Mr. Speaker, Taoiseach, other Members, I have some difficulties in walking. I am not drunk; I have sciatica. I would prefer to be drunk. It is a real honour to be with you here today for this special joint sitting of the Houses. It is a particular honour for me that you have joined in order to listen, hopefully carefully, to what I intend to say.
Over the years, I have spent some emotional and memorable moments here in Ireland. I think of the crucial Dublin summit in December 1996 where we paved the way for the single currency with the Stability and Growth Pact. Since then, my second name is "Hero of Dublin" - I am doing something for the reputation of the city. I think of the "Day of Welcomes" in May 2004, when we gathered in the Phoenix Park to welcome ten new countries into our Union celebrating the moment where European history and European geography came together. On a more personal note, I think back to 2014 when, in Dublin, I was elected as the lead candidate for my party ahead of the European elections. On that day, I stood side by side with a certain Michel Barnier. We were running together, not he against me, not me against him, but I won. I am delighted that, four years on, we are back, Michel and myself, here in Ireland still standing together. He is a loyal friend to me, to our Union and to your nation.
Ever since it took its rightful place in our Union some 45 years ago, Ireland has acted like a founding member state and often more than some founding member states themselves. You have always sought the European approach, understanding that what is good for all in our Union is good for us all individually.
Ireland, itself, has come a long way in that time. It went from a small, mainly agricultural economy to a thriving Celtic tiger in the 1990s and in the 2000s and thanks to difficult, tough decisions following the crisis, the economy is now more than back on its feet. The crisis took its toll on citizens and businesses alike but together, you have managed to turn the country around. Growth is projected at 5.8% this year, the second fastest anywhere in Europe, and unemployment is set to drop to less than 5% next year. Ireland has become a pioneer of the digital world and is now a hub for some of the world's best innovators and entrepreneurs. This reflects just how much this country has embraced the modern world.
It is now the most youthful country in our Union with a median age almost ten years younger than that of Germany and Italy. It is the most optimistic country in our Union with the highest proportion of people with a positive image of the European Union anywhere in Europe. I have to tell the one who wrote this speech that the approval of the European Union is even higher in Luxembourg than in Ireland but they are always treating Luxembourg with benign neglect - that is the reason I had to complete what he or she has so well done.
Ireland is the most globalised country in our Union thanks to its open nature and high level of economic and social integration with the rest of the world and it is a country that is undergoing a more profound transformation with more than half Ireland's population not born at the time of the decision to join the European Union. The recent referendums on marriage equality and abortion reflect a deeper shift in societal views, a shift that would not have been contemplated even a generation ago. Both of these issues were approved decisively and clearly by the people. To quote George Bernard Shaw, "Progress is impossible without change, and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything." This sums up the transformation this country has undergone.
Perhaps the biggest change of all is that today's children can grow up in a peaceful land. That is, first and foremost, down to the people who live on this island but it is also true that this long and winding path to peace was greatly supported by European Union membership. From 1973 onwards, both Ireland and the UK worked together on European issues, dialogue returned, relations slowly started to thaw and over time, co-operation, compromise and mutual respect replaced suspicion, scepticism and mutual distrust. This is the European Union at its best, building bridges and working for peace and it shows what it means to be a member of our Union. It means agreeing to settle conflicts around a table rather than with arms. It means designing and abiding by rules to build trust and confidence between us. It means voluntarily pooling our sovereignty to make ourselves stronger. It means speaking with one voice in an increasingly volatile and unstable world and it means having the weight of 26 other partners united behind you when you need it the most. This is what Ireland can rely on, both today and in the future.
Nowhere is this more important than when it comes to the withdrawal of the United Kingdom. Two years ago this week, the British people made a sovereign decision to leave our Union. I wish they had made a different one but it is their decision and I respect it fully. However, other member states and Ireland in particular, should not pay the price for that choice. This is why, when it comes to Brexit, I have always said that it is a case of Ireland first. We have made much progress in negotiations, notably on issues linked to the orderly withdrawal of the United Kingdom, but we are not yet there. The hardest parts are still to do and there is not much time left to find a concrete agreement.
On Ireland, both sides agree on the main principles. There should be no return of a hard border. We need common rules to preserve North-South co-operation. Most importantly, this means the Good Friday Agreement should be preserved in its entirety - every line, every letter.
Twenty years ago, 94% of the people in Ireland and 71% in Northern Ireland endorsed this agreement. They voted overwhelmingly for peace and peace is what it has delivered, built on trust, fairness, equality, the rule of law and democracy. Whether one lives in Derry or in Donegal, the Border has been out of sight and out of mind for 20 years and that is how it must stay.
That is why we have put forward clear proposals, including a backstop option to safeguard the Good Friday Agreement and ensure there will be no hard border. The backstop is bespoke and a workable solution. It has been designed for Northern Ireland and to uphold its constitutional status, but this tailored solution for Northern Ireland cannot fit the whole of the United Kingdom. It covers all necessary customs and regulatory controls to avoid a hard border and does not jeopardise future relations between the United Kingdom and the European Union. The United Kingdom's proposals for a temporary customs arrangement show a certain willingness to make progress, but they do not, for instance, show how a regulatory alignment would work. In practice, they authorise a number of new questions such as how the backstop can have an expiration date if the commitment to having no hard border does not. We have less than ten months to Brexit and need more answers and fewer new questions.
