Tuesday, 10 May 2022
Europe Day: Statements
Dáil statements to mark Europe Day have become an important fixture in our annual political calendar. This is not least a reminder of the democratic idea that is at the heart of the European Union and the shared values underpinning it. It was on 9 May 1950 that Robert Schuman set out his vision for a new form of co-operation in Europe. The historic Schuman Declaration invited a new beginning for the European Continent, one that would end generations of deeply destructive conflict and division and set the path to what has evolved to become today's European Union.
Europe Day marks the successful development, over decades, of a deeply interconnected area of peace, stability and shared prosperity on the Continent of Europe. It is inspired by giving practical and multilateral expression to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly in Paris in December 1948, less than 18 months before the Schuman initiative. It reminds us of the deep bond that is the part we play together in advancing and defending our shared values through the democratic process.
That we are marking Europe Day 2022 here in the Oireachtas is especially appropriate. Exactly 50 years ago today, on 10 May 1972, the Irish people made one of the most consequential decisions in the history of the State, voting by an overwhelming majority to join the then European Communities. More than 83% voted "Yes" to approve the Third Amendment to the Constitution, amending Article 29 to enable Community legislation to have the force of law in Ireland. Of the 1.8 million eligible voters, 1.2 million voted - a turnout of 70.9% - and all constituencies across the country were solidly in favour. The lowest "Yes" vote, recorded in Dublin South-West, was 73%, and the highest, in Donegal North-East, was 91.7%. That referendum followed the signing in Brussels on 22 January 1972 of the accession treaty by Jack Lynch, as Taoiseach, and Dr. Patrick Hillery, as Minister for Foreign Affairs. Few events in our history as an independent State have been so transformative.
The five decades since have witnessed Ireland emerge as a truly modern and open economy and society, one that contributes to and benefits from the close relationship and co-operation it enjoys with its European partners. Far from diminishing our sovereignty as a people, our membership of the European Union has helped to strengthen it, giving us a reach and influence that we would not otherwise enjoy. Not all were positively disposed to the new possibilities that joining the European Communities would open. Our newly found independence, just 50 years old, was fragile and jealously guarded but those convinced that Ireland's future lay in Europe showed the courage to imagine a new Ireland with a more confident and optimistic future. Jack Lynch described it as a courage to respond to "the call made by the founding members to other countries of Europe who shared their ideals to join in their efforts to establish the foundations of an ever-closer union among the European peoples". This included not least the ideal of a vital force for peace in the world, and an ever-increasing contribution to the economic and social progress of developing nations. As is so often the case, the courageous decision was the right decision. The past 50 years have seen a transformative and overwhelmingly positive impact of EU membership across all dimensions of our society.
The shared community we joined has widened and deepened in the 50 years since. It has become a beacon of democracy and prosperity, especially for those in our wider neighbourhood who want to join, and to enjoy the benefits and the protections that come with belonging to a community of values and of laws. During our EU Presidency of 2004 it was our honour and privilege to welcome ten new member states, mostly countries from central and eastern Europe that emerged as new and restored democracies after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Now, we see the next wave looking to join - the countries of the western Balkans as well as countries like Georgia, Moldova and, of course, Ukraine.
For the people of Ukraine, the journey to EU membership is an aspiration of the most profound kind. As we meet, it is enduring an horrific and violent war orchestrated by a man and by a regime that does not want to see Ukraine fulfil its European aspiration and perspective. Irish people have been enormously moved by the extraordinary courage and bravery of the people of Ukraine in defending their country and their right to shape their own future. We have opened up our country, and indeed our homes, to welcome those fleeing from the war, guided by an empathy rooted in our own history and strong values. President Zelenskyy, including in his remarks to the joint sitting of the Houses of the Oireachtas on 6 April, has called for accountability for the perpetrators of unspeakable crimes in Ukraine, and for an accelerated process to allow Ukraine to join the European Union.
I have made clear to him that he has my full support and I know that sentiment is shared across this House. I reiterated our support to Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal when I met him in Shannon last month.
Ireland is not acting alone in our response. We are a committed member of the wider European family. Our membership of the European Union provides us with a seat at a shared table and a voice at the heart of Europe. The Union has rightly condemned the war as inhumane, immoral and unjustifiable, and has taken unprecedented decisions and actions to lend its support to Ukraine. Acting together, we have moved swiftly to adopt the strongest, most hard-hitting packages of sanctions in our history. We are providing billions of euro in support for the people of Ukraine. With our international partners, we are committed to helping to rebuild a free and independent Ukraine when the war is over.
