I welcome the Minister of State.
The Future of Europe and the Value of European Union Membership to Ireland: Statements
I thank the Senators for being present and for making time available today an important debate on the future of the European Union. I have to acknowledge that this debate takes place against the backdrop of ongoing uncertainty about Brexit, and rightly so. We are concentrating our efforts on making sure that we are prepared for 29 March and what that brings. I want to take this opportunity to restate that Ireland and the EU remain firmly behind the withdrawal agreement. The Government's focus is on seeing the ratification of this agreement but we must continue to prepare for all possible outcomes and scenarios.
A no-deal Brexit would be the worst outcome. It is not in Ireland's interests, it is not in the European Union's interests and it is certainly not in the United Kingdom's interests, but the Brexit omnibus Bill, which is currently proceeding through the Dáil, will help to prepare Ireland for some of the immediate impacts of no deal. It is focused on protecting our citizens and on supporting the economy and jobs, particularly in key economic sectors most exposed to Brexit. The Government is working closely across the Oireachtas to ensure that the Bill will be ready for 29 March and I thank Senators here and all of the Deputies as well for their co-operation and support in both Houses. It is clear that a Brexit of any kind means change but it is also one aspect of the debate on the future of the EU.
Something Brexit will not change is Ireland's commitment to our future in Europe. If anything, it reinforces it. Our membership of the EU is our greatest protection, not only from Brexit but from many of the challenges that we face today and those that we do not even know are coming down the tracks. That is why I am particularly pleased that the House has made time for this debate on the future of Europe but also the value of EU membership to Ireland at this particular moment.
Jean Monnet, who was so instrumental in the founding of the European Union, once said: "Make men work together, show them that beyond differences and geographical boundaries there lies a common interest." For more than 45 years, Irish men and women have been working together with friends and colleagues across Europe and we have found more than a common interest; we have found a common home. It is a home founded not on transactional interests but on the treaty-based values that underpin our Union. Those are freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights. These are values that can never be taken for granted, that are ever more important in our turbulent world and on which we will build a common future. When the President of the European Commission, Mr. Juncker, addressed a joint sitting of the Houses of the Oireachtas last June, he stated that Ireland has acted as a founding member state - seeking the European approach and understanding that what is good for all in our Union is good for us all individually. As a nation that has so fundamentally benefitted from EU membership, we know better than most the value of membership.
We cannot attribute all that is good, or, indeed, all that is bad, in our society to the Union but it is undeniable that our country has undergone a remarkable transformation since we first joined in 1973. That transformation was only made possible because of our membership. I belong to a generation that has always had the privilege of two identities, being Irish and European. Like our values, it is a privilege we cannot take for granted. More than 50% of the population has always had that privilege. As I know from the statements delivered on Europe Day, Senators are all well aware that Irish support for EU membership is high. Among the general population, it reaches a 92% approval rating and peaks at an almost universal 97% rate among of young people aged 18 to 26.
Clearly, the privilege of membership is not lost on our citizens. However, we are also challenged to ensure that it remains relevant, and that those figures remain high, in the lives of those who have known only peace, the advancement of rights and the freedom to travel, study, work and make a life in any country in our Union - people for whom the European Union is the norm and not one of the most remarkable peace projects ever imagined. This is something that has shaped my priorities as Minister of State with responsibility for European affairs. I have travelled around the country talking to schoolchildren, students and local communities in places such as Donegal, Galway, Cork, Kildare, my own constituency in Meath, and Dublin, to hear their hopes for Europe. I have listened to those in the charity and voluntary sector, farmers, fishermen, trade unions, employers, businesses and those focussed on protecting the environment. I have asked them about the future of Europe that they want to see. They told me that they want to be part of a Union that lives up to its values. They spoke about peace, co-operation, unity, solidarity and community and, most of all, they spoke about fairness. They said that they want the EU to continue to do what it does best. They support involvement in policies such as the Common Agriculture Policy, CAP, which is significant for Ireland, in regional development and in programmes such as Erasmus Plus.
They are also ambitious for the unfilled potential of the European Union. In a Union that provides the privileges of free movement of goods, services, capital and people, they want the completion of the Single Market - one fit for the digital age, one that includes goods and services, and one that Ireland has been particularly pushing for. They want more countries to join the eurozone. They want trade agreements, which are good for the economy following on from recent agreements that we have as a Union only recently secured. They want Europe to play a role in shaping the wider world and the future. They want to work together on the big issues that we face, such as climate change, migration and cyber security, that no one country can tackle alone.
Something that has become clear to me, however, in all of this is that our own people are not always aware of the work that is ongoing and that we are doing on their behalf or some of the European policies that are in place. On the other hand, sometimes they look to Europe to play a role in matters that rest with member states and that are national competences. The European Ombudsman, Ms Emily O'Reilly, joined us at our national citizens' dialogue on the future of Europe in Dublin on 9 May last year. For all the big aspirations that we have heard from our citizens, she reminded us that people do not spend their time thinking about Europe and it is not a part of their daily thought. For them, politics continues to be local and about the reality of their daily lives. It is important, therefore, to recall the human stories showing the value of membership, to connect with stories and to connect with real lives.
