- Publication date
- 21 January 2021
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Ladies and gentlemen,
Good morning, dia dhaoibh,
Let me start by thanking European Movement Ireland – its Chairperson, Maurice Pratt, and its CEO, Noelle O’Connell – for the kind words of introduction.
For many years already, your organisation has played an important role in stimulating the debate on the EU here in Ireland, communicating on the benefits of Ireland’s EU membership, as well as on the implications of Brexit for Ireland and the rest of Europe.
In today’s complex and sometimes confusing world, where untruths are often presented as facts, the work that you do, providing factual and accessible information and engaging actively with citizens, businesses and government administrations, has never been more important.
It is truly an honour to receive your “European of the Year” award.
And it means even more to me, knowing that I am the first non-Irish person to receive it – even though I feel a little bit Irish!
To be or not to be “European”?
Or, more precisely, to be or not to be in the European Union?
That is certainly a question that divided the UK for many years.
And, most probably, will continue to do so in years to come.
As for my personal choice, it was made many years ago, in 1972, when, aged 21, I cast my first ever vote.
It was at the occasion of the French referendum on the accession of the UK, Ireland, Denmark and Norway to the European Communities.
I campaigned with conviction for their accession.
I voted yes, convinced that the European project would be stronger when we are together, and that everyone would benefit greatly.
To this day, I continue to think that I made the right choice.
For two main reasons.
Firstly, because whether the UK is an EU member or not, our paths are, and will always be, intertwined.
The UK is your, and our, closest neighbour.
Our long-standing ally and friend.
As I have said before – never will I forget what the UK did for France, and for Europe, during the Second World War.
And as President Ursula von der Leyen has said: “The bonds between us are unbreakable” – even after Brexit.
Nowhere are these bonds more visible than on the island of Ireland.
Here, the EU and the UK share their only land border.
Here, many citizens have British and Irish nationalities.
They can travel freely between Ireland and the UK. In fact, in normal times, some 20 to 30,000 people commute across the – invisible – border on a daily basis to work.
But, here too, the Brexit negotiations were not just about cross-border trade and the economy.
They were, more existentially, about maintaining peace and stability, after decades of conflict.
That is why, throughout the negotiations, my team and I were particularly attentive to the concerns voiced by all the different parties and communities of Ireland and Northern Ireland.
While the sanitary conditions still allowed for it, we travelled several times to Ireland and Northern Ireland:
We went to the border. We walked on the peace bridge in Derry/Londonderry;
Above all, we listened to and engaged with students, workers, business owners and rural communities. Because Brexit is first and foremost about people.
Many a time, I was moved by their individual stories. Their hopes and fears for the future. The memories of the Troubles never far away.
It also struck me that, for most people I spoke with, the fact that both Ireland and the UK were members of the EU was very important in ensuring stability on the island of Ireland.
And that we needed to do everything in our power to make sure that the UK’s decision to leave the EU did not jeopardise this stability in any way.
Finding common ground with the UK on how to achieve this goal was, as you know, not easy.
We went back to the drawing board many times to find a solution that would reconcile the many different interests at play. First with Prime Minister Theresa May, then with Boris Johnson.
It was a collaborative effort:
We liaised regularly with Ireland’s successive Taoisigh – Enda Kenny, Leo Varadkar and, today, Micheál Martin – and with Minister Simon Coveney and other members of government. And I am grateful that I was always able to count on their support.
We exchanged views with the Dáil and Seanad, as well as with the Irish Members of the European Parliament.
We worked closely with Ireland’s successive Commissioners, my friends Phil Hogan, and now Mairead McGuinness.
And, ultimately, together, we found solutions.
Together, to ensure the respect of the Good Friday Agreement in all its dimensions.
Thereby protecting the gains of the peace process, which people like David Trimble, John Hume, Seamus Mallon, Martin McGuinness and Ian Paisley worked so hard for, with the support, of course, of successive Irish and British governments, and of the EU and, as we saw recently, all so many friends in the United States.
We found solutions, with the Withdrawal Agreement and the Protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland, to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland and safeguard the all-island economy, while also protecting the EU Single Market.
And finally, we found solutions, with the new Trade and Cooperation Agreement, to secure a deep and ambitious framework for continued and lasting cooperation with the UK in a broad range of areas going well beyond trade, and including transport, energy, the fight against climate change, and social security coordination.
