We are meeting today at a decisive moment.
No one can doubt that in the year ahead of us fundamental decisions will be taken about the future of democracy, about free societies and about the rule of law in international relations.
The extreme anti-EU forces in our countries and outside our borders want next year to mark a breakthrough for them.
They want 2019 to be the year when they start pushing for power in the European Parliament and in our national governments.
And they think that their aggressive anti-EU campaigning and the politics of fear and division will get them what they want.
What we see happening in Hungary, in Poland and in too many other countries is not only anti-liberal, it is the revival of an extreme ideology which threatens us all.
Everyone who believes in the core values of democracy, respect for diversity, equality before the law and a shared prosperity has been put on notice. We have to fight back against them or they will do further dramatic damage which may take generations to undo.
And the starting point has to be to stop letting them set the terms of debate.
For nearly forty years the anti-EU forces have gotten away with promoting false claims about themselves, their intentions and their opponents. As we’ve seen time after time, whenever they are indulged, whenever their ideas are adopted by the mainstream, they just become more extreme.
We have to step up to challenge their claims – and we have to confront voters with what happens when the extremists win.
They promote the idea that they are somehow anti-establishment – when the fact is that all they want is the complete control of their states.
That’s why they go after independent institutions. They attack judicial independence. They attack media diversity. They try to control universities. They rewrite history, and of course they attack anyone who doesn’t agree with them or looks different to them.
Just look at the control and money which is being concentrated in the hands of the supporters of these anti-liberal parties when they get power.
They are not anti-establishment; they want to build a new, more exclusive, more rigid and more powerful establishment.
They also claim that they are strong leaders who cut corners in the national interest – but the fact is that they are weak leaders who are scared of people being able to make up their own minds and always fail to defend their countries against regimes which interfere in their democracies.
If Viktor Orban was actually a strong leader he wouldn’t be afraid of a free media. He wouldn’t have taken control of the judiciary so that he is accountable to no one. He wouldn’t have fixed the electoral system to make it harder for people to remove him. He wouldn’t spend millions of public money on a grotesque propaganda campaign to promote fear and anger.
Because he and his fellow travellers are scared to compete fairly and to be subject to the same rules and controls as everyone else, they try to fix the system.
Let’s stop allowing them to claim they are for strong leadership. They are not. They are for leadership which is too weak to make its case honestly and without manipulation.
The anti-EU forces also like to claim that they are the protectors of national sovereignty – but they never stand up for their nations against real threats.
Why is it that Le Pen in France, Strache in Austria, Wilders in the Netherlands, Orban in Hungary, Farage in Britain and every major anti-EU party in Germany, Italy, the Czech Republic and so on bows down before Putin’s Russia? They look to him for money and they stay quiet as his regime interferes in national elections throughout Europe.
These pretend defenders of the nation state try to block efforts to expose disinformation and they back the invasion and partition of European countries like Ukraine and Georgia.
The true defenders of our nation states are those of us who know that we are stronger when we work together – who know that the only way of protecting our states and promoting the interests of our people is a strong, law-abiding and diverse European Union.
The people who claim to defend the nation state in Europe are actually its biggest enemies. We have to reclaim our flags from them.
Of course the number one claim of the anti-EU populists is that the Union costs you money – that it controls everything and is worth nothing to ordinary people.
All too often anti-EU rhetoric has involved no cost for them. They could happily be anti-EU while ignoring the reality of all that it gives to them and their countries.
Part of this is because we have all allowed ourselves to get sucked into focusing just on the EU budget and fights over new policies. We’ve forgotten to talk about the much bigger impact of the Union and exactly what it means, in hard facts, for people from every walk of life.
This is why the lies of the Leave campaign worked in the Brexit referendum and it is why so many anti-EU parties are trying to copy the English anti-EU ideologues.
Brexit is one of the most destructive decisions taken by any free nation in eight decades. It is a threat to the prosperity of all of our countries.
I want to once again thank all of the member parties of ALDE for the great solidarity which you continue to show for Ireland as we work to minimise the damage of Brexit to our country.
After March 30th next year Northern Ireland will contain the largest number anywhere of EU citizens who are outside the borders of the Union. In the critical days and weeks ahead we need to continue to stick together and insist on a deal which protects the EU and shows that we will protect the interests of the Union’s citizens and all who remain true to the great ideals embodied by the Union.
Two and a half years after the vote, secured through a dishonest and dark campaign, and four months before Brexit begins to take effect, anti-EU forces throughout Europe believe the momentum is with them.
But we can stop them and defeat them. Today we have at our disposal the strongest arguments in favour of the EU which we have ever had.
