Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen. I’m delighted to be here in The Hague on the invitation of our sister party the CDA.
I’d like to thank Ruth Peetoom for the kind welcome. My party, Fine Gael, and the CDA have a great record of working together as part of the EPP group in Europe. In that vein I’d like to acknowledge the tireless work of Esther de Lange, who is a fantastic Vice-Chair of the EPP in the European Parliament.
In the 15 years since the start of the Norbert Schmelzer lecture series I believe we are now facing into some of the greatest challenges for the future of the EU and our continent.
The title of my address reflects the most immediate challenge, the decision of the United Kingdom to leave the EU and where do we go from here.
Firstly, I’d like to acknowledge the great, long standing friendship that Ireland enjoys with The Netherlands.
Ireland and The Netherlands share a similar outlook and we regularly work together within the EU and the EPP to achieve outcomes that benefit both our peoples.
It is important that like minded countries work together so that our voices are heard on the big issues that are impacting Europe and the world today. For Ireland this is one of the reasons why we continue to be passionate about our EU membership.
Today's lecture takes place against the backdrop of a number of joint challenges that Ireland and the Netherlands both face, not least of which is the UK's decision to leave the European Union.
Of course the outcome of the UK. referendum last June was not what we wanted. We didn’t want to lose our friend and neighbour from our Union, but they are going all the same.
Nevertheless we accepted it as the democratic wish of the UK electorate.
In dealing with the fallout from Brexit we must be guided by the original principles of our Union, strength in unity. We have all been preparing for some time.
This is because, in our opinion, Ireland would be more exposed - economically, politically and socially - than any other country to the negative effects of Brexit.
For these reasons we began our preparations even before the UK referendum. For over two years we have been engaging with groups and sectors across the island of Ireland, to fully analyse our main areas of concern, and to develop our negotiating priorities.
These priorities are to protect the Good Friday Agreement and the Northern Ireland Peace Process, including through maintaining an open border; to continue the Common Travel Area with the UK; to minimise the impact on our trade and the economy; and very importantly to work for a positive future for the European Union.
And I should take this opportunity to stress that Ireland’s place remains firmly at the heart of Europe. Notwithstanding the UK decision to leave the EU, we are strongly committed to our membership of the EU and the Eurozone.
We know that the EU is not perfect, but our membership has undoubtedly been central to the success of our open, competitive economy. And it has been the foundation for much of the social progress we have made since we joined the then EEC in 1973.
In particular, our economic model, as a small open economy, 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, it is clear that for Ireland to leave the Union would be catastrophic.
While not downplaying the massive economic challenges facing Ireland as a result of Brexit, we have lessened our dependence on the UK market since we joined the EU. Today our total trade with the Euro Area is worth about two and a half times that with the UK. Our focus is on developing the Single Market further.
We also benefit greatly from the EU’s existing trade agreements with other countries and regions and look forward to others in time.
More broadly, we value being part of a Union with other like-minded democracies which share our values and interests in 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.
In this context the EU has also played a vital role in the fostering of peace on the island of Ireland. Our European partners, especially The Netherlands, are acutely aware of the positive EU role in supporting peace.
Ireland, the UK and the EU are closely tied through the Peace Process in Northern Ireland which is framed by the 1998 Good Friday Agreement – a legally-binding, international agreement, of which Ireland and the UK are co-guarantors.
We take our responsibilities here very seriously. Whatever happens in the Brexit negotiations, nothing should undermine the peace and stability in Northern Ireland which has taken so long to achieve. As demonstrated by recent developments, the peace and stability there remains fragile.
It is critical therefore that there is no return to a hard border. As the most tangible symbol of the peace process, the open border is essential to the continuing normalisation of relationships.
The avoidance of a hard border will require imaginative and creative solutions to be decided upon in the upcoming negotiations.
Also important in this context will be the recognition by the EU of existing bilateral arrangements between the UK and Ireland, which are compatible with EU law.
It is the joint objective of both the Irish and British Governments to maintain the Common Travel Area. This is a bilateral arrangement that long predates our EU membership and plays a crucial role in facilitating the interaction of people on the islands of Great Britain and Ireland and its existence is recognised by Protocol 20 of the EU Treaties. I know there is a good understanding of this here in The Netherlands.
Another issue that finds no parallel elsewhere in Europe is the provision within the Good Friday Agreement that recognises “the birthright of all the people of Northern Ireland to identify themselves – and be accepted as – Irish, or British, or both.”
In essence, this means that virtually everyone born in Northern Ireland can of right choose to be an Irish citizen and therefore a citizen of the European Union. Throughout the withdrawal process, the Government will therefore be working to ensure that the rights currently enjoyed by Irish citizens in Northern Ireland as EU citizens are not diminished.