And of course fisheries, where we fought hard for stability and predictability. But I know that this remains difficult for fishing communities. And the EU will continue to show solidarity.
This award that I have the honour of receiving today testifies to this joint achievement.
An achievement that is not only that of the Commission, but that of every Member State that stood alongside Ireland and Northern Ireland, and of every Member of the European Parliament or of national Parliaments.
An achievement of every civil servant, think tanker, academic and stakeholder that, each in their own way, contributed constructively to the debate and to finding concrete and workable solutions to the complex Brexit puzzle over the past four and a half years.
But most of all, I would like to dedicate this award to each and every member of the exceptional teams that I have had the privilege of leading during the last 4.5 years.
Without their commitment and perseverance, we would not be where we are today.
Ladies and gentlemen,
The vote that I cast back in 1972 was not just a vote in a referendum.
It was a choice for Europe.
A choice I have never regretted.
The choice of pooling our markets and our resources, thereby creating more and better jobs and growth.
The choice of joining forces to better tackle our most pressing challenges – the pandemic, climate change, migration, financial stability, or security.
The choice of enlarging our horizons and expanding our opportunities thanks to our freedom to work, study, travel or live in another EU Member State.
The choice of standing together in a world of ever-changing geo-political realities.
Standing alone is not standing strong.
We do this each day, thanks to our Single Market. Thanks to our common policies, rules and standards.
Over the decades, our unity has turned Europe into a global trading power.
It has strengthened our voice on the global stage.
It has enabled us to promote our shared interests and values, in a world where even the biggest of our Member States look increasingly smaller as new economic powerhouses emerge.
In this new world, the capacity of our nations to shape global developments, their ability to set their own rules and standards, their ‘sovereignty’ is being challenged.
The European Union helps to reverse this trend by pooling our sovereignty where it matters most.
This is why I continue to believe that we have to be both patriotic and European – patriote et européen.
The two go together, like the two flags behind me.
That is why preserving EU unity was so important throughout the Brexit process.
And we succeeded.
The unity and solidarity between Member States was visible at every step of our negotiations with the UK.
Contrary to what many predicted at the time of the 2016 Brexit referendum, Brexit did not trigger the end of the European Union, but the strengthening of its unity.
Today, Brexit has exposed the consequences of leaving the EU for all to see.
As we have always said, even though we have a deal, the UK’s choices mean that there will be inevitable short-term and long-term consequences. Everyone needs to adapt to this new situation.
Today, people are more aware of the benefits of EU membership, even if too many citizens still continue to doubt the value of Europe, or the ways in which it works.
It is this last point that we must now work on if we are really to learn the lesson of Brexit:
We need to show that Europe works for its citizens.
We need to better understand the reasons of social anger in some regions.
And show that we are working to provide real, workable solutions.
This is the sense of the initiatives taken by the European Commission and its President Ursula von der Leyen.
To combat the health crisis. Nothing is more important right now.
To deepen our Single Market and bring it squarely into the digital age,
To help fuel Europe’s economic recovery – with the historic, 750 billion euro NextGenerationEU programme – and to create new, fairer opportunities for all Europeans.
To launch a ‘European Green Deal’ putting the EU on the path to climate neutrality by 2050, while ensuring that no one is left behind in this generational transition.
All these bold policy choices, among many others, will only bear fruit if we move forward together, with the European Parliament, all Member States and European citizens, as one Union.
For this, we need to continue building trust.
This, in turn, requires transparency and public debate.
Not just in capitals, but also in smaller towns and in rural areas;
Not only through interaction with EU officials, but also through dialogue with local, regional and national politicians, who all have a responsibility to engage more meaningfully on European issues.
Why should we leave the EU debate to anti-EU parties?
Why should we only have such debates once every five years at the occasion of the elections to the European Parliament?
For all those who believe in the EU project, this is not the time to sit back and be complacent.
We need to support organisations like European Movement Ireland, which act as a bridge between the EU, Member States, and their citizens.
The 21st century will inevitably continue to bring more existential global challenges.
The European Union can never be the answer to all problems.
But by working together at all levels, we can make sure that Europe is up to the task of today’s world.
And, perhaps more importantly, up to the expectations of future generations.
Together, we can build a Europe that not only protects but also inspires.
A Europe that Europeans would never dream of leaving behind.
A Europe that continues to make us stronger together. Ní neart go cur le chéile. There is no strength without unity.
Thank you very much!
Go raibh míle maith agaibh!