It gives me great pleasure to open this debate to mark Europe Day. Europe Day is a celebration of peace and unity in Europe. It marks the birthday of what is today the European Union, the direct enabler of historic progress on this island and throughout Europe. In the face of constant opposition from the extremes of the right and the left, the European Union has prevailed. It has led to a dramatic improvement in living standards for every community. It has protected democracy and spoken up for solidarity. It has opposed the many extremist voices which continue to promote ideologies which offer nothing more than angry words and an ignorance of history.
It is a Union which Ireland joined freely 50 years ago with hopes and aspirations which have been met and exceeded time and again. In a world where the arrogant, defensive and inward-looking nationalism of the past has tried to reassert itself, the European Union has stood for a positive vision. It is a vision where sovereignty is enhanced by confident nations working together constructively and with strong rules to ensure fairness.
Like any entity built by people, it has its flaws and some of these are serious. In any honest debate, however, we have to make time to acknowledge its overwhelmingly positive contributions. We need to reaffirm our commitment to the core spirit of co-operation at its heart. The idea of working to replace conflict with co-operation is as old as Europe itself.
History records many visionaries who looked at a Continent defined by warfare and called for a new approach. In the 1920s and 1930s, one finds Irish leaders like Éamon de Valera and Seán Lemass responding to rising tensions in Europe by calling for strong rules-based organisations. De Valera's appeal to the League of Nations to respect limits of the actions of states remains one of the shining high points of Irish foreign policy and is one of the most prophetic predictions in the 1930s about where Europe might head. Seán Lemass, as a young man imprisoned after the Civil War, devoted himself to reading economic and political texts which might show a new road forward for Ireland. His attraction to the idea of European economic co-operation began at that point.
So it was that the generation that fought for our independence continued to define our future as a positive and outward looking one, just as we find in the spirit of the 1916 Proclamation. It remains the greatest tragedy of modern history that it took the disaster of the Second World War for Europe to turn to building strong rules-based co-operation. Robert Schuman wished to see a Europe where war between European nations would become a thing of the past.
Much has happened over the past 70 years. The European Union now comprises 27 member states from all parts of Europe, including many for whom membership of the Union has been central to overcoming the legacy of right-wing and left-wing totalitarian regimes. While the European Union is by no means perfect, there are great advantages for a small, open, trading nation being at the centre of the European project. Over the decades, we have shared many significant milestones and weathered many storms together. There were good times like the reunification of Germany in 1990 or the addition of ten new member states under the Irish Presidency of the Council in 2004. There have also been more difficult ones including the economic crisis, the departure of the United Kingdom and, of course, more recently the Covid-19 pandemic. In good times and in bad, there has always been strength in unity.
I acknowledge in particular the role of the European Union in supporting the Good Friday Agreement and peace on this island. The European Union has been an essential backdrop and forum where Irish and British Ministers and officials built the relationships which made possible the Anglo-Irish Agreement and later the Good Friday Agreement, as well as subsequent agreements. Peace has been the most transformative change of all in Ireland over the past 20 years and more. Throughout the peace process, the European Union has stood with us.
Our partners in the European institutions worked to protect peace and the Good Friday Agreement throughout the negotiations on Brexit. They are working with us now as we seek to bed down the new arrangements. This is the first Europe Day since the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement was signed in December last year and ratified by the European Parliament last month. We are now in the earliest days of a new European Union-United Kingdom dispensation. It is clear that it will take time for the United Kingdom to become comfortable with its new relationship with the European Union and vice versa.
At an early point in the Brexit negotiations, the United Kingdom decided to leave the Single Market and the customs union, even if it sometimes cavilled at what the inevitable consequences of this choice would be. In choosing that path, the United Kingdom stepped outside the seamless trading environment of the European Union. Being outside means friction. While this is an obstacle to trade, it should not be one to partnership. It is a time now to rebuild trust, which has become a scarcer commodity following more than four years of negotiation and upheaval.
As we in Ireland know from all our key relationships, whether as a member of the UN Security Council currently, as a EU member state or as a co-guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement, trust is the very stuff of peace, prosperity, partnership and success. That is also why Ireland has chosen our own path. It is the path of the European Union, where countries play by the same rules, co-operate freely and fairly and try to raise all boats. Never did our choice resonate more than it did over those four and a half years as the European Union and United Kingdom negotiated the UK's withdrawal agreement and then the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement. At times, there were difficult days during these negotiations. Amidst all of the uncertainty caused by Brexit, one unequivocal certainty came to the fore, namely, the certain value of the solidarity that comes from being a member state of the European Union.
