Thank you very much a Cheann Comhairle, a Chathaoirligh and chairs and members of the Joint Committee on European Union Affairs, Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade, and Defence and the joint committee in relation to the negotiations under article 50 of the Treaty on European Union. It is an honour for me to be here today and address you in this historic Dáil Chamber. I thank all of you for giving me the opportunity to address you here today because I am aware that it is not every day that a Member of the European Parliament responsible for such an important matter can address a meeting of joint committees of the Oireachtas.
I first want to deliver a message of solidarity with Ireland, its citizens and people. We will never allow Ireland to suffer as a result of the British decision to leave the European Union. That is a commitment given by the European Parliament and European Union as a whole. I will come back to this later in my contribution.
Next year, it will be exactly 20 years since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement. Yesterday was the first time I visited Belfast. It was a strange experience because for the past 20 years, we in the rest of Europe have not heard anything about Belfast on our television screens. It is good to remember that because it is 20 years since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement. The Agreement is not a practical arrangement on passports, borders, customs or tariffs - it is not about these matters - but an agreement about peace and the reconciliation of divided communities. It is about rebuilding confidence and trust.
The Good Friday Agreement is also a successful innovation of citizenship itself. Personally, I find the following sentence to be the most important sentence in the Agreement. It is "the birthright of all the people in Northern Ireland to identify themselves and be accepted as Irish or British, or both, as they may choose". In my opinion, these four simple words, "as they may choose", go against the outdated version of some states that do not like ambiguity, contingency or multiplicity. They give to the people and individual citizens, rather than states, the power to choose their own destiny. They are four simple words which have brought peace and stability to Northern Ireland based on openness and a common understanding that identities are multi-layered and complex and should bring people together rather than divide them. In my opinion, these four simple words not only define Northern Ireland but Ireland as a whole.
I know that some British politicians, not to name Boris Johnson, criticise their country men and women for wanting to keep their European identity. He even accused them of split allegiance. This is a binary, old-fashioned and reductionist understanding of identity. We need to be smarter and more open and inventive than that. It is not one's origin or the fact that, by accident, one was born in this or that village, city or country that makes one a good citizen. It is the fact that one embraces the values of one's community and cherishes the fundamental rights and freedoms of the society in which one lives.
These are values, rights and freedoms that are common in our European Union in all nations and in every one of our member states so I think it is nonsense to talk about a split allegiance. It is perfectly possible, I think, but I have not practised it, to feel English, British and European at the same time and it is perfectly normal to be a Dubliner, Irish and European at the same time without being schizophrenic. There is no question of split allegiance. It is this vision that needs to be defended by our European Union just as the Union needs to defend, I think, and this is my second point, that there is no return to the past to a time of hard borders on our Continent, and certainly not to a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. Members will know that is a point we made very clear in the European Parliament's resolutions we adopted on 5 April 2017.
I am mistaken when I state that the Irish Border is in no way a natural one. It is not a river or a mountain ridge. It meanders for 310 miles through meadows, forests and farmlands. It cannot be securely poised and is, therefore, an illogical divide. The Border should at least remain invisible just as it is today. It is a little bit visible because one can see a marking in yellow when one enters the Irish Republic. The colour of the marking changes from white to yellow. That is the big lesson that I learned yesterday.
I spent yesterday afternoon visiting the Border in County Monaghan where I met people who live and work there. At one point, I stood astride the Border, with one foot in Northern Ireland and my other foot in the Republic. I found it completely impossible to see where one jurisdiction ended and the other started. Certainly, the cows could not see it. The cows from the North ate grass in the South, they were milked in the North by a farmer from the South and their milk was bottled in the South. I am a Belgian so surrealism comes naturally to me. To re-instate a border would be more than surreal, it would be totally absurd, even for me.
There are borders and then there are borders. Borders can be lines on maps, physical barriers or, worst of all, can run through people's hearts and minds. These are the worst kind of borders because they breed division, discrimination and hostility. I remind everyone, if I may, that the history of Europe is in many ways a history of borders. Over the centuries our Continent has seen borders shift, disappear and re-appear. As a liberal, my natural inclination is to be against borders. It seems to me that borders are best when they are just lines on maps. In many ways, the European Union is all about reducing borders to lines on maps and this is certainly the case, I think, for Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. The Border between both jurisdictions created chaos, hate and violence. To reduce it to a line on a map was a crucial achievement 20 years ago in which the European Union, the UK and Ireland played a decisive role. I saw the results for myself yesterday. Whether one is speaking about the economy, commerce, agriculture, health or other social services, the Border is featuring less and less as a factor in the economic and social life of the region, and that is precisely its greatest achievement. It is a border that does not divide people but enables them to live together in peace. It is a border that is not divisive, that does not run through people's hearts but instead does the opposite and creates a common purpose.
