I am delighted to have the opportunity to speak at this session and I commend those branches who have devised such intelligent and relevant motions.
Delegates, this Ard Fheis is about setting out the priorities of Fine Gael in Government – stability, the restoration of Ireland’s reputation and getting our people back to work. These priorities can only be achieved by a strong Government at the heart of Europe.
I am proud to be a member of the most pro-European political party in this country. Fine Gael was the party that conceived Ireland’s entry into Europe and we are the party that, as a member of Government, will drive the change needed to renew, and indeed re-launch, the European Union.
Over the last few years of the Euro crisis, we have not always been well served by the institutions which were set up to manage the Eurozone - it should never have come to this. Not only should the institutions have worked better, but it should have been much easier for the citizens to understand what was going on, and not to feel that all the decisions were being taken behind closed doors.
I agree that – even apart from the governance of the Euro – the institutions of the European Union are not adequate for the representation and administration of a community of what will soon be 28 members. There is nothing new in what I am saying. One of the best descriptions of the issues facing the Union and its citizens is in the Declaration of Laeken which was adopted by the European Council in 2001. It identified what we needed:
· A better division and definition of competence in the European Union
· Simplification of the Union's instruments
· More democracy, transparency and efficiency in the European Union
In the intervening years there were a number of incremental changes which were valuable in getting business done, but Europe really lost its nerve when it came to fundamental change.
When we add to this the issues surrounding the governance of the Euro, I think it is very clear that we need a much more coherent set of institutions. We need to be very courageous in moving forward on that.
We must be clear about what we want. The European Union is not just an economic construct; there are other successful economic models out there. What we want is an economic model which allows the society we want to flourish. And let’s not forget – society is important. We operate on a number of basic social principles; rule of law, democracy, freedom of expression and so on. We need to find the economic and constitutional model which will preserve these principles.
At the same time the institutions need to be more efficient, have democratic legitimacy and be more flexible. Given the depth of the crisis which has hit the European economy and, in particular, the speed at which it arrived, there can be some allowance for the length of time it took the institutions and the member states to react. But we cannot allow this snail’s pace of decision making to continue, nor can we accept that decisions are taken outside the institutions of the Union.
I would argue that we need institutions which are much more accessible to the citizen and more responsive. I mean institutions with which the citizen can identify such as a directly elected President. I mean an institutional arrangement so that it is possible to know who does what.
We need to have a more robust method of governance which will require more commitment on our part to the European Union. We need to review how the European Parliament works and the way in which it interacts with its electorate. Afterall, we all have a shared purpose.
The European Commission already has greater powers, under the new financial mechanisms, to monitor the economic policies of Member States. The Commission needs to be courageous in its work and the Member States involved need to see the Commission as a colleague not a school master correcting home work.
But the Commission also needs to be courageous in its political work. It is an autonomous and essential part of the European institutional architecture and needs to act like that.
We need a Eurozone area where there is a lender of last resort, which means that we have to Europeanise the banking system; we have to cede power to a European oversight regime. We need to find a way of dealing with members of the Eurozone which have lost control of their finances – and the Stability Treaty is the first step down that road. When we have that commitment to budgetary responsibility in place, then we can move to Europeanise debt through some form of Eurobonds. We need greater fiscal union and deeper financial integration. Anyone who suggests that we can federalise debt without first putting in place binding rules and commitments is either a fool or simply telling untruths to win a popularity context.
An essential, if small, building block as part of a more coherent set of arrangements for governing the Eurozone is the Stability Treaty. It has the advantages of bringing certainty with regard to each country’s place within the Eurozone. From Ireland’s point of view we need that certainty and stability as the essential platform to allow increased investment in Ireland. And if we have that investment and the resultant exports we will have the increased employment and the restoration of fiscal balance.
I have already made the point that the EU is about more than economics, it is about the shared, compassionate societies we enjoy. In recent months the horrific actions of the Assad Regime in Syria have highlighted the contrast between our societies and the barbaric repression suffered by the population there. Delegates, I absolutely condemn the actions of the Assad regime and unequivocally conclude that the actions of that same regime can only be described as crimes against humanity.
The events in Syria remind us of how Europe once was just over 60 years ago. Last month the renowned Sunday Times correspondent Marie Colvin was killed while reporting in Homs. In her last dispatch she wrote:
“They call it the widows’ basement. Crammed amid makeshift beds and scattered belongings are frightened women and children trapped in the horror of Homs, the Syrian city shaken by two weeks of relentless bombardment.”
Colvin’s idol was the legendary American war correspondent Martha Gellhorn. Driving through Italy in 1944, Gellhorn recalled:
“This field grew huge dead cattle. We could not tell what killed them because we were driving too fast through a long tunnel of dust which was the road. The Major drove as usual like mad. We were going to look at the front before lunch.”
I recall these words from these two women because they demonstrate that we must never take peace and prosperity for granted. The Syrians know that and we in Europe once knew that. The European Union has been the greatest engine for peace and prosperity the world has ever known and Ireland has been, and remains, part of that progress.
Ireland cannot simply sit back and expect other countries to lead the way. We have the capacity, the drive and the tenacity to lead this charge ourselves. We can be a country which leads the field in seeing our national interest and our neighbours’ interests, best served by advancing the common European interest. Ireland’s interest, France’s interest, Poland’s interest, Spain’s interest and every other Member State’s interest can only be served by defending and advancing the overall European interest.
This is something we understood very well in Ireland in the past. It is time we reignite that understanding. We must reignite it amongst our citizens and amongst our politicians. We must do so for the sake of our future – for Ireland’s future, for Europe’s future, because our fortunes are so entirely interconnected and so necessarily interdependent.
In 2013, on the 40th anniversary of our membership of the EEC, as it was then, Ireland will assume the Presidency of the European Union. I am confident it will be a presidency where Ireland will, once again, show the way forward for the whole of the European Union. It will be a presidency that focuses on jobs and growth and on enterprise and innovation. It will be a presidency of renewal – for the whole European Union.
Speaking in the Dáil in March 1972 the then Taoiseach and one of my political heroes, Liam Cosgrave, reflected on the events of the preceding years: “Today we stand at a most important crossroads in our history. The road we take will determine not only the future of our country for generations to come, but also the contribution we make to the creation of a Europe that will measure up to the high ideals of the founders of the community. I am confident that the decision we take will reflect our people's faith in their capacity to help fashion for themselves and for future generations of Irish men and women a better Ireland in a better Europe.”
James Joyce recognised that fact in 1918 when he wrote: “If Ireland is to become a new Ireland she must first become European.”
Delegates, we have fashioned a better future for ourselves in Europe, through Europe. It is our responsibility to continue to strive for peace and prosperity on this island and on the continent of Europe for the generations that will follow. Delegates, Ireland’s place is in Europe.
087 662 6410