Aspire to Better Business in Europe: my speech to members of Northern Ireland’s business community 15/05/14:


Aspire to Better Business in Europe: Speech

In order to appreciate the lessons learned by us in the South of Ireland, from our membership of the EU, it’s perhaps best to look back to the position we were in when we joined the European Economic Community, 41 years ago, in 1973 and get the full context.

Joining the EEC allowed Ireland to change from being a post-colonial country to being a partner with other European countries in one of the great political projects of history.

Above all else, the European Union is a peace project for Europeans. Historians have estimated that during the first half of the 20th century approximately 80 million Europeans died a violent death.  And of course, 20th century Europe spawned the anti-human ideologies of fascism and communism and also produced two of the great monsters of history; Hitler and Stalin.  In the wasteland that was Europe in 1945, there were people who dreamed of a different Europe – people like Konrad Adenaeur, Robert Schuman, Alcide de Gasperi, Paul Henri Spaak and many others.  But they did not remain dreamers.  They took their jackets off, rolled up their sleeves and got involved in the difficult and messy work that is politics.  And where those early visionaries showed the way others followed – people like Helmut Kohl, Francois Mitterand, Jacques Delors.

To date – the history of the EU has registered several remarkable achievements. The earlier phase of that history focused on the creation of a common market through the elimination of trade barriers and the harmonisation of business and financial law. Undeniably, the EU’s greatest accomplishments lie in those areas.

The immediate aim in the earlier phase was to increase shared economic prosperity – but as I touched on earlier, many of the protagonists had a higher and nobler aim: to make future European wars impossible. More recently, therefore, the EU has focused on creating pan-European political institutions. These cover all three areas of a constitution: legislative, executive and judicial. Here too, there have been numerous achievements

Last year, we held the EU Presidency for the seventh time.  We have held the Presidency during key periods in the Union’s history; when the Berlin Wall fell, Ireland facilitated the unification of Germany within the European Union when others hesitated; and in 2004 when the biggest expansion of the EU took place with the addition of ten new member states.  Each time we held the position, we served the wider community interests. It is generally acknowledged that Ireland is very good at hosting the EU Presidencies.

During our most recent Presidency, significant achievements were made; on the budget, on banking, on fisheries policies, on youth employment and on advancing a new trade and investment partnership with the United States.  Irish politicians, diplomats and civil servants are doing a professional job at all levels across the European Union. Our reputation has been hard fought, but well maintained and we punch well above our weight.

The Ireland of 1973 was a very different place to the one now of 2014.  There has been a phenomenal amount of change in Ireland over the past 41 years at economic, social and political levels.  I am certainly not claiming that change would not have happened had Ireland stayed out of the EU.  However, I do believe that our membership of the EU was the crucial catalyst in this change.  In 1973, membership of the EEC seemed to promise us many things: access to a larger market, greater export opportunities for our business, more employment, better wages, and the removal of protectionist barriers.
  Consider that, at the time of accession: Ireland’s GDP was 2 /3 the EU average – now it is 1 /3 higher than the EU average.

In 1972,  the net benefit to Ireland from EU contributions €41.4 million, or 1.2% of our GDP; in 1992, the net benefit was €2.08 billion, or 5.5% of GDP; and in 2004, the net benefit was €1.59 billion, or 1.3% of GDP.

In total, over the last 40 years, Ireland has received in excess of €20 billion of net benefit in cash from EU.  Exports have increased from $1.1 billion in 1973 to $110 billion, and GDP has grown 4 times over.

The European Union is undergoing a period of rapid transition. We have taken a great many lessons from our membership: not least that compromise is necessary, and that strong representation and diplomatic links throughout the Union are vital in order to succeed.

Our Union faces internal and external challenges which are difficult, complex and, in some cases, threatening.  It is of vital importance to Ireland that we have politicians who are capable of operating at a high level in Europe. Fine Gael and Labour are members of the two most important political blocs in Europe, the Christian Democrat group, The EPP and the Socialist group, The S&D (Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats).

Through their membership of these groups they have access to the most influential political figures in Europe. For a new party, it is difficult to join these groupings of course, yet it is perhaps worth noting that there is no Northern Irish or, indeed, UK member of our own grouping, the European People’s Party. Staying engaged in the political process has delivered results for Ireland in Europe, and I have no doubt that this will continue: for us, it is a vital lesson learned.                                                                                                

 The Government has shown an ability to repair Ireland’s damaged reputation; it has shown a capacity to influence the debate and build relationships with key decision makers.   Its negotiations with the ECB, the IMF and other international organisations are an abject lesson in the value of hard work, persistence and determination. The lessons learned from Ireland’s membership of the EU have been many and varied – but the overwhelming evidence shows that it has been a good thing for Ireland, our citizens, our businesses large and small, our exporters, our consumers and – above all else – has ensured our rights throughout the EU. For the most part, the citizens of the country are pro-European.

At this point and in light of David Cameron’s recent reaffirmation of his guarantee of an in/out EU referendum in 2017 should he win the nest general elections, I would like to briefly share my opinion on the issue if I may:

As Ireland and the UK are such close trading partners, it is of course in Ireland’s interests that the UK stay within the EU – but it is my firm opinion that it is strongly in the UK’s interests too.

At the moment, when the UK negotiates with America, China or Japan, they are doing so as part of the world’s largest trade bloc, which accounts for nearly 20 per cent of world GDP. Washington, Beijing and Tokyo have to take Brussels seriously as a trade partner. If the UK were on their own, the balance of power would be quite different. The US economy is seven times as big as the UK’s, the Chinese is five times as big, and Japan’s is twice the size.

Britain would typically have to play by the US and China’s rules. At the moment however, EU member States influence the EU’s product regulations, which then have a chance of becoming global standards. The EU-US Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership currently being negotiated is attempting to harmonise and regulate many procedures etc to make trading simple between the US and EU.

Finally – it must never be forgotten that the single market is based on what are known as the Four Freedoms. These were contained in the Treaty of Rome that set up the forerunner to the EU in 1958: the free movement of goods, services, capital and people. This is undisputedly one of the most important charters for freedom the world has ever seen and I look forward to witnessing and partaking in its continuous evolution.  

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