconnect with citizens.
The referendum in the UK taught us a painful lesson about the dangers of unchecked euro-scepticism.
We know that the EU is not perfect: but from Ireland’s perspective the key point is that membership provides the opportunity to shape and influence the EU, to improve the way it does business and to get more done for each and every one of the Union’s 500 million citizens.
Ireland wants to continue to influence the evolution of key policies such as the Single Market and trade, through our participation in EU legislative and regulatory processes.
These are the building blocks of prosperity for us all.
The debate on the future orientation of Europe began in earnest in Bratislava in September. In my opinion, things are moving in the right direction but there is clearly a lot more work to be done.
And let me assure you, the Irish Government is committed to safeguarding and promoting Ireland’s place at the heart of Europe, and playing a full part in the debate on its future, as an active and constructive EU member state.
Ireland – like Germany and other partners – is preparing for the negotiations at EU level which will begin once the British Prime Minister triggers Article 50 next year.
We are under no illusions about the complexity of the task at hand. There are many details that remain to be clarified, not least in terms of the “asks” that the British side will make regarding the type of new relationship that they would like to have with the EU post departure.
Ireland has been preparing for this phase for well over a year now. It’s no surprise, given the close ties between the UK and Ireland that we were sensitive to risks of a Brexit earlier than many.
And although I don’t wish to diminish the extent of the challenge, I am confident that we will be ready to participate in these negotiations on the EU27 team.
As a key part of our preparations, the Irish Government will continue to emphasise the unique challenges posed by Brexit for Ireland in relation to Northern Ireland and North-South relations, and our proportionately very major stake in the overall negotiations.
And we intend to work with you, our EU partners, to solve those unique problems as well as to advance those wider priorities that we all share, in scoping out a new relationship with the UK which we hope will be strong and constructive.
And in all of this, let’s not lose sight of a critically important part of this process. We must improve how we communicate with our fellow citizens about how business is carried out at EU level and the benefits that it brings.
We are largely a consensus and compromise driven Union – this is a good thing.
We listen to one another and take differing views and perspectives into account.
Undeniably, this can often lead to delays and responses to crises that are too slow. This is unacceptable, and it is our responsibility to constantly strive to improve our working methods.
But the ultimate outcome is always stronger because of – not in spite of - the level of internal debate.
And when all is said and done, our Union has a remarkable track record of eventually coming together and finding innovative and long-lasting solutions.
So, yes, as Member States let’s play an active part in the process that shapes the improvements which need to be brought to bear on the EU.
But let’s also as EU citizens make greater efforts to recognise and support the things that the EU does well on our behalf, and which are all too easily taken for granted.
I am certain, and not just because I am Ireland’s Minister for the EU Digital Single Market and Data Protection, that the future success of our Union and our ability to provide sustainable jobs and wealth for all of our citizens, is dependent on advancing Europe’s command of the 21st century’s Digital Economy – this is important for Ireland and for Germany.
Digital technologies are pervasive in our everyday lives, and each and every day sees new technological advances and applications that impact how we go about our daily business. These technologies offer enormous potential both for society and the economy. Personal data is intrinsic to how these technologies work to deliver the services and products that we all want and need.
In my work as Minister for EU Affairs, the Digital Single Market and Data Protection, I see on a daily basis just how important a trusted and robust data protection regime is in underpinning our objectives to grow the economy and improve the lives of European citizens. I know in particular here in Germany I don’t need to highlight the importance of Data Protection.
The work that is underway in Ireland and right across the EU on the European General Data Protection Regulation is a central part of delivering this. It is essential that we develop and implement balanced data protection rules that provide strong protections for people’s personal data and which support delivery of the aims of the Digital Single Market Strategy and innovation in the context of the digital economy.

The importance of a robust and effective data protection regime was highlighted in a report last week by Forbes (on behalf of William Fry) that found that the majority of companies surveyed agree that data privacy regulations are a key driver when locating data hubs. That survey reported that 82% of the 200 senior executives questioned, rated Ireland's data related regulatory climate as 'good to excellent', with the report adding that it is "a very strong indicator of a firm but fair regime that strikes the right balance between businesses and individuals."

It is also encouraging that despite our relatively small economy and population size, the survey highlights the fact that Ireland is perceived by international organisations as one of the top two destinations for EU data driven investments.

Since my appointment in 2014, a significant work programme has been implemented to strengthen Ireland's data protection regime. This investment is a clear demonstration of the priority attached to data protection in Ireland. Having a robust data protection regime in place is an essential step in preparing for the forthcoming GDPR, and our Commissioner is playing an active role with her EU colleagues in putting the necessary groundwork in place to ensure a smooth transition to the Regulation.
On the Digital Single Market, the European Commission presented a very ambitious DSM strategy last year. The three pillars are entirely appropriate: simplifying access for consumers and business; shaping the environment for digital networks and services to flourish; and maximising the growth potential of the digital economy. This is good for Ireland, for Germany, and essential for Europe’s continued global competitiveness.
These proposals are about bringing the Single Market into the 21st century and making it easier to do business digitally and across borders, thereby delivering economic growth and, most importantly, creating jobs.
From the 16 initiatives within the Commission’s DSM Roadmap, we now have 16 legislative proposals on the table with more due by the end of the year and early in 2017. There have also been a number of important Communications, including on platforms, ICT standards, 5G and e-Government.
These proposals are seeking to address real issues - our Consumers are clearly frustrated by unjustified geo-blocking. In Ireland, and I’m sure here in Germany, SMEs see cross-border transaction costs as too high.
A fully functioning Digital Single Market that is both open and competitive can become a key driver of a stronger economic outlook across Europe, and a win-win proposition for consumers and for our small and medium business including the Mittelstand here. This is more important than ever in the context of Brexit and the challenges we are currently facing.
Ireland is a strong supporter of the DSM Strategy. Ireland's experience and the advantages that we enjoy as a ‘Digital Frontrunner’ provides us with a strong basis to help drive and deliver this key ingredient of the EU’s future success.
Next March, we will mark the 60th Anniversary of the Treaty of Rome. As committed members of the European Union, Ireland and Germany are united in the determination that this anniversary will serve to re-inspire and re-dedicate our Union to serve the interests and provide for the future prosperity of all of our citizens. There are many voices of doubt, of criticism, of populism intent on sowing division within and between Member States. Now is a time for renewed leadership. We must preserve our European values and ensure that our European Union remains the guarantor of our peace and prosperity for the century ahead.
Thank you for this opportunity to address and I look forward to our discussion.