Dear colleagues - if I may use those words as a parliamentarian - you know better than I that Ireland underwent a dramatic transformation over the past three decades economically and but also socially. The Republic was a country defined by Catholicism and nationalism. In 1973, the birth year of the current Prime Minister, only 7% of Irish were born abroad and today this number is 17%, which makes Ireland very diverse when compared with European standards. The Irish economy has successfully integrated migrants from all over the world, from Poland to Nigeria. Ireland is also the home of international IT giants. All of this is an example, I think, of constructive and fair globalisation. To summarise it, Ireland is no longer a nation of immigration but a country of destination.
Ireland has gained a lot of self-confidence over the past decades, and rightly so. We, as a European Union, also share that. Let us never forget that Europe is far more than co-operation between the two old enemies of France and Germany. Today, Europe goes beyond a Franco-German relationship. We need all hands on deck. All 27 member states are needed to make Europe work because we belong to the same European civilisation. Europe would not be half of what it is today without dynamic countries like Ireland, countries that have dealt with complex border and identity issues, and countries that were able to re-invent themselves with a respect for tradition, so Ireland is crucial to the Union.
The Irish Border and all things related are a priority in the negotiations. In the new resolution that the European Parliament will adopt in early October we will state that Ireland must not pay the price for Brexit and that Ireland or any other member state will not be used as a bargaining chip in the negotiations. The interests of Ireland are part and parcel of the interests of the EU 27. The Irish position is the European position and the European position is the Irish position.
In this joint position, let me also make one last thing very clear. The re-emergence of the Border question between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic has not been caused by the Irish Republic or the rest of the European Union. The issue is the inevitable consequence of the choice by Britain to leave the European Union so the resolution of this issue is entirely the responsibility of the United Kingdom. It is for them to come up with a workable solution, one which safeguards the Good Friday Agreement, preserves the common travel area, avoids a hardening of the Border and last, but not least, does not compromise Irish membership and the integrity of the Single Market and the customs union. In my opinion, this can only be a unique solution. Most of the people I met yesterday, on both sides of the Border, believe that this unique solution requires that one way or another Northern Ireland should remain part of the customs union and the Single Market. I know the UK Government, in its paper on Ireland and Northern Ireland, has rejected this idea. That is fair enough, but the UK must come forward with another proposal that avoids any disruption. Simply saying that the problem will be solved by using new technology is, in my opinion, not convincing.
I am pleased to say that the Irish MEPs, some of whom are here today and seated in the corner, are working very hard to defend all of this, a position I can assure the members that is shared right across the whole European Parliament. We know the Irish people have made the choice to be a core member state of the EU and, because of this, we will never let them down. The EU also needs their help to reform Europe because that is something we also urgently need to do. I think that Brexit is an ideal moment to reflect on the future of the Union we belong to. There are enough challenges ahead, challenges that transcend national borders such as climate change, international terrorism and remaining economic difficulties. These are all issues that individual countries cannot tackle on their own. Currently, they have also recognised that Europe is too weak to take on these challenges. In order for us to beat, for example, international terrorism, we need European capabilities. To overcome the economic crisis, we need a banking union to clean up our banks and a fiscal union to protect our single currency, the euro.
To fight the protectionism of President Trump and Brexit, we must have a Europe that is vocal and strong on the world stage.
To conclude, I believe that Brexit has opened the eyes of many people. Do not misunderstand me - people are still very critical of the European Union, and for good reason. However, nobody wants to leave and destroy Europe. On the contrary, it is fair to say there is a renewed belief in Europe, not in this Europe but in a different, reformed Europe. In any case, people have started voting pro-European again. They did it in Austria, the Netherlands, and France and soon, hopefully, they will do so in Germany. However, these are not votes for a status quo. This is a way of people saying, "Look, we are giving you one last chance to make Europe work and to make it better and fit for the future", or, in the words of Seamus Heaney, we "Believe that further shore/Is reachable from here".