In September, I had the pleasure of joining the Leas-Chathaoirleach of Seanad Éireann, Senator Paul Coghlan, at the formal launch of the European Commission Representation in Ireland's publication, "45 Stories: 45 inspiring stories celebrating Ireland's 45 years of EU membership". Touching on almost every aspect of Irish life - culture, education and research, community, health, agriculture and fisheries, transport, business, environment and the consumer - the report gives concrete examples of the tangible difference EU membership makes to individuals and local communities. There are the foreign family holidays, of course, made possible by cheaper airfares brought about by the EU's Single Market for aviation; the calls and texts home made cheaper by the EU's roam-like-at-home initiative; the life-changing medical treatments facilitated by the EU cross-border healthcare directive; and the cross-border communities that have pulled together through the EU's programme for peace and reconciliation.
I commend the European Commission on this and other initiatives to show how the EU is supporting our citizens in their everyday lives and their local communities. There is an onus on all of us to think about how we acknowledge and convey the benefits of EU membership.
Deputy Michael Healy-Rae also joined us at our Europe Day event in Dublin and I listened to him carefully, as Chair of the Committee on European Union Affairs. He reminded us that we must resist the temptation to blame Europe for problems and seize credit for its successes. This is particularly important this year when we - politician and citizen alike - take vital decisions about the future direction of our Union, not least the election of a new European Parliament in May. We must encourage people to vote to ensure they come out for these elections on 24 May. In turn, that Parliament will elect the next European Commission President and approve the new European Commission.
In May also, the leaders of the EU 27 will meet in Sibiu in Romania to discuss the priorities for the next institutional cycle. The Taoiseach will bring the voice of our citizens into that debate and into the preparation of the EU’s strategic agenda which will stretch from 2019 to 2024. We are currently working on a cross-Government statement that will set out Ireland’s priorities for the discussions in Sibiu. In parallel, my colleagues and I on the General Affairs Council are discussing the EU’s next long-term financial plan - the multi-annual financial framework or MFF - as part of the overall discussion. The MFF is negotiated once every seven years and we want them to coincide and work in parallel with each other. There is still a lot of work to be done to reach a common position. Each member state has its own priorities, as will the incoming European Parliament, and negotiations are always difficult. Budget negotiations may not capture everyone’s imagination, but in how we allocate our resources and finances, we can find a very tangible expression of what it means to be European, in that how we spend our money reflects our values and priorities, and this is no different when talking about a European budget. I take into these discussions what I have heard from our citizens and what public representatives and political parties across the board have contributed to this debate. Ireland’s top priority is to agree a budget of an adequate size and structure to meet the needs of the Union and our citizens, but also to deliver on our shared ambitions.
As a net contributor, the Government is open to contributing more to this budget but we must ensure European added value is met. A well-funded Common Agricultural Policy is a classic example of European added value. Likewise, we are strong defenders of the need to protect the structural and cohesion funding to ensure newer member states can benefit in the same way we have in the past. We also believe it is essential that we continue to fund other programmes that work well, such as Erasmus Plus and Horizon Europe, which will support the necessary investment in research and development, particularly for the younger generation. There is a saying that the best way to predict the future is to create it. As citizens of Ireland and the European Union, we are tasked with creating a future that matches the needs and expectations of our citizens, a future that lives up to our European values, builds on what we already have, prepares us to meet new challenges and allows the generations that will follow us to thrive. I look forward to hearing the contributions and perhaps answering questions from Senators.
I thank the Minister of State for her speech. To be fair, it is almost impossible to try to address a topic as broad as this in statements. A number of weeks ago I had asked for statements on the benefits of Europe and that was extended in this debate to the benefits on the future of Europe, which is fine. When I made that point on the Order of Business, I wanted people to remember all of the reasons we should not do what our nearest neighbours have done or even go anywhere near that. Sometimes we take for granted all of the good things and we forget about all of the benefits that Ireland - as a state, a country and a people - has received. I have endless briefing notes, as do other Members, but I will try not to rely on them too much and just articulate some of the points I feel we need to remember.
We talk about the four freedoms: the freedom of movement of goods, services, capital and people. People forget just how big the freedom to travel is, with their purple passport giving pretty much unfettered access to the greater European Continent. In fact, the EU passport also brings people very easily to other places like Switzerland and Norway that are not in the EU. Most people of my generation and that of the Minister of State do not ever remember anything other than a purple passport, and most of us of a certain age probably never had a green passport. Senator Buttimer might just have achieved one but perhaps he also only had a purple passport. He is smiling, in any case. There are certainly many of us who never had a passport other than a purple one. It gives us all great freedom to move and to work, that is, to turn up in any of the EU states and be entitled to get a job and work legally, pay our dues, be registered to work and get all the benefits, such as social insurance, which is very important. We forget that.
In her speech, the Minister of State pointed out that deregulation of air travel is an EU function. Ryanair would not be Ryanair if it was not able to fly to the various hubs in all of the EU countries and some non-EU countries. I am old enough to remember when we had a very regulated aviation market and we had a suggestion of, if not a cartel, then cartel-like behaviour among certain airlines, where it cost the current equivalent of €1,000 to fly to London if one did not want to stay a Saturday night or go on an apex fare or some other very complicated kind of fare. The benefits to all of us of being able to get on an aeroplane for, by and large, a fairly reasonable price in the context of what they were in the past, is something an awful lot of people have forgotten about.
