Brussels Daily
16 Feb 2017


Brussels Daily

Speech by Commissioner Phil Hogan at the Institute of International and European Affairs: “Renewing our European Vows – Brexit, Ireland & the EU”


Ladies and gentlemen,

Outside the European Commission headquarters in Brussels, encased in glass, is a fragment of the Berlin Wall. Its potency as a symbol and rallying call for European unity has never been stronger or more relevant.

Today I hope to impress upon you the necessity of renewing our European vows, not only here in Ireland but also in Brussels, and throughout the EU 27.

When the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, and the Soviet Union along with it, academics heralded the “end of history” and predicted a long period of peace and prosperity underpinned by the liberal, democratic market ideology dominant on both sides of the North Atlantic.

European leaders seized the moment and swiftly moved to the next phase of integration and sovereignty sharing. The Maastricht Treaty, which was signed 25 years ago this month, provided the legal base for the European Union and set in motion the forces that would create a shared European currency and the integration of the former Eastern Bloc states. There was an optimism and confidence that the process of European Union was irreversible, and would benefit all citizens.

Here in Ireland, the deepening process of European integration gave life to the next phase of our development as a nation. European Union membership – and significant amounts of European funding – bolstered the Northern Ireland peace process.

The adoption of the single currency untethered the economy from the pound sterling, and a stronger sense of Irish independence was gained through the interdependence of the Euro.

Ireland’s track record of delivering successful EU Council Presidencies showed that a small nation can do a big job when it gets the chance to take the steering wheel.

And even during the dark days of our economic meltdown, continuing through the subsequent years of fragile but unmistakeable recovery, Ireland’s national conviction that EU membership generates more positives than negatives has remained rock solid – albeit with a few chips here and there.

But that has not been the experience of other EU member states, most prominently our neighbours in the UK.

In most countries, the political centre ground is broadly pro-European. This makes sense, given that the Soviet Union fell less than 30 years ago and World War Two ended barely 70 years ago.

But when that centre ground is relentlessly attacked by the fabrications and exaggerations of Eurosceptic politicians and media, and is allowed to do so largely unchecked by mainstream political parties, naturally enough the centre cannot hold.

Brexit was the child of this lengthy and often ugly gestation.

The Commission’s First Vice-President Frans Timmermans put it best, when he said that “for twenty years, people in the UK have been told that the EU is flawed. Then at the end of the process, when people are asked whether they still want to vote to stay, no one should be surprised when the majority says no”.

David Cameron is perhaps the most prominent victim of the Europe-wide failure to fight back Eurosceptic lies, and he may not be the last. In the Netherlands, France, Sweden, Poland, Hungary, Greece and Italy, political parties that are at best Eurosceptic and at worst Eurohostile are gaining ground.

And we should not naively believe that Ireland is immune.

It is true that our European conviction, coupled to our electoral system among other factors, means that there is a stronger general awareness of the benefits of EU membership. Ireland routinely scores among the highest in Eurobarometer polls asking people if they feel “well informed” about the activities of their MEPs.

But there is a creeping narrative among certain sections of the commentariat that Ireland should not rule out following the UK’s lead, or at a minimum invoke the fear of a domino effect to extract concessions from our European partners.

This is dangerous thinking. Instead, we should invoke the spirit of the late TK Whitaker, who understood – with his usual clarity and prescience – that the European Union was Ireland’s safest and best bet as a platform upon which to magnify our position in the world.

It is noteworthy and encouraging that this position has been unequivocally supported in recent statements by An Taoiseach and numerous government ministers, including in recent prominent addresses to this institute.

Brexit has sent a shockwave through the foundations of the European Union, and far from being over, history has come roaring back, with troubling echoes from the past.

Anti-European rhetoric has become a convenient fleece with which to disguise the resurgent wolves of Europe’s history: nationalism, xenophobia, and appeals to our lowest instincts.

This is the existential wake-up call that European democracy has needed. There is no time like a crisis for clarifying the mind.

Yes, Brexit was an entirely avoidable calamity, but it did serve the very healthy purpose of bringing Europe into people’s conversations and into their consciousness. And maybe a realisation that what we share together is important and worth fighting for.

Anyone who participated in the Irish referendum campaigns of the noughties understands that when people are actually talking about Europe, the vast majority are receptive to good arguments and willing to learn about and appreciate what the Union brings to their lives.

The energy generated by Brexit can be harnessed to create a Europe-wide conversation about where we are, and where we are going. But this will only happen if leaders at all levels start taking responsibility and ownership of the European project.