The EU is one of the finest examples of conflict resolution and peacebuilding the world has ever seen. Next month, I hope to have the honour of unveiling a bust of one of the greatest Irish people and Europeans of the 20th century, John Hume, in the European Parliament in Strasbourg. It will stand in a place where he was held in enormously high regard and where he made an immense contribution. John Hume told the European Parliament that, from his own experience, the three principles at the heart of the European Union are the same principles that came to underpin peace in Ireland. They are respect for difference - after all, that is what all conflict is about - institutions that respect difference; and working together in the common interest and, in doing so, breaking down the barriers of the past.
The EU played a significant part in our journey towards peace and reconciliation on this island. It provided a valuable shared space in which Irish and British Ministers could co-operate and get to know each other. Those relationships helped to develop the mutual trust and understanding that were so important throughout the peace process. Our European partners also made, and continue to make, their contribution through the strongest and most steadfast of support by way of generous peace and reconciliation programmes that benefit communities North and South and strengthen prosperity across this island.
Our EU partners have stood by Ireland as we worked together to manage the unique challenges for this island resulting from the UK's decision to leave the European Union, making the objective of sustaining peace, avoiding a hard border and protecting the all-island economy a major priority from the very beginning of negotiations. It is perhaps hard to believe that as we approach the sixth anniversary of the British referendum, we are still discussing the arrangements between us. Where we are is a reflection of the genuine complexity of what was presented as a simple question, when it was anything but. As we continue work to find a way forward on the Northern Ireland protocol and make its operation as smooth and seamless for the people of Northern Ireland as possible, our EU partners stand with us and in support of peace and the Good Friday Agreement. Like Ireland, our EU partners want to build a strong and productive relationship with the UK for the future. As we have seen with Ukraine, we are stronger when we work together. However, a strong and productive relationship can only be built on a firm foundation of trust.
When I visited the National Archives of Ireland in January to mark the 50th anniversary of the signing of the accession treaty, I made the point that EU membership exposed Ireland to new ideas and to new, more generous and compassionate ways of thinking. Membership gave us the impetus we needed to strengthen our human rights record, drive forward civil and social rights, introduce gender equality legislation, improve protection of workers' rights and become a much more tolerant, kinder and inclusive country than the Ireland of 1972. We now play our part in seeking to advance and defend the Union's shared values, namely, respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and human rights within the Union and throughout the world. We are proud that Ireland has become a beacon to others of what the EU can help a country to achieve, never more so than when we hosted the Day of Welcomes for the new member states in May 2004.
The EU will continue to evolve in the coming years. Yesterday's report from the Conference on the Future of Europe marks another contribution towards shaping its future. It has been an unprecedented exercise in EU-wide direct citizen engagement and has generated a huge number of ideas and suggestions that will require careful and considered reflection. As we look back on the 50 years of our membership, it is important that we look to the future too. I hope people across Ireland, including Deputies in this House and all those who value the EU and its contribution to this country and the world, continue to make their voices heard. We have much to contribute and much to gain.
Speaking at the historic signing ceremony in Brussels in 1972, the then Taoiseach, Jack Lynch, remarked:
Geography has placed us on the periphery of the Continent. But we are an integral part of Europe, bound to it by many centuries of shared civilisation, traditions and ideals. Ireland, because of historical circumstances, did not participate in the past in all the great moments of European experience but the Irish people have in many periods of our history been deeply involved in the life and culture of the European mainland. Since statehood, my country, conscious of its European past, has sought to forge new and stronger links with the Continent. In this we were renewing and revitalizing historic bonds.
I endorse his words today. I believe the same spirit of optimism, aspiration and hope should remain a powerful guiding force as we mark Europe Day, reflect on what has been and imagine what is yet to come.
It is particularly fitting that today's statements coincide with a most important anniversary, that is, the 50th anniversary of when Ireland voted 83% in favour of joining the then European Economic Community, EEC. Support for our EU membership has been consistent since then; in fact, it has increased to 88%. The Government's EU50 programme this year will provide opportunities to reflect on our membership.