There is the Erasmus programme from which so many people have benefited over many years. My mother was an Erasmus co-ordinator in UCD for many years and really enjoyed that part of her role in bringing in students from France, Germany, Holland and various other EU countries at the time, which would have been before the accession of the new countries in 2004. We must remember the benefits they got from coming to Ireland and the knowledge they gained. Equally, Irish students went abroad and learned lots of other things about their own brief, whether they were studying business, social sciences, arts or law, and gained a great understanding of other countries.
We sometimes forget a lot of our social legislation to do with equality, for example, on equal pay and equal treatment, gender equality and so on, came from the EU. Many of those debates started and were encouraged in Europe and they brought Ireland to a place we would not have got to as quickly if the EU - the EEC, as some of us would have known it - was not there to stimulate those debates. Equally, environmental standards, food standards and the nitrates, noise pollution, air pollution and landfill directives - all of the things that make the quality of our existence better - are things we might have found difficult to implement ourselves if we did not have somebody suggesting we do it, and maybe contemplating fines or other sanctions if we did not do it. I think all of us are happy with this, whether in regard to having less smoky coal in the atmosphere or better noise quality, air quality or water quality standards.
We could go back and look at the figures for 1973, when Ireland, under a Fianna Fáil Government, joined the EEC, and look at where we were as an economy relative to the rest of Europe and where we are now in terms of performance. In the 1990s, when I was working and training as an accountant, Ireland's population of a little more than 3 million accounted for less than 1% of what was then a smaller EU population of some 320 million, yet we were getting 35% of all the American foreign direct investment in Europe. That was partially because we had great graduates and partially because we spoke the English language and for other cultural reasons, but those companies were in Ireland not just for any tax rate but because they had access to a wider market. People forget that if we were not part of the EU, they could not have come here. They were here to be a presence in an economy that was part of Europe and could trade freely with the rest of that market, which ultimately expanded with the accession of ten countries in 2004, two more in 2007 and another in 2013, and there are still candidate countries looking to join the EU.
I was at the OECD last year and I met a lady from Iceland who told me a pro-EU party is being set up in Iceland. I told her that is probably because Iceland is not in it and if it was, there would probably be some anti-EU party. There are many countries, other than our nearest neighbour, clearly, that would love to be and aspire to be part of the EU.
We also forget and take for granted our fantastic motorway programme. Those motorways were built when my party was in government between 2004 and 2010. They allow Senators Burke and Buttimer to get home to Cork faster than they would have previously. I refer to motorways to Cork, Limerick, Galway, Waterford and Belfast. Much of that programme was funded by objective 1 status many years ago, when the entire country had that status. When we separated the country, in the late 1990s, between objective 1 and non-objective 1, significant funding went into areas in need of it. It went towards developing water infrastructure, roads, airports, tourism-related products, etc.
The Senator has one minute remaining.
I thank the Acting Chairman. He has proved that it is not possible to cover all of the benefits in the time available. I have not even addressed the future of Europe. It is a challenge. The EU is not perfect, as we all acknowledge. I am the Vice Chairman of the Joint Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform, and Taoiseach. We disagree with many countries in Europe on closed-circuit television, CCTV, and some of the proposals on digital taxation. My party believes the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, OECD, is a better place for this country to examine the global tax burden and ensure global companies pay their taxes where they should. The EU is not necessarily the best way of doing that. It could damage the competitiveness of Europe.
If the Acting Chairman will indulge me slightly, I will continue. It is important that we challenge the extremes appearing in certain countries, whether on the right or left. We must bring people back to the centre. I hope people in this country will vote for our European candidates and ensure that Fianna Fáil, as a centrist party, will be represented in the EU Parliament. I sure other people will profess that view for their own parties when they get the opportunity to contribute. We need to send good quality candidates to represent Ireland in Europe, whether there are 11 or 13 MEPs. This is a valuable debate and I thank the Minister of State for attending. I am sorry I do not have more time because I could go on.
My mother, as I said, was a co-ordinator on an Erasmus social science programme. She won the Irish European woman of the year award from the European Movement Ireland in 1997. Europe is something that has been close to my family's heart and mine. That would be the case even if I had never been involved in front-line politics. Europe has been an enormous advantage for this country. That does not mean there are not challenges. We had challenges with the euro and the ECB. The euro has given us great stability but there are challenges. Let us, however, work together for the betterment of the whole of Europe and, particularly, for this island.
I did not even touch on the peace process and all of the benefits the Good Friday Agreement brought to this country. I apologise. I can only do so much in eight minutes. I thank the Acting Chairman for indulging me.
It was nine minutes. The Senator did well.
At least it was not 19 minutes.
There was just a slight extension, as there might be with Brexit. I call Senator Warfield. He has eight minutes.
It is paramount that the people of Europe should be involved in the discussion about the future of Europe. This needs to be an honest discussion about the failures and successes of the European Union. Constructive criticism is needed to make the EU work better. This is not, and should not be seen as, a question of being in or out of the EU. Ireland's place is clearly within the EU. That does not mean, however, that we cannot and should not work to make it better, fairer and more democratic. Sinn Féin has many reasons for insisting on this. The broadly positive aspect is the support of the EU, and its firm opposition to any attempt by the British Government, as it exits the EU, to impose a hard border in this country. The other aspect is this State’s experience of the financial crisis.