We will continue - my friend Michel Barnier, me and others - to take a pragmatic approach to finding solutions, but I also want to be clear - Ireland will come first. There are those who think the other 26 countries will abandon Ireland at the last minute for a separate deal that suits them. Those people have not understood what being part of our Union means. Ireland's border is Europe's border and our Union's priority.
Of course, it is in everyone's interests for the United Kingdom and the European Union to stay as close as possible and be friends, partners and allies. The reality is that there is no arrangement outside the European Union which is as good as membership. It simply does not exist. Instead, our goal is to secure the next best option for both sides. With pragmatism comes realism. As the clock ticks down to Brexit, we must prepare for every eventuality, including no deal. This is neither a desired nor a likely outcome, but it is not an impossible one and we are getting ready just in case. We will use all tools at our disposal which could have a cushioning impact. The new long-term budget for our Union from 2021 onwards has an in-built flexibility that could allow us to redirect funds if the situation arose. We will also earmark €120 million for a new PEACE programme, a programme which has done so much in breaking down barriers between communities in Northern Ireland and the Border counties. I see no better use of the European budget than finalising peace and community values. In all cases I reaffirm our commitment that a united Europe will support Ireland every step of the way and that this unity is more important and relevant than ever, given the increasingly fragile and fractured world around us.
Ten days ago I was in Canada for the G7 summit. It was a moment of reality for the international rules based order Europe and the United States did so much to build. The United States is a special partner for Ireland. Your shared history goes deeper than most. The very house in which we are standing today was the model for the White House and the United States will continue to be a special partner for Europe too. We make each other safer, more secure and prosperous, but at the same time we must stand firm for the rules and values in which we believe. We must take on the mantle of leadership. That is what we are doing on climate change and nuclear weapons in Iran. We have made a commitment because it is good for us and good for the world and we will stick to those commitments.
That is what we must also do when it comes to free and fair trade. The trade in which we believe is built on rules, trust and a reliable partnership. The United States' decision to impose tariffs on Europe goes against this. In fact, it goes against all logic and history and our response must be clear but measured. We will do what we have to do to rebalance and safeguard, but at the same time, we will move forward in new partnerships with like-minded countries. It makes sense for us and our economy. Our trade agreement with Canada, for instance, removes duties on 98% of the products we buy from and sell to one another. The agreement with Japan which will be signed in July will be a real opportunity for Irish farmers, in particular. Ireland exports over 40,000 tonnes of beef to Japan every year, at a tariff of 38.5%. The new agreement will reduce this figure drastically, further opening up a market of 125 million people. We have just concluded an agreement with Mexico and now have the green light to start negotiations with Australia and New Zealand. In each case we have a clear mandate from all member states and the European Parliament and will insist on a balanced outcome for all, including agriculture and all other important sectors. These agreements are not only good for our economy but they also help us to export our standards and values. They make food with care for all.
Our values also extend to the digital world. Rules that apply offline should also apply online, especially when it comes to paying a fair share of tax on profits made. The truth is that our tax laws have not kept up with the pace of change. They were designed in a world where digital companies did not yet really figure. Today nine of the top 20 largest companies in the world are digital. This shows the economic potential of digital companies, but with profits comes the duty to pay taxes. The amounts that are going untaxed are both unsustainable and unacceptable. I know that this is a difficult issue in this country. Sometimes when I am listening to debates here, I fall back to the Luxembourg Parliament because in Luxembourg we have exactly the same debates, but from time to time people have to change their minds if they want to change reality. As with any digital issue, the taxation problem is a global challenge. We are working with our partners across the world to find a solution on which we all agree. In the meantime we must equip member states to tax profits when they are made in their countries, even if a company does not have a physical presence there. As with trade, the digital world is an opportunity for Europe to lead and set an example.
The truth is that recent events are a sharp reminder of the need for European unity if our voices are to be heard on the world stage. Mr. Speaker and honorary Members, it was Oscar Wilde's Algernon who said it best when he said, "The truth is rarely pure and never simple." The truth of today's world is neither pure nor simple. On the one hand, the case for real co-operation is stronger than ever and, on the other, we see a temptation on the part of some to go it alone. In the face of that truth, we all face a choice - unite around our common values and work for our common good or each of us spin off and get what we can. Europe has already made its choice - we will stay united, whether it be on Brexit, trade, Iran or climate change. I am delighted that last year's global Ireland strategy presented by the Taoiseach made exactly this commitment. It is the image of modern Ireland. I count on you to ensure Europe will stay at the heart of Ireland and you can count on me that Ireland will stay at the heart of Europe.
I greet respectfully all of the former Ministers I have met during my long life, veterans and others. Thank you for listening. I am happy to be here.