Members have raised an array of interesting points.
On the question of how do we push back against the tide of populism and maintain a feeling across the European population that Europe is a plus and takes nothing away from them nationally but gives extras, I do not believe that battle can be fought and won by the Brussels machinery alone. What are missing are the national voices in support of what is going on. It is important to distinguish between the overall architecture and the individual decisions we do not like. In modern society, we have a tendency to conflate the two and claim the EU is useless and no good because of one matter or issue we do not like.
During the euro crisis, because of my role, I was in meetings with the Heads of Government. I watched them sometimes go through 24 hour long meetings, wrestling with the euro problems. It left me with the strong conviction that, in the end, with the exception of the UK, they all want the EU to succeed and will take the hard decisions when they absolutely have to. No matter how differently they approach matters, they all know all of our European countries are small in the modern world and we have no hope of influencing the wider world if we do not act as a grouping. They all want a different kind of EU but want it to succeed. That is a good starting point.
In some ways, we are still digesting the 2004 enlargement. In a way, each of those countries which joined then felt it would be the 16th member state while the rest of the EU felt we would go on as before. We are still working out how a much larger EU with different traditions and expectations has to find its way. We are going through quite a challenge, both from older and newer member states, to our values. It is not unique to geography. Having seen them in dire times, my conviction is that they all have a reason to want it to survive.
Greece, for example, is still going through a difficult time. It has not wanted to leave the euro or the EU because it understands its future would be even more difficult without all that membership brings.
The challenge is for national politicians to talk about the EU in more positive terms, but not to be starry-eyed and claim it is all wonderful. They need to give a more mature assessment to people emphasising that 27, 26 or ten others need to be brought on board. It is important that small countries are represented and at the table and have a say. There are reasons that we agree to the things we do.
Legally, qualified majority voting is the norm in all legislation but the EU very rarely pushes things to a vote. It may take another six months or a year to bring the reluctant on board continuing trying to find compromises because there is more inclusivity but also better implementation if everybody has signed up to whatever has been decided. It is only really in extremis when everything has broken down and there is a need to make a decision that issues are pushed to a vote. I do not mean the voting process needs to be explained every day, but there needs to be a sharing of responsibility for taking decisions at EU level.
In my time as Secretary General, I was really frustrated when the European Council spent all night drafting its conclusions and then 28 Prime Ministers gave different press conferences on what had just happened instead of spending 24 hours drafting the conclusions and stating, "This is what we agreed", without the need to put a national spin on it. Wrongly, in my view, a number of national politicians of all different parties feel somehow that they have to come out of these meetings and say something different or say how they had to fight for a national point of view instead of saying they had collectively come to a conclusion they believe will be good for all of us because everybody had their fingerprints on it. That is one aspect.
That is not to say that Brussels cannot do a better job; it can. It can do many things to improve the situation. If it is always an outside voice trying to argue the merits of the EU, it has lost in advance. It has to be the members. It is like any club; the members have to want it to succeed. My conviction is that they do but we will still have much debate over a long time to come to hammer out where we want to go next. Some of that will not be comfortable for Ireland because we will not have the same harmony of views as we had with the UK on many things - not on everything, but on many things.
We need to pay careful attention to the trade situation. The member is absolutely right in saying we are coming to a stage where some people believe might is right and that the biggest can call the shots. That is the kind of denial of the multilateral world from which we have benefited considerably in the past 70 years. In this area Europe must hold to its views and try to bring together many other countries in the world that think like us. The recent EU-Japan trade deal is a very good example of other big trading blocs in the world that believe in the rule of law, negotiated agreements and the mutual interest that can be negotiated. We need to find those alliances and build them.
The EU has been behind in social policy, not only but largely because of British opposition to developing social policies. There has to be a better way for those who gain from globalisation and open trade to share more of the benefits with those who inevitably will lose or feel penalised by it. That is a big challenge for Europe in the years to come. If we do not get that right, we will retreat in the face of pressure from the United States, China, etc. We will also retreat into a less open way of doing business. This will not be good for the smaller countries that make their living from it.
I am concerned about the number of new Irish officials in the institutions. I know the competitions are difficult, but as Senator Richmond stated, many young Irish people working in Brussels in consultancy companies, advocacy organisations, etc., would love to work for the institutions. However, I do not believe it is right to seek a language derogation. The British have argued for that for years, but it goes down extremely badly with the other countries from where many people have to learn more than one other language in order to be able to work in a multilingual environment. However, some help could be given in that area. There are examples of helping people who are going through the process to improve their language skills. That would not cost very much and would be a better way. It is very important for people to show they have made an effort to learn another language in order to understand and reach out to a different culture. That kind of thing is well regarded in the rest of the European Union. We need to be alive to encouraging younger people and helping them deal with the machinery involved.
How are we doing on new alliances? Many of the smaller countries are going through the same thinking process as Ireland to work out how they can group together to be more effective. I think there is a welcome for Ireland in many of these groupings, but we will need to do more to understand their problems and positions. We may need to give them more support in areas in which we might have had little interest in the past. I always tell the story of one of my Luxembourg colleagues who, even though his country is not located near the sea, was a specialist in the Common Fisheries Policy. When asked why he bothered, he would say, "It is because it is important to my other colleagues. I want to be able to brief my Ministers and tell them how we think it should go but also how to help them." It will require more effort on our part.
We tend to be very pragmatic. There is a more visionary dimension to how other countries see the EU. We might need to get more lyrical in understanding the less pragmatic side of things. We are always viewed as being well prepared and I think we would be welcome. We and the other small member states will need to work harder together to replace the expertise the UK brought to many sectoral forums. Their analysis was always very well prepared. They had always thought ahead of the consequences. They played an important role in questioning and improving proposals. We will all miss that expertise. Alliances can be formed by sharing out that work among not always exclusively the member smaller states, but certainly with the smaller member states.