That crisis was a severe blow to the idea of solidarity between member states and the peoples of Europe. Weaker, smaller, peripheral states paid the highest price. That includes the people of this State and the people of Greece. Austerity imposed by the EU had devastating consequences in this State and in Greece, where public services disintegrated under the burden. This cannot be allowed to happen again. To ensure it does not happen again, we believe the EU should work for the people of the EU, and not for the EU insiders, corporate interests or established political parties from the larger states. The discussion on the future of the EU has been overshadowed by Brexit. For lreland, the dangers posed by Brexit are real and immediate.
Brexit would be problematic for this country under any circumstances. Britain is our largest trading partner and it stands between us and the rest of Europe. All the challenges Brexit presents are multiplied by the fact that our country is partitioned. We face the prospect of having one part of the country in the EU, while the other is dragged out of it against its democratic wishes. There can be no hardening of the Border in Ireland and Irish citizens in the North cannot be abandoned. Border communities, which suffered so much due to partition, will not put up with being divided by a hard border. The EU is, of course, playing a crucial role in ensuring that there is no hard border and that all of Ireland remains inside the EU when Britain leaves. The EU will also play an important role in the event of a united Ireland by ensuring that the inclusion of the Six Counties is guaranteed within the Union.
We were always facing the question, however, of how to make the EU a more democratic and people-centred institution. Sinn Féin believes there should be a fairer distribution of Structural Funds and CAP payments and more support for important infrastructure projects. We oppose proposals, such as the vulture funds directive, that would reinforce the free rein of the banks and vulture funds and tilt the balance even further from Irish mortgage holders. We are opposed to the EU aggressive, so-called new generation, trade deals, such as Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement, CETA, and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, TTIP. Those deals threaten to undermine environmental ambition, public services, workers' pay and conditions, financial stability and our agricultural sector. Sinn Féin is also opposed to the policies of the ECB and the European Commission, Europe's unelected government, when they refuse to adopt the needs of vulnerable states and regions. We are also opposed to increased military spending and the creation of an EU army. There is no support for that in Ireland and it would violate the Constitution and the State's commitment to neutrality.
Our criticism of the EU is consistent and constructive. Fundamental change is needed and the status quo is not good enough. It is not working for the people of Europe. We want an EU that supports progressive social and economic change. We want an EU that listens to the concerns of the people of Europe who are increasingly alienated from a project that often does not deliver for them. In 1973, this State joined the European Economic Community, EEC, which was essentially a free trade organisation. Today, the EU is a political union and its leaders aspire to be a federal state with a common currency, tax raising powers and an army. The EU is arrogant and bureaucratic. Lobbying and the influence of corporate interests, which feed off of EU institutions, are a major problem. We need to recognise that people across Europe are rejecting that model that has created winners and losers, precarious employment, wealth inequality, including inequality between core and peripheral areas, debt dependent growth and privatised public services.
Failure to recognise this will pose a threat to the EU. It holds itself up as a project of peace and a defender of human rights. There are, however, serious questions to answer regarding its treatment of refugees fleeing wars, the situation of political prisoners on our territories and complicity in abuses elsewhere due to economic and political ties. Across the EU, people want decisions affecting them made as close to home as possible in order that they can have influence on policies that affect their lives. We have one of the most centralised systems in this country. There will be a requirement for a transfer of powers back from the EU to member states, including the power to make decisions about public spending and priorities. The types of changes needed include enshrining social and employment rights in law, returning fiscal powers to member states and ensuring that states can maintain their own foreign policy. This will require changes to EU treaties.
There are two visions for the future of EU. One is for an increasingly integrated and federal EU empowering corporations and disempowering citizens; the other is for a social EU that puts people first and requires a complete change of direction. Brussels will have to be democratised. We cannot have winners and losers. The failed economic models must change and the privatisation agenda, in particular, must change. The EU must be radically reformed to become a union of nation states committed to working together for progressive social and economic change. The EU should be working together on common issues such as taking ambitious action on climate change, advancing social and employment rights across all of Europe, building systems of fair trade and using our common strengths to improve the lives of citizens.
We should learn from the mistakes made where the concentration of economic and political power in the hands of the larger and more powerful states led to a reaction from people across the EU, and some of this was behind the Brexit decision.
It is also evident in the growth of right-wing groups and organisations. We need a social Europe that will guarantee that the people of the EU and their institutions are of one mind and will strengthen the European project.
I thank the Minister of State for coming here this evening to deal with this extremely important debate. I thank her, as well as the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Coveney, and the Taoiseach, Deputy Varadkar, for the work they have done defending Ireland's position on Brexit in the negotiations. They have put up a really good performance in ensuring we do not deviate from what was agreed.
It is important that when we consider Europe, we think about our access to markets. With the United Kingdom in the Union, we have access to 500 million people, and when it leaves the Union, that number will be 440 million people. It is a huge market nonetheless. Prior to joining the European Union, we were very much dominated by the United Kingdom with respect to trade and the markets available to us. That has now totally changed and a large part of our market takes in European countries other than the United Kingdom. It is a major and welcome development.
In my brief time in the European Parliament over two years, I was a member of the internal market committee. It was interesting to see how people worked on the committee, as it was not a case of being divisive or trying to score points against one another. It was a case of sitting down around the table and seeing how we could come to a compromise on a matter. I remember dealing with the Cross-Border Healthcare Directive, and I led the European People's Party group within the committee on that issue. It was an important policy change that was required and there were many healthcare services that we would not have had in Ireland. A person qualified as a paediatrician might have dealt with every aspect of childcare at one stage but now there are many sub-specialties in individual areas, whether that is the maternity, cardiac or paediatric areas. It is important that we now have access to such specialists if they are not here in Ireland. The Cross-Border Healthcare Directive was a very welcome development and change and it demonstrates one of the advantages of being part of the European Union.
