At a time when the European Union faces serious challenges, it is appropriate that we mark Europe Day by turning our attention to the future of the Union while reminding ourselves of its fundamental purpose. It is 68 years since plans for the European Coal and Steel Community were announced. It was a bold plan in a post-war context which envisaged the close interlinking of European economies to ensure, as Robert Schumann himself claimed, that war between historic rivals would not only be "merely unthinkable, but materially impossible". Since then, the European Union has developed into an area in which citizens enjoy the highest living standards, the highest levels of social protection, the highest level of labour rights and the highest protections for human rights in history.
As we celebrate 45 years as a member state of the EU, it is timely to reflect on our relationship with the Union over the past number of decades. Ireland has benefitted enormously from membership of the European Union. With EU support, it has transformed into a modern, outward-looking country and an excellent place to do business where the standard of living matches that of the most prosperous of our European partners. EU membership has helped to improve almost every aspect of life in Ireland from how we work, travel and shop to the quality of our environment, opportunities for learning and way in which our businesses buy and sell goods and services.
EU membership has enabled our transformation from a mainly rural economy to a modern economy driven by high technology industry and global exports, while membership of the eurozone has facilitated exports and international travel. We have reduced our reliance on the United Kingdom in trade and there is now a much wider market for Irish goods and services across the Union. Furthermore, the EU provided the context through which we succeeded in forging strong bonds of co-operation and solidarity not only across the EU but also across these islands and on our own island, after many years of conflict. That has been highlighted even more by the challenges we are facing with Brexit.
Successive Irish Governments have recognised over the past 45 years, and no less so today, that Ireland’s place in the EU is in our best interests. Irish people are consistently among the most supportive of engagement at EU level. A Red C poll commissioned on behalf of European Movement Ireland and published this morning shows that 92% of Irish people support Ireland’s continued membership of the EU. More interestingly, 97% of 18 to 24 year olds showed support. This is a level we have never seen previously. More Irish students than ever are participating in the ERASMUS+ programme and are finding jobs and careers in other member states, while Irish business continues to grow and expand across the EU. A priority of this Government is to maintain and increase the number of Irish people working in the EU institutions, and we have been very active in promoting these career options and offering support to those searching for an international career in the EU. I have travelled to the various universities and engaged with the students to show them the opportunities that are available to them in Europe.
This is not to say that from Ireland’s perspective all is as it should be in the EU. However, while reforms in some areas may be necessary, the fact that the vast majority of people believe that our membership of the Union is a positive factor for Ireland is a valuable starting point. Most people understand that the EU is not perfect, and never will be. However, it is the best mechanism to deal with the challenges we face each day. Every year on 9 May we celebrate Schuman’s vision for Europe in 1950. This year is arguably even more significant as we face into an uncertain future as 27 members, following the decision of the UK to leave the Union. Of course, conversations must be held about the future direction of the EU, what we want from it and how it can work for us. This is all in the context of the difficult issues we have faced over the past number of years, such as the financial crisis, the migration crisis, the recent terror attacks on EU soil that have tested member states and the steady growth of Euroscepticism in some member states. Furthermore, the aftermath of Brexit and the new upcoming budget cycle, as well as political developments in other parts of the EU, have underlined the need for these discussions to take place.
Working closely with a range of EU partners has always been important for Ireland, but strengthening and diversifying these relationships have assumed renewed importance in light of Brexit. I thank our partners across Europe for the unwavering solidarity they have shown to Ireland on issues relating to Brexit and also in setting out our negotiating objectives. It is also essential for us to understand their perspective on other issues and to discuss our shared priorities for the future of Europe. For example, in many key economic and institutional policy areas we share a common approach with the Nordic and Baltic member states and with the Netherlands. Our engagement stretches across the Government, with the Taoiseach, the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Minister for Finance engaging in meetings in advance of EU Council meetings with their counterparts. I will participate in a similar meeting organised by Latvia to discuss the multiannual financial framework, MFF, later this week. The Taoiseach and Ministers also engage in an intensive programme of bilateral exchanges with our partners, which allows us to seek common ground, agree key priorities or, at the very least, better inform each other of where we are coming from and of other issues where we might seem to diverge. Understanding each other better goes to the heart of what the EU is about.