Europe is more than the European Commission; it is member states in the Council and the elected representatives of the European Parliament, which together constitute the final democratic arbiters of European decision-making on behalf of the people.

Brexit came as a hammer blow, and while Ireland finds itself in an invidious position, it is taking to the challenge with ‘steel in its spine’. If ever there was a time for all politicians and parties to put on the ‘green jersey,’ this is it.

We were very fortunate in Ireland to have the possible implications and challenges of Brexit outlined at an early stage when the IIEA published ‘Britain and Europe: The Endgame – An Irish Perspective,’ edited by Dáithí O’Ceallaigh and Paul Gillespie, with contributions from Brendan Halligan and John McGrane.

In my address to an Oireachtas committee last Autumn I said that the choice was between no Brexit or a hard Brexit, and with the latter outcome now looking increasingly likely, we must prepare for a difficult road ahead. The Department of Finance estimates that a hard Brexit could result in a 30% drop in exports to the UK and add €20bn to the national debt over the next decade, with the potential for up to 40,000 job losses.

Accordingly, the Irish government, the Irish agri-food community and other trading sectors of the economy are preparing for a full spectrum of possibilities.  But, these possibilities must be grounded in reality and the sympathy and understanding for Ireland’s position should not be mistaken for sympathy and understanding for any solutions proposed. It is essential, therefore, that such solutions are acceptable to Ireland’s 26 remaining partners.

Reinforcing old coalitions and building new ones is the correct way to proceed. Irish diplomatic outreach is being strengthened in all European capitals, where the complexity of the Brexit issues and Ireland’s unique exposure may not be as well understood as in Dublin, London or Brussels.

Malta currently holds the rotating EU presidency, and the next 3 presidencies – Estonia, Austria and Bulgaria – will be absolutely central to negotiations.

The EU Brexit negotiators are mandated to pursue the broader European interest. The challenge for Ireland, therefore, is to wherever possible ensure that our national interest is built into the negotiating positions outlining the European interest.

Potential solutions to the challenges facing Ireland will have to be worked out with the Commission and Council and our EU partners. But let’s be clear here. The UK government, as a co-signatory to the Good Friday Agreement, is equally responsible for finding the best possible solution to minimise the impact of Brexit on the island of Ireland.

Regulatory issues and potential sources of financial support must be identified. Exceptional times warrant exceptional measures.

There will be new opportunities for Ireland – in business, in banking, in trade, and as the main English-language entry hub into the single market. Ireland will continue to attract FDI from the United States and elsewhere to take advantage of our EU membership.

Meanwhile, the wider EU needs to wake up and smell the populist coffee.

The EU institutions need to redouble their efforts in communicating to citizens what they are doing and why they are doing it. Member States working together with the Commission and EP bring real value added in a vast range of areas, but we have failed pitifully to get even this basic message understood.

The single market, in particular, holds untold opportunity for an outward-looking country like Ireland. Already, it has opened new vistas of possibility in business, employment, education, and mutual recognition in so many areas of work and health.

The benefits of open skies for an island nation; the personal and educational attainments open to our young people from the ERASMUS programme; and the improved business environment arising from strong regulation and competition –

these factors, individually and together, have raised the living standards of everyone in this country, driving innovation, lower prices and more choice for consumers.

And the best news is that the single market is still an evolving entity – as we continue to build it, the improvements to our lives will only continue to accumulate.

But to do so will require the support of our citizens. European leaders can no longer drive integration forward with the assumed consent of a silent majority. The era of ‘softly, softly’ is over, buried under a mound of 17 million British ballot papers. Now is the time for a bullish European assertiveness, manifested through a mixture of offensive and defensive engagement.

Offensive, because we must connect in a more meaningful way with our citizens, and build up a database of positive EU narratives in their minds.

Defensive, because we must fight Eurosceptic lies and nationalist propaganda at source, and no longer maintain a stony silence from the increasingly shaky centre ground.

When Marine Le Pen of the Front National can make a statement like the following, we know that it’s time to shout stop:

“In our glorious history, millions have died to ensure that our country remains free,” she said, adding that “today, we are simply allowing our right to self-determination to be stolen from us” by the European Union.

Such bombast and hysteria should make it clear to politicians of the pro-European centre ground: staying silent and hoping the problem will go away will not work. All stakeholders who subscribe to the benefits of EU membership should speak up as well.

In my own portfolio, the Common Agricultural Policy has a direct and measurable positive impact on the life of every European citizen, but this is far from understood.