It is also interesting to consider healthcare in light of access to information in other EU countries. There is an amount of co-operation between medical practitioners in other countries and Irish medical practitioners and vice versa, and it is extremely important. We have now agreed with the United Kingdom to continue with this even after Brexit but it is important that we also ensure that if a patient requires a service not available in Ireland, we can access that care and treatment in another country.
It is also interesting to look at changes that have occurred. One of the problems up to 1973 was the presence of a protectionist market because we did not want employment to be affected. We imposed tariffs on goods coming in from abroad and as a result we were not cost-effective with the goods we produced. Our costs of production were way higher than those in many other jurisdictions so we could not export to other markets. There were major changes from 1973 through the 1980s but in the long term, they brought benefit to Ireland. We became competitive with costs and were able to deliver goods and services at a competitive price. It was a welcome change.
Women were at one time forced to retire from employment when they married but the European Union forced a change. The question is that if we had not joined the European Union, would it have taken another five, ten or 15 years for that change to have been effected? I am not sure but it certainly could have taken another ten years. Changes were brought about that were beneficial to everybody in the country. There is the simple example of consumer rights, as the Consumer Rights Directive means there is now more protection for the consumer with respect to goods and services. It was an important development.
I know my colleague spoke about the lack of transparency and democracy in the European Union but we have a structure, including the Council of Ministers, the European Commission and the European Parliament. There are checks and balances, which are extremely important. Within the European Parliament we have all the committees that examine each item in detail. For example, in committee there were 400 amendments tabled to the Cross-Border Healthcare Directive. We had to work and compromise on those, and many of the amendments were tabled by me. When it finished in the internal market committee, it went to the full European Parliament before being dealt with by the Council and Commission. Each item is examined and, in fairness, every country contributes to the final policy.
We can take the example of roaming charges. A number of years ago if a person made a telephone call in Italy, a four-minute call could have cost €5, whereas now it is 5 cent per minute. The change to roaming charges made a huge difference for people and it was an extremely important change. I dealt with another health and safety issue related to the toys directive. A large amount of goods came from outside Europe and there was a problem because many toys had a high level of lead. A European Commissioner went to China at the time and a week later, 700 factories were closed there because China did not want to lose access to our market.
We have made huge progress but we must work on the provision of services. Services provided from Ireland make up approximately 11% of GDP. It demonstrates how we have developed as a country that we can provide services from this country to others. There has been much growth. The vast majority of these services have been developed by companies that started in Ireland and which are Irish-owned and Irish-managed. That is important. There are other areas in which we must work so it is important we do that over the next few years. We will face challenges with the United Kingdom leaving but we can face up to those challenges and continue to provide the employment we now see in this country.
I thank the Minister of State for coming to the Chamber this evening. I watched her presentation from my office but I am sorry I was not here in person. Like other colleagues in the Chamber, I recognise her contribution and role in the negotiations around Brexit, as well as the time and effort she is giving to it. It is a very sincere effort.
We are at the point where it very much looks that our neighbour Britain will leave the European Union. That event is coming into very sharp focus so it is of major concern. We had an incident last week with the Northern Irish fishing vessels being seized in Irish waters, giving a sense of the potential problems ahead.
The waters ahead are very much uncharted and no one really knows what will occur. The Taoiseach said recently he has a sense that Britain might not leave the EU but I actually have a very strong sense that it will. I am very sorry about that because when we joined the European Economic Community, EEC, almost 50 years ago, we did so at the same time as the UK. It will be a sorry day when the UK leaves the EU. As many Senators have said, the country we live in now is very different from the Ireland of 1973. It has a much greater sense of independence and it is more prosperous and educated. Senator Horkan referred to Erasmus and all it has done to the benefit of Ireland, as a member of the EU, and Irish students down the generations.
Peace and coexistence on the island of Ireland have been really important since we joined the EU. I am very proud that Ireland is a member of the EU. My opinions on it have changed over time, as have those of the European Greens. When the EU was the EEC, the European project was too easily portrayed as an anti-democratic, bureaucratic programme that acted in the interests of big businesses and industries. The world was then divided by the Cold War. The EEC seemed to be inextricably linked to old world thinking on the balance of power but the creation and deepening of the EU and the expansion of its activities into new areas, such as social and environmental protection, and its continuing on the path of democracy mean that the Union of today - the one the UK is now choosing to leave - differs as much from the EEC as the Ireland of today differs from the Ireland that became a member state with the UK all those years ago. To Ireland today, the EU can be used as a force for good, a tool with which to temper the worst excesses of globalisation and effect the change we wish to see globally.
By pooling sovereignty and uniting in our shared ideals, the EU allows Ireland and Irish people to play a role in the world far beyond what they could otherwise hope to play. Used correctly, EU membership is one of the strongest assets in Ireland's toolkit. Sometimes I fear the UK will learn this lesson all too late. This is not to say that the EU is complete or that the European Greens are happy with its current construction. More democracy, more controls on lobbying and influence peddling, and greater action on the crucial issues facing us today, such as climate change, energy pressures and the ecological crisis, are essential.
