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‘Europe Day’ Debate Dáil Éireann

I am very happy to open this first Europe Day debate in the Dáil and to commemorate the sixty-first anniversary of the Schuman Declaration. Today’s debate represents the fulfilment of an important commitment in the Programme for Government.

I am delighted to see Ireland’s MEPs and our Commissioner, Máire Geoghegan-Quinn, in the Dáil Chamber today and I look forward to hearing their contributions throughout the day.

This Government came into Office 61 days ago facing many challenges and with a promise – to strive in everything we do to fix the economy, to heal our society, to reform our systems and to bring hope to our people.

We committed our absolute resolve to a process of transformation – laying the foundations for a new Ireland and a better future.

Rebuilding Ireland’s relationship with our partners in the European Union is also a critical part of this work.Membership of the European Union

When I was first elected to this House in 1975 Ireland was finding its feet as one of the newest members of the then European Economic Community. Now, almost forty years since we joined, we again find ourselves navigating new waters.

It is a good time to take stock.

Our relationship with Europe, like any partnership of 40 years, has had its ups and downs.

Over time, it has matured and become more complex.

We have seen the Union family grow – from nine Member States when we joined to 27 now, with more expected in the years to come.

We have seen our fundamental economic position improve. Even if recent years have seen us suffer the most profound shock and setback, we are still in a better position than we were before we joined. Our economy is more diverse, more open to trade and exports, more developed. We are better equipped to overcome the difficulties we face.

We have been able to couple together our native strengths, not least our people, with our access to one of the world’s largest single market places to attract the type of inward investment that will help to see us through these most difficult times, and put us on the path to national recovery.

We have used the benefits the Union offered wisely, maximising the impact of receipts under the Union’s regional funds to accelerate our process of development and modernisation.

Under the CAP, our agricultural sector has been transformed beyond recognition.

We have made our membership of the Union work for us because we have been prepared to work constructively with others to achieve common goals.

That is what the Union should be about. That is what the Union is about.

We have made a real contribution too.

Every day Irish officials sit around meeting tables in Brussels sharing ideas, shaping policy and making a difference.

We have a record of achievement in the Parliament and in the Commission.

We have successfully held six Presidencies, and look forward to our seventh in the first half of 2013.

Some of our brightest and best people have served, and indeed still serve, the Union and its institutions at the highest levels.

Irish personnel have served with distinction in European Union led civilian and military missions, including in the Balkans and Africa, bringing Ireland’s proud record of peacekeeping into new places and under a new flag.

We have welcomed new Member States as they have joined and it was during the Irish Presidency in 2004 that we welcomed 10 new States to the European Union.

We have also welcomed also their citizens when they have chosen to make lives for themselves and their families in Ireland. I hold the contribution they have made to our national life in very high regard. We are the better for having them here.

I have seen Ireland grow and mature, casting off the sense of isolation and inferiority that coloured too many of our early decades of statehood.

As someone who cares greatly about the wellbeing of this country, I have never wavered in my support for the European Union.EU/IMF Programme of Support

We are now in receipt of a Programme of Support from the IMF/EU. The pressure on our economy is immense and we are dealing with the downstream effects of the most severe banking bust.

We are engaged in an unprecedented effort to get our fiscal position back on track. We have promised to bring our deficit back in line by the end of 2015, and we will get there.

We are implementing strategies to generate growth in our economy, restore confidence and get money moving and most importantly, get Ireland working again.

As part of our efforts to recover, this government is continuing in its efforts to secure a reduced interest rate on its loans as part of the EU/EIMF agreement. We remain fully confident that we will be able to reduce the current rate.

We should also not lose sight of the seriousness of what was involved for people in Brussels and Frankfurt, and for our partners in capitals around the Union. There was, and in some quarters still is, genuine concern for the future stability of the euro, the shared currency in which we have all invested so much economic and political capital, and on which the economic security of so much of the continent rests.

However, just as there are lessons for Ireland and Europe as a whole to learn from what has happened, there must also be scope for improving how things are done at European level.

For example, the independence of the ECB is, quite rightly, closely guarded and firmly entrenched in the Treaties. There may, however, be ways in which to improve its accountability – and thus underpin the legitimacy of its actions – without in any way infringing on this core principle. It is certainly, in my view, a matter worthy of consideration.