The CAP guarantees the highest food standards in the world. It drives job diversification in rural areas, preserving local communities and traditions. It is doing more and more to protect our environment and fight climate change.

But these facts are not as widely known as they should be. In some countries, notably the UK, Eurosceptic media have been allowed for decades to print fanciful or downright false narratives about the CAP being a waste of taxpayers’ money or a subsidy for lazy continental farmers.

And I am often equally surprised by the failure of farmers to appreciate how fundamental the CAP is to their livelihood, which in turn leads to a failure on their part to robustly defend and communicate the importance of the policy for European society.

The Brexit debate in relation to UK agriculture was sadly not immune to this fact-free 21st Century populism.

In spite of the fact that the EU basic payment accounts for 87% of farm income in Northern Ireland, some politicians, including many representing rural areas, made naive reassurances to the farming community that post-Brexit, the CAP supports they currently enjoy would simply be replaced by a UK system.

Time will tell, but frankly that’s quite a long-shot. Farmers on both sides of the border are facing times of unprecedented challenge.

This new deal, farmers were told, would maintain their income support, and with far less bureaucracy than that imposed by “Brussels”. Unfortunately, they declined to offer any detail as to how this would be achieved, a point I made in a speech at Queen’s University Belfast last May.

Easy solutions to complex problems are appealing, but they are all too often false.

Politicians of all stripes must assume responsibility in defending EU strengths. I’m conscious that I must do more, and I believe this attitude should be replicated across the board.

Every time I deal with a rural politician or agri-food stakeholder, I try to impress upon them the need to communicate the benefits of the CAP to both rural and urban citizens.

As Vice-President Timmermans has said, national politicians must be compelled to explain to their citizens that “I sit at the table in Brussels and I am partly responsible for what has been decided”. In so doing, a more mature attitude may come to the fore when it comes to explaining Europe.

Leaders will be forced to keep a closer eye on the long-term, not just tomorrow’s headlines.

Ladies and gentlemen, I began by mentioning the fragment of Berlin Wall outside the European Commission in Brussels. It provides a very useful reminder of the positive forces and democratic energies that can be unleashed when walls are torn down. Citizens understood in 1989, in the most visceral way possible, that through the sharing of geography, economy and polity, they would be stronger.

We need to recapture that same sense of urgency and conviction.

In a time when populists on both sides of the Atlantic make bold and baseless statements about taking back control or putting their country first, it is time for elected and appointed leaders to stand up for Europe and give our citizens the other side of the story. Alternative facts can only be dispelled when those who defend actual facts speak loudly, and with one voice.

On the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the Maastricht Treaty, EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker called for more unity, structured cooperation and defence of our common achievements.

He said: “We can no longer explain European integration through its past. We have to explain the European Union through what it can bring for the future.”

We need to remind our citizens that pooling sovereignty strengthens rather than weakens prospects for national prosperity. Interdependence actually makes us more independent. A trading bloc of 440 million consumers has more cards at the negotiating table than a country of 60 million consumers.

The eurozone economy has now posted 14 consecutive quarters of growth, the unemployment rate is back into single digits, and economic sentiment is at a six year high. For 2016 as a whole, growth in the eurozone outpaced that in the US by 1.7 per cent to 1.6 per cent. These numbers contrast with the frequent, lazy depictions of the eurozone economy as weak and stagnating.

We need to inform our citizens of the many and varied ways that European integration and the single market provide real, tangible benefits to their lives. This week alone, the European Parliament has signed off on the CETA trade agreement between Canada and the EU, which will save EU businesses over €500 million a year in tariffs on goods, offer greater choice to consumers while upholding European standards, and create new opportunities for farmers and food producers.

And we need to show our citizens that “Europe” is not a distant grey office in Brussels but rather a living, evolving, multi-coloured, multilingual entity that they have a clear stake in protecting.

In the Solemn Declaration on European Union, signed in 1983, the then 10 Member States of the European Community confirmed their commitment to progress towards an “ever closer union”.

Today, I believe the aspiration “ever closer union” can be parked, until such time as the leaders of Europe and its Member States can say with confidence that the concept enjoys the support of a clear majority of their citizens. Brexit must be the alarm bell that shakes us out of our complacency.

Let us ensure that June 2016 is the starting point of greater understanding, co-operation and unity of purpose.

Instead, I believe we should borrow a neat phrase from our American cousins and aspire in the medium term towards a “more perfect union”. Thank you.

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