While I am proud Ireland is a member of the Union, I am sad I cannot be as proud of our Government's record on the issues that face the Union today. These include digitalisation, financial transaction taxation, strong climate action, and supporting and insisting on the rule of the law and the maintenance of standards of democracy. We want to see Ireland stand proud in favour of progress of a kind that is not really fought for. Right now, when relations with our European partners matter most, we are burning up huge amounts of political capital in opposing any progress in the areas I have mentioned. I want to see Ireland as a leader in Europe and as the open-minded, progressive and enthusiastic nation most Irish people want it to be. Nowhere has a failure to adhere to the ideals of the EU been more clearly portrayed than in our attitude to the Hungarian governing party, Fidesz. It is only today that the Fine Gael MEPs came out to say they were voting against the Hungarian party in the European Parliament.
This week, the European People's Party and the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe blocked the student activist, Greta Thunberg, from speaking in the European Parliament. That is a great mistake because people like her are an inspiration. She is a young leader of the grassroots. People like her should be heard because she is speaking to a younger generation.
The EU is a union of some 500 million people, united in their diversity, moving ahead in a very uncertain world. I would like to see Ireland taking leadership in Europe and not being led by it. In my two and a half short years in the Seanad, I have felt Ireland has very much been dragged along by Europe. I would like to see that change and Ireland becoming a beacon of hope and a nation taking leadership.
I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I compliment her most sincerely on the tremendous work she has been doing on Brexit, which is important, and also on the way in which she has travelled across Ireland and the rest of Europe forging alliances, building friendships, informing people and having a conversation on the future of Europe. It is refreshing to have a Minister of State such as Deputy Helen McEntee to do that. I commend her most sincerely on the approach she has taken and on how she has communicated Ireland's position on Brexit. I thank her for that.
This debate is happening against the backdrop of Brexit and the challenge of a generation. The next couple of weeks will be critical. The rise of Eurosceptic voices is of concern. I am always of the view that the voice of the centre must hold in Europe. Europe must deliver for its people and the institutions must be seen to be on their side. It is about strengthening democracy, standing up for and upholding human rights, and challenging those with different viewpoints to change their ways. It is important that the work the Government is doing is about bringing the institutions of Europe to the people.
We are a very pro-European country and are at the heart of Europe. I welcome the publication today of a Eurobarometer survey, which shows that 75% of respondents expressed happiness over how democracy works in Europe, 64% have a more positive image of Europe, 76% believe the EU responds to their country's needs, and 8% have a negative view, notwithstanding the views expressed by Senator Warfield in his contribution. Some 86% of citizens are optimistic about the future of Europe.
Senator Grace O'Sullivan made reference to Mr. Viktor Orbán in her contribution. She did not have to wait for the Fine Gael MEPs to express their views in Europe today. She would have heard on the Order of Business my view that the vision of Europe Mr. Orbán stands for and his politics do not resonate with me in any way. He is unsuited to being a member of the European People's Party. The vision for Europe my party and I share does not include xenophobia or anti-Semitic voices. It is one of inclusivity and positivity. That was expressed today and was also expressed by others before today. Mr. Viktor Orbán's view is not in keeping with the vision of Europe I have.
Today, the open letter by the French President, Mr. Macron, calling for the reform of the EU is one we need to consider, regardless of whether it entails a new type of European renaissance or a serious, reflective debate on the future of Europe. We should welcome the letter although we may not agree with everything Mr. Macron says. That is fine. I do not agree with some of the views of others but it is important to have a debate.
Mr. Macron's open letter to the citizens of Europe is about protecting and defending the EU and ensuring that we are equipped to deal with the challenges in a new and evolving world post Brexit. We must ensure that the EU is protected from cyber attacks and interference in elections as we face into the critical period of European Union elections. It is also important in a new Europe and a new world that issues of climate change, security and defence and quality of life are tackled and met. Equally, it is imperative that we have a strong, united, vibrant and inclusive Europe that works for all its people and has a border which does not have a wall but, rather, a welcome. We must reflect on the fact that the EU, of which Ireland has been a member state since 1973, gives us, as the Minister of State indicated, our greatest protection. What type of country would Ireland be if it had not been a member state of the European Union for the past 46 years?
There are remaining challenges such as the issues of CAP reform, climate change, the Single Market in the digital age and research and development. In the words of Robert Schuman, "Europe will not be made all at once, or according to a single plan. It will be built through concrete achievements which first create a de facto solidarity." Those words are as relevant today as when they were first uttered. I congratulate the Minister of State on her work. She, the Tánaiste and the Taoiseach have done a tremendous job building solidarity for our country around Europe as we face into this critical period of Brexit. I thank her for attending. This is an important debate which we need to embrace. I commend Senator Horkan on having the temerity to make the proposal he did on the Order of Business. I know it was, perhaps, part of a different-----
It was not. It was subsequently seized on by others.
It is a pity that they are not here for the debate.
For the record, it was not, but it was seized on by other people for their own benefit.
I accept that. Those that did so are not here now.
That is their loss.
I join others in welcoming the Minister of State and congratulating her on the work she has done in the ongoing negotiations. She referred to the treaty-based values which are so important to Irish citizens, as highlighted by them in the series of consultations she held in recent months. Those core decent European values from the EU's treaties and its founding principles are important and still resonate with the Irish public. The Minister of State spoke of an EU based not on transactional interests but, rather, treaty-based values. I welcome that important sentiment, but we need to follow through on that logic.