It is also surely worth reflecting on whether a more flexible approach could have delivered a more custom-made and effective solution to the different problems faced by Member States. We are not alone in finding ourselves in serious difficulties, and it is increasingly clear to me that each set of problems requires its own distinct set of solutions. A one-size-fits-all approach risks fitting nobody.The Irish in Europe

Ceann Comhairle,

I am greatly saddened when I hear that the ‘shine’ has gone off Ireland and that we are not regarded as good team players any more by some of our European colleagues.

Sometimes difficult and unwelcome things have to be said, and when that need arises I have shown that I am more than prepared to say them.

But I believe our fundamental interests will be damaged if we stand on the margins or allow ourselves to be isolated. Ireland needs to play a positive and constructive role in the life of the Union because it is the best way to promote and defend our national interests.

That is what this Government will continue to do.

I am also concerned that the recent course of events will take the ‘shine’ off Europe for Irish people.

We in this country have consistently shown ourselves to be strong supporters of the European Union, but this cannot be taken for granted.

While the overwhelming majority of us continue to believe that Ireland has, on balance, benefited significantly from its membership of the European Union, this is a view that is losing ground. The most recent Eurobarometer polling shows a decline of 8% between 2009 and 2010.

Part of this drift, in my opinion, stems from what can be perceived as a wide gap between the making of law in Europe and its implementation on the ground. That is why the Programme for Government sets out a significant package of measures aimed to bring about greater accountability and an enhanced role for the Oireachtas. This includes, foe example, Dáil briefings and engagement prior to EU level meetings, Oireachtas responsibility for full scrutiny of EU draft proposals, and the regular attendance by MEPs of Dáil committees.

I expect that Minister of State Creighton will have more to say about these plans later in the debate.

But that is not the full picture.

The lustre can also be tarnished in this complex relationship when others do not appear to have full respect for the rules of the Union, as laid out in the Treaties and Protocols that govern it.

We, in Ireland, are taking very difficult decisions to get our economy back on track, and we deeply appreciate the support of our partners in this effort.

Under the Treaties – underpinned by commitments secured by Ireland on the Treaty of Lisbon – Member States retain the right to determine the tax mix most suited to their economic circumstances, whatever those circumstances might be at any given moment.

For Ireland, our 12.5% rate of corporation tax is, and will remain, a cornerstone of our economic policy. It cannot be changed without our consent and – to put things as plainly as possible – that consent will not be forthcoming.

It does nobody credit to call it into question or to seek to link movement on this issue to relief elsewhere.

In my strong view, it does damages to Europe’s standing in the eyes of the Irish people.Conclusion

It is clear from the recent review that our EU/IMF programme is on track. However, we are carrying a very heavy burden of debt. Without strong growth, questions of sustainability will remain.

There is no doubt that a reduction in the interest rate on the monies we are borrowing from Europe would be a meaningful and appreciated measure – on its own merits – and as already stated, the Government is continuing in its efforts to secure the agreement of partners in this regard.

Ceann Comhairle

In Europe, as in any private household, economic stress can result in relationship strain.

It is important at such moments to take a step back and to remind ourselves of all of the good and positive things that we have achieved, and that we will continue to achieve together.

There is a bigger picture and we shouldn’t lose sight of it.

The European Union today is a very different place from the EEC we joined all those years ago. It is a much more complex and diverse place. It is more deeply integrated, more widely coordinated.

Over the next twenty years, Europe will face many challenges and we must plan, as a European-wide family, how we will tackle these:Emerging/Strong economiesGrow potential of EU single MarketsTradeRed tapeInnovationImmigrationHumanitarian AidInternational affairs

Values will remain the same, and Europe will remain a place where we can be comfortably at home.

Even in its current difficult circumstances, Ireland should never allow itself to become an unquestioning and uncritical member of the family. But when we offer our views, critical or otherwise, we should do so in a spirit of shared interest and mutual respect.

Europe is not perfect, but then neither are we.

I would like to conclude by welcoming our distinguished visitors to the House today. I very much look forward to the debate.

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