The European Union is today still caught in the longest and most serious crisis in its history. No one can deny that serious structural flaws in its construction have been revealed. Equally, the evidence mounts of leadership deficit in dealing with these flaws.
There are many reasons to be concerned about the state of the European Union as a whole and many reasons to be concerned about the impact on Ireland of failed policies. In spite of this I remain more convinced than ever that joining what is now called the European Union 40 years ago has delivered our country a level of sustained economic and social progress which we could have achieved no other way.
The Union is not meeting all of the expectations of today, but it has well over-achieved the expectations of those who brought us into membership.
Debates in Ireland can often miss the wider picture in order to concentrate on smaller elements. There’s absolutely no doubt that we have failed to engage properly with the bigger picture of what the European Union stands for. This is our failure, not Europe’s, and it is the most important thing we must now address.
When we joined it was about embracing the hope that Ireland could achieve real progress and the belief that we could only be strong if we embraced our role as part of a wider European community. Time and again this has been vindicated.
This is a short contribution so there isn’t room try to go through the specifics of all of the progress which has been enabled by our membership of the Union. This is something which the rest of this conference will discuss. However there are a few points which need to be stressed.
Even as we emerge from a sustained recession, we have retained the bulk of the gains in living standards and other measures enabled by membership of the Union. Access to markets, a secure legal and policy framework and accumulated investments in people and infrastructure were and remain the foundation for much of our economy. They also were and remain centrally reliant on membership of the Union.
The past four decades have seen a level of globalisation unprecedented in world history. For smaller nations it has been harder and harder to have any practical influence. The reverse has been true for members of the European Union. By agreeing a model of shared sovereignty we have gained more influence and a larger voice in decisions would affect us anyway. We don’t always get our own way, but we sometimes do and this amounts to a lot more influence than we would otherwise have.
Beyond this is the greater importance of how membership of the Union has raised the horizons, opportunities and expectations of our people. Irish identity has not disappeared; it has evolved and found a new security as part of a larger identity. Our people are far more demanding of those in power and far more ambitious for themselves and their communities because we are a secure part of a wider European community.
A lot of attention gets aid to polls on specific policy decisions like treaties and major rules changes. What gets very little coverage is the regular monitoring of underlying attitudes and behaviours. The consistent message from this data is that citizens may not think about Europe, or may even have negative views about Europe, but an ever larger majority is ‘living’ Europe.
What this means is that they take for granted basic freedoms which have evolved purely because of collective action of European states. In terms of travel, employment rights, market access, consumer choice and protection, recognition of qualifications and many, many other areas Europe has both set and delivered what is now a basic demand of Irish people and citizens throughout the Union.
This said, I believe that one of the biggest lessons for us from referendum debates in the last decade is that we cannot base the case for Europe solely on what has been achieved. We can’t take what has been achieved for granted, and no one has ever shown how these gains could be retained in the absence of the Union, but our debate needs to spend more time talking about the future rather than the past.
Ireland has done well out of Europe, but we simply have to become more active and assertive shapers of the future of Europe.
At critical points in the negotiations of three major EU treaties our politicians and diplomats played a central role in helping achieve consensus. This has also involved leaders from a number of different parties. This is something to be proud of and – if I may be permitted to make one partisan comment – the attempt to present us as having lost all our standing in the Union was both cynical and untrue. The offer to Ireland to Chair the OSCE is one of the many proofs that Ireland has at no time lost the respect of the international community.
What Ireland has not done is to seriously reconsider its relationship with the Union in light of the events of the last five years.
Even Jacques Delors admits that the current architecture of the Union has built within it serious flaws which can undermine growth and have caused an escalation of the crisis.
Unless these flaws are addressed the crisis will reappear sooner or later. Ireland, like other countries, will suffer from both economic pressures and lost opportunities.
The essential elements are a strong banking union, a reformed European Central Bank and a significantly larger central budget to support regions facing pressures. For this to happen it requires states to step of the current approach which maximises disputes and minimises ambition.
Ireland has so far failed to take a substantive position on any of the major issues which should be being decided at the moment. We have not begun what I believe is the required re-thinking of our established approach to institutional questions.
For three decades we have been one of those states which have been extremely cautious about Treaty reforms and, in particular, we have strongly opposed the development of a two-speed Europe.
Today this position is no longer tenable. The idea of unity being more important than action, had its time, but it is over. The price of inaction is now too high.
As we have seen in Britain, the indulgence of Eurosceptic ideas, the willingness to blame Brussels for everything, has led to deeply dysfunctional approach to the Union.
As part of preparing an ‘in/out’ referendum to take place in 2017 Whitehall has launched a ‘review of competencies’. This was announced by Prime Minister Cameron as based on the premise that the Union has taken to itself too many powers and that many of them should be returned to individual countries. It is his stated intention to seek a renegotiation of British membership which will see the Union reduced to more of a pure trading block.
The problem for the Eurosceptic agenda is that nearly all of the allegations they throw at the Union are false. So far the Review has actually produced powerful evidence that the rules and regulations emerging from the Union would be required anyway, help business and are better done at a pan-national level than repatriated. The result has been so discouraging for the Eurosceptics that they have started trying to intimidate the referee.
What some Eurosceptics are now arguing is that countries should be able to leave the Union but retain full market access. In other words they should retain core benefits of membership without following the same rules as everyone else.
The problem for us and for other countries that want Europe to work better is that both latent and overt Euroscepticism has distorted the agenda on the Future of Europe. The agenda is defensive and lacking in any of the urgency and ambition which is urgently needed.
At a time when Europe needs renewal all that is being proposed is, at best, a patch-up.
So far Ireland has stood on the side-lines. Our government has made no statement about what it believes is required to renew the Union. More importantly there has been no public engagement.
The leadership of the Lemass and Lynch government in seeking a vision for the future Ireland sought through joining the great European project is badly needed today. We have not evolved the arguments or understanding of Ireland’s place in Europe. We have allowed a dangerous gap to develop between a negative public discourse and the daily positive reality of Europe experienced by our citizens.
Forty years on our attitude to Europe is probably more important than it has ever been, yet there is a steady air of complacency which must be challenged.
The level of engagement and understanding of European issues comes nowhere near what it should be given their seriousness.
We have not yet fully understood the Europe is ‘us’ not ‘them’.
We should perhaps take time to reflect on what is happening on the streets of Kiev at the moment. These enormous demonstrations, taking place in the face of an increasingly authoritarian regime, involve people coming out in the name of democracy, human rights and development. They want a better future for the Ukraine and for them this is symbolised by the flag of the European Union.
Forty years ago that flag had fewer stars but for us it also represented a hope for a better future. The decision of the people to join the Union has been vindicated time and again. But if we should take one message from looking back at the history of our engagement with Europe it is that we cannot be complacent. We cannot assume that everything will turn out alright in the end.
It is up to play our part in the urgently required development and renewal of the Union so that it can respond to the needs of today and the future.