In discussing the future of the EU, it is, perhaps, useful to start by looking at the past. As has been rightly stated, the EU is an extraordinary peace project. Having raised the issue of the Good Friday Agreement with all of our European partners, surely Ireland should continue to be a voice for peace and neutrality and the building of peace in the EU. A European army or the militarisation of the Continent is not the way to secure a peaceful future for all our people. As we know from our experience on this island, the work of peace goes far deeper. It is about social investment and the building of understandings, and those must be Ireland's priorities. As such, I deeply regret that Ireland has joined the PESCO military agreement and was very disappointed that we joined Operation Sophia, moving away from humanitarian search and rescue in the Mediterranean to a policing function which has resulted in the loss of many lives.
When we look to the past, we must look at what has worked and what has not. Europe is at its best when we join together to bring the best ideas of how we can do things better and stronger, create ambition for each other and have a stronger voice in the world and, indeed, change the shape of areas such as the online area by using our powers collectively. The data protection regulation is an example of working together in that way. However, the one-size-fits-all austerity measures such as those imposed on Ireland during the recession did not reflect the EU at its best. That led to the social pillar being somewhat belatedly introduced to try to repair some of the damage done during the very difficult period of austerity measures which served to push away many citizens and fray the social fabric in and between our countries.
The Minister of State referred to the new EU strategic agenda. Europe 2020 was put to the side somewhat in favour of the ten priorities of Jean-Claude Juncker, which was a regrettable decision. We have one year left to fulfil our Europe 2020 targets. What is the view of the Minister of State regarding the EU's delivery of that agenda and our delivery of the climate change targets by 2020? Does she agree that, regardless of who replaces Mr. Juncker as President of the European Commission or who will be the new Commissioners, there are issues already on the agenda which must form part of the next EU strategic agenda? Does she agree that sustainable development goals, climate targets and social commitments must be at the core of the strategic agenda? Will Ireland make those points?
The Minister of State referred to the budget of the multi-annual financial framework. Will state aid rules be loosened in order to facilitate better public investment in infrastructure such as housing, which is an issue right across the EU? Will we ensure that the voice of civil society is heard in the European semester process? That is the case to a small degree in Ireland, but we can ensure that it becomes more widespread.
The Minister of State referred to trade agreements being good for the economy. However, we need trade agreements that are good for society. We need new trade mandates. Will Ireland put forward the idea of new trade mandates without investor state dispute mechanisms which allow us to take the regulatory action we collectively need on issues such as climate change? We know that we cannot afford a chill effect. We need to be able to respond to the public. Many of those protesting on the streets and elsewhere, such as the young people protesting on climate change, are passionate Europeans, not Eurosceptics. It is deeply regrettable that those young persons were not permitted to speak in the European Parliament. It was a poor decision by the European People's Party and the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe. We need those voices to be at the fore and to be given a platform on behalf of civil society and all of our citizens who see themselves as Europeans.
I will try to address some of the points that were made. As Senator Horkan pointed out in his contribution, we are here to highlight some of the positives of the EU. I thank Senators for their views, comments, criticisms and positive remarks on the EU. I would be the first to say that the EU is not perfect, but it is the best mechanism we have to deal with the many challenges we face. As all contributors stated, we are stronger and better together. As a result, we need to tackle those challenges together and make sure to listen to everybody.
On Brexit, the EU will be a lesser place without the UK. Although it has been a somewhat reluctant member for the 45 years of its membership - its media have never portrayed the EU in a positive light - it has contributed greatly to the Union and the development thereof. Ireland joined the EU at the same time as did the UK and much of our agenda and what we have done and many of our policies have been in tandem with those of the UK. As well as being worse off financially, we will be far worse off without its knowledge and expertise. That said, the EU leaders who met at the summit in Bratislava following the Brexit vote obviously did so to consider what we can do next, where we go from here and how we can we plan a Europe of which citizens want to be part.
They also saw it as an opportunity to engage with citizens and to make sure they are aware of the positives and the positive impact membership of the European Union has had on people's lives. I do not think anybody could dispute the fact that Ireland and many other member states have changed and continue to be utterly transformed through their membership of the European Union. We have gone from being a small island nation that was inward looking and had very little access to the rest of the world, economically or otherwise, to being an outward-looking country that is more modern. The very fabric of society has been changed. We have access to more than 500 million people. There are also changes to the way we engage and work with people and our culture and traditions have been enriched during that time. Our country has benefitted financially. In the 45 years of our membership, we have received net funding of €45 billion. That money has been invested in infrastructure and in ensuring that people's living standards have improved and in education. The college I attended, DCU, was built and founded on EU funding, and that is just one of the many important pieces of infrastructure it has provided. The agricultural sector, which was and still is our most important indigenous sector, has benefited significantly through our membership of the European Union. Towns and villages have received funding and they have been utterly transformed in that time as well.
Many Senators touched on the fact that people's rights have been improved. This week we celebrate International Women's Day. In terms of equality for women, we would still be facing the many challenges we have overcome in recent decades if it were not for legislation, rules and regulations that have been implemented through the European Union and through our Parliament. Europe has brought about equality in the workplace, equality for some of the most vulnerable in society, for example, those with disabilities, mental health problems and children. Much of our legislation has been based on European legislation.