Over the past year, Covid-19 has challenged us all and tested our resolve. Governments in the European Union and beyond have been faced with difficult choices as they sought to protect life and health, while also limiting the damage to jobs, enterprise and economies. The European Union's institutions were also faced with a crisis and a challenge of immense scale in an area where the Union's competence and ability to respond were constrained.
Despite this, the European Union has played a pivotal role in our collective response to the pandemic. The European Commission has supported vaccine development and procurement. We can clearly see those benefits now. Approximately 200 million doses of safe and effective vaccines have already been distributed inside the European Union, not much more than a year since the WHO declared Covid-19 a pandemic. A further 200 million vaccines have been exported from the European Union to 90 other countries. This makes the European Union the foremost bloc in the production and distribution of vaccines in the entire world, a point which does not get the commentary it deserves and gets undermined in domestic commentary here. This is a remarkable achievement by the European Union in itself.
The Commission's work on vaccines is a clear example of the EU responding to its citizens' needs and supporting member states' efforts to combat the pandemic. As I noted, large quantities of vaccines produced in the EU have been exported to over 90 countries across the world.
However, we acknowledge we must do more to support global solidarity. The European Union will continue its efforts to contribute to the international response to the pandemic, including through the COVAX facility, and we must continue to ensure nobody is left behind. The European Union launched its Team Europe initiative in April last year and has so far mobilised a budget of over €40 billion of resources from the European Union, its member states and financial institutions. Ireland will play its part. We responded rapidly in recent weeks to provide life saving equipment to India in response to the worsening Covid-19 outbreak there. This support is part of the coordinated effort by the European Union member states, through the European Civil Protection Mechanism.
It is clear Covid-19 will leave deep and lasting economic and social impacts. Last year, the European Union, its institutions and its member states came together in a way that has demonstrated to its citizens the strength there is in unity. The €1.8 trillion budgetary package agreed by the European Council last July – my own first meeting as Taoiseach - represents a new and important milestone in European Union solidarity. The spectre of the pandemic was to the forefront of all our minds as we worked over the course of four long days and nights to address the gravity of this unprecedented collective challenge. Despite sometimes very difficult negotiations, we agreed a fair, balanced and ambitious package to support Europe’s economic recovery and to drive the climate and digital transformation on which our future well-being and prosperity rely. This includes a targeted and front-loaded investment, through the recovery and resilience facility, and reinforcement of key MMF programmes. Importantly, the recovery package sent a message that in the most testing of times, even when there are differing views as to the right approach and the best way forward, European Union leaders can work together and find a compromise that delivers for our citizens. In the middle of possibly the greatest challenge our Union has faced, there probably could not have been a better outcome.
Over the next seven years we will contribute more to the EU budget than we will receive and in doing so we will extend the same solidarity to others that we have benefited from over many decades. We do this because this is a model that works. The path to full economic recovery will be very challenging and we will need to use all of the tools available to us. Among the most important of these is the Single Market. We will need to harness its full potential to drive the digital and climate transformations on which our future prosperity depends. In building the Single Market of the future, economic openness remains crucial. The European Union should continue to work and advocate for strong, open, rules-based, multilateralism as a framework within which we can advance our interests and defend our values. In that respect, recent work in respect of the value of trade deals, under the aegis of the European Union, revealed very significant benefits for small to medium-sized enterprises in Ireland and indeed for the multinational presence in Ireland. Therefore, the House, and those who are opposed to the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement, CETA, and other trade deals need really to reappraise that opposition because the evidence about the Canada deal and also the Japan deal, South Korea deal and other trade deals is quite significant in terms of the value to GDP and also the value added to Irish companies which create jobs here and produce products and solutions for the global market and help to solve many problems across the globe.
As I said, the European Union is more than just a shared marketplace. The Porto Declaration, signed by European Union leaders this weekend, makes clear that our shared European ideal is first and foremost about improving the lives of our citizens. It marks an important milestone in setting a progressive EU agenda for the decade ahead. I joined European Union leaders at the social summit at the invitation of the Portuguese Presidency to reinforce our collective national and European Union-level commitment to implementing the European Pillar of Social Rights. The concrete employment, skills and poverty-reduction targets to be achieved by 2030 are an exemplar of the practical focus I believe is necessary in setting the strategic direction for the period ahead. These European Union targets are for an adult employment rate of 78%, 60% of adults to be in training annually and a reduction of at least 15 million in the number of people at risk of poverty and social exclusion, including at least 5 million children. They provide the right political emphasis for the European Union and member states in steering the European semester process of economic governance for annual budgets, including this year’s national recovery and resilience plans. It is very welcome that the social pillar will continue to provide a clear political compass for our collective actions in responding effectively to 21st century challenges and opportunities and equipping our citizens with the skills and capabilities for full economic and social participation.
