It is a great pleasure to welcome you all to Dublin and to the ELDR Congress. It is an honour for Fianna Fáil to be the host of this year’s event.
There are a lot of different views in this party. That’s exactly as it should be because we have 50 member parties which reflect the rich diversity of Europe itself.
However, the ELDR – or the ALDE as we will soon be calling ourselves – is increasing both as a network and within the institutions of the Union. The reason for this is clear – there are core ideals on which we all agree. By far the most important of these is that European countries are always stronger when they work together in a spirit of solidarity.
Solidarity between nations is what built the most successful international organisation the world has ever seen; solidarity is what delivered sustained economic and social progress over half a century; solidarity is what built lasting peace between historic enemies; solidarity is what brought new states into the Union and gave others a pathway for development.
The spirit of solidarity has been the foundation for every positive development in Europe in the last 60 years – and it is a spirit which we need now more than ever.
This Congress is meeting at a moment when our continent is experiencing the longest and deepest crisis in many decades. After three years of emergency summits and claimed breakthroughs the reality is that the situation remains grave.
Extreme forces are gaining strength in many countries. Millions of our citizens are trapped in unemployment. Public faith in politics is at its lowest ever level. For the first time, many citizens are beginning to doubt the Union itself.
There is no way of putting a positive spin on the current situation. In response we can just sit back and let events continue or we can do the one thing which is needed most of all – we can be true to the founding spirit of the Union.
No individual country has within its powers the capacity to secure a certain return to sustained growth and job creation. We cannot solve common problems by only looking at the media cycle and promoting a narrowly defined national interest.
The Union’s founding generation overcame obstacles far bigger than those we face today. Let’s not forget that. They also showed a resolute leadership.
The mistakes which have been made over the last three years are unmistakable.
At every critical stage there has been little urgency and even less ambition amongst Europe’s leaders. They have attempted to tackle new problems with existing structures. It is important to acknowledge that there have been positive moves but each one has come at the last possible moment.
A lack of confidence in where Europe is headed lies at the heart of much of the crisis today. Confidence is a difficult thing to build and an easy thing to lose. I have no doubt that we can turn this situation around if everyone is willing to work together so that the great and noble project of cooperation between European states is continued.
The most radical achievement of Europe’s founding generation was to show that sharing powers in a multinational organisation doesn’t undermine sovereignty it strengthens it.
They saw what a narrow and protective definition of a nation state had done to Europe and were determined to show a better way. They showed that the public is willing to be far braver in supporting new policies than many politicians expect.
What they proved time and again was you can’t see every negotiation as a zero-sum game – which must have winners and losers.
The next twelve months could well define the entire future of the Union. Big decisions are needed in relation to the budget, reform of the Economic and Monetary Union, energy policy, the expansion of the Union and other vital areas.
If these negotiations are approached with everyone staking out rigid national positions and then defending them through the media the outcome will be very serious.
For mainstream parties that pander to anti-Europe sentiment the results have been dismal. All that they have done is give legitimacy to extreme positions – damaging themselves and their own country.
Leaders should look at the great result secured this year by Mark Rutte and the VVD. They refused to take a sharp turn to the extremes, but stood up the extremes and won.
If we want the Union to work then we need it to have a credible Budget – large enough to support vital investments without undermining existing policies.
We need a reform of the treaties and institutions which learn the lessons of what has gone wrong. It is not enough to say that all we need is to be stricter in enforcing existing policies. Even Jacques Delors has talked about the need for fundamental reform of EMU.
We also need to remain true to the promise made to non-member countries that they will be allowed to join. This must be done without imposing unfair conditions and in genuine spirit of community. A good first step on this should be the rapid welcoming of Croatia as the 28th member state.
There is no more time to waste. Europe’s citizens have not yet given up on the Union, but they may do so if the leaders continue to show the urgency and ambition which is so clearly needed.
We are fortunate as a party to have Graham Watson and Guy Verhofstadt as our leaders at the moment.
In the Parliament, Guy has ensured that our voice is heard loudly in every debate. I can’t say I agree with every proposal he makes, but there is no doubt that if his Eurobond proposal had been accepted we would be looking back on the sovereign debt crisis and not still stuck in it.
Graham has continued to be a great support for member parties both individually and as a network. As we can see at this Congress, there is a great energy in the party at the moment and I know this will continue to build.
It is right that we will spend a lot of time talking about the many problems face by our countries and Europe as a whole. But what is more important is that we also discuss solutions and show a shared effort to implement them.
The awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to the European Union was a reminder by the Norwegian Academy to us all not to forget about how much has been achieved over more than half a century.
We must continue to commit ourselves to fighting extreme nationalism wherever it appears, we must demand leadership and we must work for a Europe which recommits itself to the spirit of solidarity which achieved so much in the past and can do once again.