We have been actively engaging with our EU partners to raise awareness of the unique circumstances in relation to Ireland, and the need to address these in the negotiations. There is now a good understanding of our concerns: I was very pleased that the draft EU negotiating guidelines circulated by President Tusk on 31 March - and indeed the European Parliament Resolution adopted on 5 April - reflected these.
I should emphasise that our engagements with EU partners has not been limited to just Ireland’s concerns.
The nature of the future relationship between the UK and the EU will have a major impact on many other European economies such as the Netherlands.
Given the extent of cross-border trade on the island of Ireland and the long-standing interconnectedness of the Irish and British economies, we will be disproportionately affected. We have been working hard to re-build our economy since the financial crisis some years ago, and we are glad to see this paying off. Unemployment has fallen to 6.4%, and we do not want to see this reversed.
So from our perspective, and from the Dutch perspective, the future relationship between the EU and the UK should be as close as possible.
Prime Minister May’s White Paper and her letter and statement on 29 March provided some clarity around the UK’s objectives for the future relationship. These include a positive and constructive partnership, including a bold and ambitious free trade arrangement. Of course knowing more about their intentions - including in relation to customs, regulatory equivalence, and legal oversight - will be important as we continue to prepare for the negotiations.
The decision this week of the UK Prime Minister to call an early General Election, as endorsed by the UK Parliament, is entirely a matter for the United Kingdom.
However, it is essential that whatever Government arrangement emerges, they, along with the rest of the EU, participate in the upcoming negotiations in a constructive and orderly way. We will continue to encourage everyone to maintain a calm and balanced approach.
It is clear that the UK, like the EU, wishes to avoid a disorderly exit. These are objectives which Ireland and the Netherlands share.
There are difficult days ahead. No-one is under any illusion about the scale of the challenge of a core member of the EU withdrawing from membership. It will test all the EU institutions and the Member States.
What we cannot do is allow the challenge of Brexit to override all the important work we need to urgently continue with.
Even without the UK, there will still be nearly 450 million citizens looking to us to make their lives better.
Europe, along with the rest of the developed world, is grappling with the technological upheaval of our economies and our societies.
The world is growing smaller. Traditions, industries and careers are undergoing rapid change. It is no wonder so many of our people feel that the goal posts of success keep on moving for them.
In many ways politics is usually behind the curve of change. We need to keep up. We need to support new industries, new jobs, and new opportunities. We need to give everyone the opportunity to feel included in society.
After many difficult years there are emerging signs that the European economy is moving into a healthier position. After dealing with the many economic crises it is only natural that there might be a tendency to take the foot off the pedal. We cannot allow this to happen.
Across the continent too many young people are out of work. Too many regions lack the opportunities to support sustainable communities. Now is the time to put the foot on the accelerator. To invest in people, jobs and communities.
All these challenges manifest themselves in different ways. These are troubled times for the European Union, and for the international community as a whole. Terrorism, increased migration flows, and the uncertainties created by globalisation are driving people to those that offer easy answers to complex problems, to those who take advantage of the fears of good people frightened by the pace of change.
The rise of populist fringe political movements is the biggest challenge facing Europe today. It cannot be dismissed by the political centre as a passing phase that will diminish with better economic statistics.
Our challenge to make to the centre relevant again. To make it radical.
I believe the idea of what is called “the radical centre” has found its time.
And because it has, we must fight the diminution of politics to its being a kind of public amusement or entertainment or soap opera.
We live in a world where trash, trivia and frivolousness are gripping people, fascinating them more and more.
This is the world in which the Centre must come home - home to itself -home to its values - home to the reality of life as lived. It has to engage people again.
At the Centre we have allowed ourselves suffer from certainty and that suffering has been chronic and acute, it has seen the gap grow between us and our people.
The fact is with Brexit and new regimes, even in the old democratic world, we are heading for uncertain times.
No one group, no one organisation, no one side, no one politician, no one argument has the answer.
But we might reach a reasonable answer and make a reasonable response if we ditch the worst of all of us, take the best of each of us and work together.
That is what the Centre is all about.
In Malta at our EPP Congress, I spoke of peace on our continent and in our world.
I spoke of how our Union’s greatest strength has also become its weakness.
That strength is Peace.
It is a peace that is the longest and deepest in our continent’s history.
Thanks to that peace generations of Europeans grew up without being called up.
But we have also given ourselves the luxury of taking that peace for granted. And this is something we can no longer do.
I firmly believe that the best days of Europe still lie ahead. That the good people of all the democratic nations of Europe understand the prize that our recent ancestors fought for.
We stand here in the freest, most prosperous, and safest region in the world.
It is the solemn duty of the best of each of us to pass that legacy onto the next generation.