There are other important challenges that can only be faced by working together with others. Last December, European Union leaders took the opportunity to reinforce Europe’s leadership role on climate. As we reached the fifth anniversary of the Paris Agreement, the European Union stepped-up its ambition level and committed to an increase in the EU 2030 target to at least 55% emissions reduction. We also agreed to raise our climate ambition in a manner that will drive sustainable economic growth, create jobs, deliver health and environmental benefits for European Union citizens and contribute to the long-term global competitiveness of the European Union economy. The European Union green deal is at the forefront of European Union priorities and we collectively grapple with the challenge of transforming our economies and societies in the years ahead. Later this month, the European Council will continue its discussion on climate and over the summer the Commission will present its Fit for 55 suite of measures to drive implementation of our target.
We must also work together on the twin challenge of progressing the digital transition. The Digital Compass proposals presented by the European Commission in March are a further important contribution in this regard. They include clear ambitions for digital skills, data and connectivity infrastructure and for increasing the digital intensity of business and our public services. In March, European Union leaders set important political orientations for the ambitious legislative agenda being advanced by the Commission on digital issues, which are becoming fundamental to the dynamism of the Single Market. An open, well-functioning, competitive and innovative digital economy is clearly the essential basis for the European Union’s future economic strength. It is important we continue to strike the right balance here, shaping Europe’s future in a direction that remains open, competitive and innovation-friendly while strengthening the European Union’s commitments to rules-based multilateralism.
We must also acknowledge the role the European Union plays on the world stage. The US President, Mr. Biden, recently joined European leaders by video conference. The European Union and the United States will not agree on everything but no serious progress on global challenges is possible without strong EU-US cooperation. Ireland’s ambition is for the European Union to become an ever-stronger advocate and actor in support of resilient, open, rules-based political and economic multilateralism. This is the most effective and indeed only effective way to advance our interests and to defend our values. This pandemic has shown, in very sharp relief, just how interlinked the world is. No country can stand aside and ignore the global context for social and economic inequality, organised misinformation, the erosion of core values and the existential issues of climate change and the biodiversity crisis. We must do more than recognise these issues. We must contribute actively to global, international and regional alliances and initiatives to tackle and to counter them. That is why Ireland puts such store in our international engagement, through the European Union and United Nations in particular.
On Sunday the Conference on the Future of Europe was formally launched in Strasbourg. I welcome the conference as a practical way of boosting citizen engagement with the European Union. The peace and prosperity brought by this unique political project has undoubtedly improved the lives of all Europeans. In securing this peace and prosperity for the 21st century and building together our bridge to a brighter future, this is the right time for a stronger citizen-focused dialogue that can reinvigorate our democracies, give new voice to the priorities of our families and communities and begin a deeper engagement with the collective intelligence of our villages, towns, cities and regions. The joint declaration signed in March by the European Parliament President, David Sassoli, the Prime Minister of Portugal, António Costa, on behalf of the Presidency of the Council and Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen, paves the way to a series of debates and discussions that will enable people from every corner of the Continent to share their ideas on shaping Europe’s future. Our own national launch event will take place this Friday, 14 May led by the Minister of State with responsibility for EU Affairs, Deputy Thomas Byrne, and I look forward to constructive and considered Oireachtas support for this important initiative.
As we mark Europe Day, let us recall that Ireland will be an advocate for a strong and effective European Union, defined by democracy, the rule of law and solidarity. We will actively engage bilaterally and through international organisations to support open and fair trade, combat disinformation, protect democracies and promote understanding. Whether we are acting globally or locally, there are many challenges best faced in solidarity and co-operation with European partners.
Mar a deir an seanfhocal, ní neart go cur le chéile agus is é sin croílár chlár an Aontais Eorpaigh. Is aontas é atá thar a bheith tábhachtach i saol na linne inniu, go háirithe don tír seo ach, mar aon leis sin, don domhan ar fad. Tá tionchar faoi leith ag an Aontas Eorpach. Is iontach an scéal é go bhfuil an tír seo fós páirteach sa chlár seo agus go bhfuil an-chuid ag teacht as, ach go bhfuil muidne, chomh maith, ag déanamh an-chuid laistigh den Eoraip agus den Aontas Eorpach agus go fada buan an chláir seo.