We live in a changing world, with major shifts brought about by globalisation, migration, climate change and threats to our security as well as political challenges to the current international order. We, the member states and citizens of the EU, must ask ourselves if the EU is fit for purpose to address the many challenges we will face in the coming years. On 15 November last, the Taoiseach, the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade and I launched a national citizens' dialogue on the future of Europe. Over the past number of months we have been engaging with people of all ages and from all sectors to hear their views about the Union and its future direction. We held regional events in Galway, Cork, Maynooth, Letterkenny, Navan and Dublin, to name a few, where we heard from citizens and from representatives of civic society, as well as community and voluntary organisations. The events were structured around discussions on key thematic areas, which included security, social policy, education, equal opportunities, the environment, competitiveness and investment. The key driver of these dialogues was the engagement and involvement of as many people as possible. The slogan we chose for this campaign is straightforward and simple: "It's your future; your Europe; get involved". I am pleased that many people did get involved.
These events culminated earlier today at our Europe Day event in the Royal Hospital, Kilmainham, where our discussions brought these key themes together. I am grateful to all of the people, including Members of this House and of the Seanad, who attended and contributed so much to this process over the past six months. Irish people have a deep and informed interest in Europe. We heard a wide range of views in what has been an open, inclusive and participative process. People have embraced it and got involved. I believe we have a real sense of how Irish people are engaging about Europe and the issues of interest to them. Broadly, the overwhelming majority of Irish citizens who participated in these events see opportunity in the EU and value Ireland’s continued role in it. Ireland’s future in Europe goes way beyond the Brexit issue, and we can look towards a shared future with our EU partners with real optimism.
Areas such as education and training, research and innovation, environmental protection, rural development and competitiveness were among the stand-out issues where participants in our consultations felt more EU action is required. Specifically, the areas of education and training came up continuously at each event and were in each question that was asked. We have to take all this information and bring everything we have learned through this process together. We have to make sure it informs the Government’s analysis and our contribution to the Europe-wide debate that is taking place.
A clear difference between today and when we joined what was then the EEC in 1973 is that we now live in a much more interconnected and globalised world. We face growing competition from emerging economies such as China, India, Asia and Africa, and are challenged by a range of new issues, such as mass migration, climate change, cyber threats and international terrorism. Most Irish people agree that these issues are too big to be dealt with by one member state alone and value the co-operation and solidarity achieved through the EU to deal with them.
The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has increased funding to a number of organisations that are involved in communicating European issues to the public. They include European Movement Ireland and the Institute for International and European Affairs, IIEA, both of which have been active and involved in the future of Europe discussion. I also recently announced a fund of €100,000 for 15 civil society bodies, NGOs and organisations through the Communicating Europe initiative. I can give a flavour of some, which are quite wide and varied. There will be a special Blindboy Podcast on Europe live at the MindField arena at the Electric Picnic festival in September. The young innovators for Europe project will be undertaken by the Young Social Innovators and a Big Friendly Guide to the European Union will be launched for primary schools, to complement the Blue Star EU education programme. I expect that these projects will further encourage people to engage, participate and communicate with the various different bodies and outreach assistance that is available to them.
Turning to the MFF, the European Commission just last week published its proposals in advance of negotiations for the next MFF from 2021-27. This will be our first budget cycle without the contribution of the United Kingdom and debates have been ongoing around the approach we should take to the next budget, whether increased contributions from member states is the best way forward, whether a smaller Union necessarily means a smaller EU budget or whether a combination of approaches is the best way forward. We have always said we would be willing to contribute more but we would need to see that there is European added value where that money is contributed. Ireland has traditionally been a significant net beneficiary of the EU budget since accession in 1973. This is first time we will enter the negotiations where that will change. We must continue to adapt to the EU’s evolving priorities, particularly where we can see evidence of European added value. Ireland stands ready to engage positively on these.
However, we cannot lose sight of the value and contribution of traditional policies, including those on agriculture and cohesion. Indeed, the Common Agricultural Policy has been central to maintaining and supporting Irish farmers, who were the backbone of our economy for many years and still represent a hugely important economic sector for us. It is also vital that there be a continuation of the PEACE and INTERREG programmes post Brexit, as foreseen in the Commission's progress report from last December. Last week at our Brexit stakeholder forum I saw how important these are. We will consider the Commission's proposals in full and we look forward to engaging with them.
To conclude, it is evident that despite the many challenges we face in the coming months and years Ireland's outlook on the future of the European Union is positive. Irish people recognise the importance of EU membership. The ties we have developed and the relationships we have built will continue post Brexit. I believe it is fitting to celebrate Europe Day each year, as we look forward to a stronger and better Union into the future.