Every single claim of the Brexiteers about what would happen if there was a Leave vote has been proven to be false. Even the wildest and most aggressive Brexiteer has been reduced to complaining that the Union won’t let them keep more of the benefits of membership.
Brexit hasn’t even happened and the UK is poorer, weaker and more open to manipulation by aggressive countries than at any time in the last fifty years.
They said it was an easy vote with no costs attached, but the costs are already large and growing all the time.
And this is no partisan claim. No less a person than the Governor of the Bank of England has said that Brexit has already cost each UK household over €1,000 a year.
• The economy is 2% smaller than if there had been a Remain vote.
• Shop prices are 1.5% higher.
• Government spending on administration is €2 billion higher as they struggle to replace EU structures with their own.
• The UK economy has gone from being the fastest growing in Europe to the slowest.
And the UK is struggling to maintain international influence, clearly compromising its ability to stand up for democracy and human rights in discussions with many leaders.
Brexit hasn’t even happened and it’s already hurting the people of the UK.
And as we face into the fight against anti-EU forces in other countries we need to remember that the impact of leaving the EU is no longer a theoretical debate. A great British statesman of the last century once said “why look into a crystal ball when you can read the book?”
We must all understand that we have a new and powerful weapon in our fight against the anti-EU ideologues. We can show people the cost of their policies. We show that a vote for them has a huge price tag which will only grow as time goes on.
Using basic comparisons, Brexit shows that the anti-EU fanatics would cost every French, Dutch, German or Swedish family over €1,000 a year just with a vote to leave the EU. They would cost every Spanish household €900 a year. Every Hungarian household would lose €700 a year.
And critical sectors of British industry say much worse is on the way.
The auto industry faces the biggest threat, with supply chains and export markets threatened and factories and investment undermined. This was inevitable because few industries need the EU as much as the auto industry – an industry which employs 3.4 million people in the EU and accounts for 11% of all manufacturing employment.
When parties campaign against the EU they are threatening the jobs of autoworkers and others.
In Hungary nearly 100,000 people work in the auto industry and it exports 92% of its output. Why should Orban and his supporters be allowed to attack the EU whithout being forced to acknowledge the threat to these jobs which anti-EU campaigning presents?
And once again, you can go country by country and list hundreds of thousands of people whose livelihoods demand immediate access to an integrated Single Market which exists nowhere outside the EU.
We have the facts on our side – let’s start using them.
Let’s not stand back and fear the anti-EU parties. Let’s take them on.
Let’s expose their empty rhetoric, their anti-national policies, their fear of a free media, their attacks on basic democratic checks and balance – and most of all let’s expose the huge costs which will be borne by families and communities throughout their countries if they succeed in breaking up the EU.
National interests and the interests of the European Union are not opposites, they are fundamentally linked.
The Fianna Fáil party which I lead was founded 92 years ago by a group of men and women who had been central to our struggle for independence. Inspired by a national cultural revival and pride in our history, they determined to build a party which could lead a strong and independent nation.
And in doing this they, from the very start, believed that the only way nation states could prosper was if they worked together in strong, rules-based international organisations.
As early as 1929 an internal party document shows consideration of the idea of a united Europe which could achieve peace and prosperity for all. When we wrote a new nationalist and republican constitution in 1937 it included a clear statement that Ireland is a country which believes in, and respects, international law.
And it was the final act of our great founding generation to lead Ireland towards membership of what is now the European Union.
At times like this we draw inspiration from the idea that the people, who lead a national revolution, also worked throughout their lives for a strong, law-abiding and freedom promoting European Union.
Within months of our party first getting into government in 1932 our leader Eamon de Valera presided over the League of Nations and delivered a speech which is unfortunately very relevant today.
He told the assembled leaders “if the League is to prosper, or even survive, it must retain the support and confidence of the public.” He called for it to reform its work in light of the needs and views of the public and made a prediction:
“Friends and enemies of the League alike feel that the testing time has come; and they are watching to see if that test will reveal a weakness pre-saging ultimate dissolution, or a strength that will be the assurance of a renewal”
You can replace the words ‘the League’ with ‘the Union’ and have a sentiment fully appropriate for today.
We know the challenges we face.
We know what the anti-EU forces are trying to achieve.
We know that they want 2019 to be a decisive moment in their campaign.
And so we must fight back.
We must challenge their arguments.
We must expose their agenda.
And most of all we must show people the proven cost of anti-EU politics.
If we work together, if we use the facts and if we show as much faith in our cause as they show in theirs we will defeat them and make 2019 the decisive year when the European Union regained its confidence and began moving forward again.