The role of visits is very important. A number of national parliamentary delegations have come here and have gone to the Border. They wanted to see for themselves and having seen for themselves, they became important allies in the overall building of support for Ireland. We could selectively do a bit more of that, going to visit places or attend meetings that are important to other states. That really builds a well of goodwill and understanding that we will need in the future.
I want to speak about the dangers of overspecialisation on sectors. It is natural that the people who know most about technology, agriculture or whatever will club together. While that sharing of experience is very important, it is also important for somebody to have an overview. For example, this committee is one place that has the overview. When things do not get sorted out and they start to go up the political agenda of the European Union, a kind of hierarchy applies and there is only political space to deal with a certain number of issues. It is very important in every system that we have an accurate readout of the relative weight of different things. I am thinking of the debates to come on the future budget of the EU which will need to be decided fairly quickly once the new European Parliament and Commission are in place. Every country will have its own set of priorities. Somehow each country needs to have somebody who is watching the gradual filtering down of the issues to the top three or four that will be decided by the European Council. While it is important to have a like-on-like sectoral view, it is also important to have an overview and to keep a national track of that.
There is a risk of geographic division but if we have visiting rights, so to speak, to all of the different groups, we would be a welcome party if we make an effort to participate from time to time. Ours is not the agenda of a big country and we will not always be pushing a particular line. We will have our views but we mainly want things to work. As a country, we could avoid falling into the trap of being seen as only part of a certain group.
There is, inevitably, some truth in the idea of Brexit eclipsing all other issues for the moment. It is the major issue for Ireland. The risk of a no-deal Brexit has demanded an enormous amount of energy and it is the top priority. The need for that focus will lessen at some stage and, hopefully, in positive circumstances. We will then have to come back to the big issues on the European agenda, including the future budget, obviously, but also migration. We will have to find a European policy to deal with that. One could also mention many other issues and this is why it is important that there has been dialogue on the EU after Brexit. It is difficult to get people to really concentrate on that at the moment but at least the topic is there. Work is being done on the issue across Government and many stakeholder organisations and that can be ramped up when there is a bit more political space and time for it. It is important.
Turning to the issue of how we can address negativity, we need to do more to debunk the myths surrounding the EU but that is not an easy thing to do. The UK media in particular have developed ridicule into a fine art and that is most damaging. We can see the way Nigel Farage always gets a laugh in the European Parliament, even from people who do not agree with him. It is devastating. We have to work harder to try to explain the EU and one way to do that is to involve the stakeholders more. When I speak to representative groups, no matter who they are or what they represent, I am struck by the fact that their knowledge of their sectors across Europe is usually quite high. That is because those groups are all linked into European networks. It is also the case, however, that the groups in question tend to be quite narrow in their specialisations. We need to graft this overview of where the European Union as a whole is going onto that specialisation.
We may also at times need to return to the simpler issue of why it matters that the EU works. We all feel very European when we go outside of the EU. We look back in and then we see what it is that makes us different from the rest of the world. We have to try and channel that feeling and explain to people that Europe stands for certain values we have benefited from and that we hold very dear. Part of the debate taking place at present involves a battle for the place of values and what are the fundamental values at the foundation of the European Union to which everybody needs to adhere.
For all those reasons, we are going to have to invest more time and energy in reaching out to the other member states and trying to understand their different vantage points. We do not feel the same security pressures, for example, that some other countries do because of our history and geography. We tend, therefore, to be less open to that argument for wanting the EU to succeed. The Baltic states, for example, joined the euro not only for economic reasons but also because they understood that it is at the core of the EU, which is where they want to be for security reasons. We need to find ways to engage with that motivation even though it is not our primary concern and security is quite low on our list of priorities. I suggest that kind of approach. It would be useful for parliamentarians to reach out to groups of countries rather than to try to cover everybody at the same time. It would make sense to target different groups over a certain time cycle. In addition to COSAC meetings, it would also be useful to meet smaller groups of parliamentarians from the point of view of sometimes just listening but also of having them listen to us and seeing where alliances can be made.
There is much useful work going on in different countries about how to involve citizens. Some of this has been documented and there are very innovative ways of trying to make this huge process relevant to different citizens. We have experimented in this country with some forms of citizen involvement. They have shown that people are willing to take the time to be involved if expertise and time is provided to help them formulate and think through their ideas. If we have that citizen involvement, we can try to overcome the alienation of parts of society across Europe and try to develop a new understanding of what the value of the European Union is for the coming 20 or 30 years. Each generation has to create its own definition of the EU.
I sympathise with Deputy Durkan who asked why we have to keep fighting the same battles all the time. We have to do that because there is always a new generation of public representatives, lobbyists, etc. They will always try their hand at stating that something is old hat and attempt to debunk it because there are so many interests at stake. We have to not only repeat and explain why things are as they are but to also be open to change where it is good. However, we should not necessarily change principles if we have tried and tested them and they are solid. We need to bring people around to understanding why certain things are as they are. I do, however, understand the fatigue of having to constantly repeat the battles.
One thing we do need to explain better to our citizens everywhere is just how much of the EU is built on compromise. In some parts of the world, compromise is seen as a weakness and almost as a dirty word, whereas in Europe we see it as a strength. It is about understanding different points of view and finding an accommodation. We all know that in our own lives so we need to bring that home to people and explain not everything is not black and white. It is about finding common ground in between. Everybody will not get everything they want but everybody has to get enough of what they want to bring everybody along. That subtlety has been lost in our polarised world. I know I have not covered every point made by members but perhaps I could pause there.