We have worked with member states on peacekeeping missions. We have a very proud tradition and history in that regard. In our membership of the United Nations there has not been one day without Irish troops being on the ground in peacekeeping missions. We have joined PESCO. I accept some have doubts about what that means for Ireland, but the reason we were one of the last countries to join is that we were making sure that it did not impact in any way our neutrality. We also need to make sure that our views and opinions are heard around the table when issues such as security and defence and peacekeeping missions are discussed. We are already part of various maritime surveillance operations and ongoing cybersecurity programmes. We have a part to play in that regard because when we asked Irish people about our neutrality and where they want Ireland to be in the future, they were very clear that our defence neutrality should not be impacted. However, as a country we must acknowledge the fact that terror and threats are changing and the format in which they are now impacting on people's lives is changing, whether it is through our screens, for example, on YouTube, or indiscriminate attacks that take place on our streets, we need to be able to co-operate with other member states to share information to protect citizens. People were very clear on that in our engagement on the Future of Europe.
Economically, through our membership of the Single Market, the way we do business and export has been utterly transformed. We need to continue in that vein. The Single Market is 80% complete in goods but only about 50% in services and 50% of everything that we export in this country is services so if it were completed that would have a significant positive impact on the economy and people's lives and businesses. The digital economy is only about 30% complete. Further integration would transform the way we do business and also how we interact with each other across member states. That is something on which we must focus. A significant amount of work is being done in terms of trade deals. We have already agreed a trade deal with Singapore and negotiations are ongoing with Thailand and China. We entered an economic partnership with Japan and we are now looking at Australia and New Zealand. This is all because of our membership of the Single Market. As a small member state, we have access to the 500 million plus people in the European market, and that will be on an even larger scale following other trade deals.
We are also working with colleague member states to build alliances and to make sure that the Irish voice is very clearly heard around the table when it comes to other significant issues. Climate change is one of those. We acknowledge that we are not on target for our 2020 objectives in that regard. Recently, the new Minister, Deputy Bruton, who has responsibility for climate change, wrote a letter to the Commissioner, with his colleagues from Luxembourg, Lithuania and Austria about the risk to citizens and the amount of work we need to do on a national level. As well as working with our European colleagues, the Minister is hoping to implement a new action plan for climate change and a strategy that would transcend all Departments, not just his own. He also plans on doing that through engagement not just with the Joint Committee on Climate Action that is chaired by Deputy Naughton, but also through engagement with the students we have seen protesting and whom we know will take to the streets on 15 March. As the Taoiseach said earlier, we look forward to that. It is extremely positive that young people are protesting, marching and standing up for something they see as being extremely important, which we also see as being extremely important for the future.
I recently had a discussion with my colleagues at the General Affairs Council on the sustainable development goals. The outgoing Commissioner, Frans Timmermans, produced a paper with some colleagues on the goals which he hopes will reinvigorate the implementation and the conversations or lack thereof that have been taking place. What I highlighted at the discussion was that instead of trying to come together for a further plan at a European level that we would focus on the implementation plans of individual members at a national level. The document that has been produced will be taken on board by the new Commission and I hope it will steer it in the right direction as well.
Does the Minister of State see it as part of the strategic plan post the 2019 to 2027 period, as well as at national level?
Yes, it will be as well as the current plan.
So it will be at national level and at European level.
Yes, absolutely. The conversation we had in terms of the more informal discussion at the General Affairs Council, in particular on the sustainable development goals, is that we would not just look at a European agenda but that there would be a focus on the implementation plans for individual member states as well. It is a two-pronged approach. The overall reasoning behind the document was to try to reinvigorate the issue and the implementation of the goals that have already been set out.
There is a significant amount of positive things happening. This conversation is an opportunity for us to highlight that and acknowledge that there are challenges but that we are better and stronger working together and that while people have difficulties, the best way to deal with them is by working together. Ireland has always benefitted from our engagement with the EU. In the 45 years of our membership, we have acted in the same way as some of the founding members have and we have taken great pride in being very much ingrained in the very fabric of the European Union, whether it is in the Parliament, the Council or the Commission, and we have held some of the very highest positions within those institutions. In recent times we have perhaps failed in that regard through lack of applications or individuals not being as interested in applying to work within the European institutions and agencies. We are now coming to a stage where we have something of a demographic cliff edge as many of our officials are moving towards retirement age. A significant amount of work is being done at the moment to try to encourage younger people, through universities and the studies they are currently undertaking, to apply for those positions and ensure that when the agendas are being set, when the budgets are negotiated and specific issues are discussed that we have Irish people around the table and that the Irish voice, perspective and opinion is very much at the heart of everything that is being done from the inside out. I thank Senators for their contributions and I look forward to continuing to work with them.
Reference was made to our values. We must challenge each other when we feel that our values are being in any way undermined, whether it is the rule of law, freedom of expression, humanitarian rights or democracy. In recent months we have seen challenges to those, especially the rule of law. As a country, Ireland has always spoken out where we see that those values are being undermined by individual member states or organisations. We will continue to do that, now more than ever, in particular in the face of Brexit and the many other challenges.
Now more than ever, particularly in the face of Brexit and many other challenges, we must continue to stand up for the values that underpin the European Union: democracy, the rule of law and human rights.
I thank the Minister of State. That concludes the statements. When is it proposed to sit again?
Tomorrow morning at 10.30 a.m.