First of all, I would like to welcome the Minister to the House as we mark Europe Day and discuss both the challenges and opportunities that we face – as well as the Work Programme of the European Commission.
There can be no question that citizens expect the EU to make a difference on the big societal challenges we face, whether these are economic or social, such as unemployment, and competitiveness.
However if we distil these broader ideas down into narrower, more easily defined concepts, it often provokes a more favourable response from people in their attitudes towards the EU: the termination of mobile phone roaming charges and the youth guarantee are two specific policy objectives which would see the EU have a direct and positive impact on the lives of its citizens.
When reflecting on Europe Day, it is perhaps worthwhile 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.
Since 1973, we have seen both Ireland and the European Union make unprecedented progress when it comes to economic and social matters.
In this term of Government, 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.
During our 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.
The Ireland of 1973 was a very different place to today. There has been a phenomenal amount of change in Ireland over the past 42 years at economic, social and political levels. I believe that our membership of the EU was a crucial catalyst in this change. In 1973, EU membership 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. As such, I feel that when we reflect on Europe Day, we must reflect on these positives.
Similarly though, when we look ahead to the future, we must admit that 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.
Brexit and Grexit pose dilemmas which the European Union has never faced before, and the year ahead could yet be a defining one. Nevertheless, the ordinary work of the Commission must continue, and we must continue to ensure the Union works to provide solutions for our citizens through initiatives such as the Youth Guarantee.
When the Commission adopted its Work Programme for 2015, it set out the actions the Commission intends to take over this year to make a real difference for jobs, growth and investment and bring concrete benefits for citizens.
The intentions are clear: 2015’s programme includes the delivery of the announced Investment Plan, opening up the opportunities of the Digital Single Market for citizens and business, launching European Energy Union, and putting forward a new, balanced European Agenda on Migration.
If we look further into the details of these proposals, we find an ambitious agenda for the year – specifically, the Investment Plan for Europe will see an unlocking public and private investments in the real economy of at least € 315 billion over the next three years.
In addition to this, an ambitious digital single market package, which should create the conditions for a vibrant digital economy and society by complementing the telecommunications regulatory environment, modernising copyright rules, simplifying rules for consumers making online and digital purchases, enhancing cyber-security and mainstreaming digitalisation. Some of this work has already commenced.
In addition, it has taken the first steps towards a European Energy Union. This is a vital proposal to ensure energy supply security, further integrate national energy markets, reduce European energy demand and decarbonise the energy mix and will be important for Ireland in the years ahead.
All told, while we reflect on Europe Day, the challenges posed by talk of both a British Exit and a Greek exit, as well as the work of the Commission in the year ahead, we can be sure that Ireland’s best interest are best preserved when we work at the heart of a strong European Union. That is why this Government has worked to ensure we have strong representation in the European Parliament, that we put our best foot forward with a Junior Minister for European Affairs who has given us strong representation and ensured a vital link between the Cabinet and our European partners, while also working to bring inward investment.
The Government has shown an ability to repair Ireland’s damaged reputation in Europe where – in the darker days of recent times – the Government of the day had stopped engaging; 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. They are in stark contrast to the diplomacy practiced by other countries in recent negotiations.
The lessons learned from Ireland’s membership of the EU have been many and varied, but the one lesson above all is 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.
I believe that is what we should remember when we reflect on Europe Day and what the Europe of 2015 offers to our citizens.