Yesterday, ministerial colleagues and I celebrated Europe Day by visiting, together with ambassadors, a number of schools. Yesterday commemorates the Schuman Declaration. It is worth considering the text of that declaration, made on 9 May 1950, to remind ourselves of the twin-track approach that is part of what the EU is all about. The declaration stated:
It [is proposed] that Franco-German production of coal and steel as a whole be placed under a common High Authority, within the framework of an organization open to the participation of the other countries of Europe. The pooling of coal and steel production should immediately provide for the setting up of common foundations for economic development...
Mr. Schuman went on to say: "The solidarity in production thus established will make it plain that any war between France and Germany becomes not merely unthinkable, but materially impossible." By merging coal and steel production, the objective was not just to lay the foundations for economic development but to lay the foundations for permanent peace between France and Germany. That is what has happened. It is why I find it so frustrating that at every referendum on EU matters, we hear about the Union being a force of war or conflict, when, in fact, it is the exact opposite and its record proves it. That is why the Irish people support it.
Yesterday, I was pleased to go with the Danish ambassador to a number of schools. Denmark joined the EEC at the same time as Ireland. We wanted to join for various reasons but we also kind of had to because Britain was joining and we had huge trade dependencies with it. That seems ironic now given that Britain has left the Union and our trade dependency on that country has reduced substantially as a result of our EU membership. In contrast to what anti-EEC campaigners said at the time, I believe our sovereignty has been massively enhanced by being at the European table. There is no question whatsoever about that. Nevertheless, it was a courageous decision to join. We had gained our independence only 50 years before we voted to join the EEC, but I think our people understood the full benefits.
We have since seen a transformative change in our country, including the development of an open economy, freedom of movement and the single currency, to name just a few developments. The right of women to equal pay rates, on which Ireland and a number of other countries were behind at the time, was a condition of our membership. The Government had to make a specific decision in that regard and the Taoiseach and I have seen the memorandum relating to that decision. It was an Irish Commissioner who drove that change on within Europe. Although Europe forced us along a particular road, there were Irish people involved in bringing the entire Union forward on that road.
I take the opportunity to remind the House that while a lot of Irish people have joined the then EEC's civil service and administration from the 1970s on, many have since retired and one third of our staff there are due to retire in the next three years. We are campaigning really hard to ensure Irish people think carefully about careers within the EU. Indeed, the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform and I have just had a meeting with Commissioner Hahn, who is in Dublin today, on that very topic.
On Ukraine, EU member states are working together to confront shared challenges. It is more important than ever that the Union is united and internally strong. At the same time, we should not be too frustrated when decisions around Ukraine and other difficult issues take time to make. The EU is a democracy made up of 27 separate democracies, the representatives of which sit around a table. The truth is that it is complicated to make that democracy work. We need patience, understanding and compromises.
When the European Council takes three days to make a decision or, indeed, does not make a decision, we should never regard that as a failure but simply as democracy in action. Sometimes agreement just cannot be reached. However, on the major issues of our time in recent years, whether Ukraine, the vaccine programme or Brexit, we have seen extraordinary unity around the European table. It does not come automatically or straightforwardly but it does come and is worth working for, and that work takes time.
The Taoiseach spoke about the desire of the Ukrainian people to join the European Union. I was so proud of our Taoiseach when he made his very clear statement in that regard a number of weeks ago. The Ukrainian people have made great efforts to defend their democracy and their rights to free speech and free media. That is really important for the EU and makes Ukraine an important ally of ours in respect of democracy, human rights and freedom. The EU, of course, is committed to supporting the Ukrainian Government with its immediate needs and, when this war ends, as it will end, with the reconstruction of the country. The European Union, through the European Council, has agreed to adopt a Ukraine solidarity trust fund.
As for Brexit, the protocol was designed and agreed by the UK and the EU to address the challenges faced by Northern Ireland following the UK's decision to leave the EU. The protocol protects the Good Friday Agreement in all its dimensions. It fully recognises the constitutional position of Northern Ireland, to which there is no threat, and recognises the principle of consent. All sides need to work to ensure calm in the post-election period as parties endeavour to form an executive, and we wish them well in doing so. Everybody must, however, remember what John Hume told us about the three sets of relationships, which are obvious now but may not have seemed as obvious when Hume set them out. There are the very important relationships within Northern Ireland, which we now see in practice with the hoped-for setting up of an executive. There are also the North-South dimension and the east-west relationship, which are very important. Those relationships underline and underpin the entire Good Friday Agreement.
It is incumbent on the British Government to continue working in the spirit of what the Taoiseach and the European Union have offered to underpin that peace, not to take any one-sided or unilateral moves, and always to remember that every action taken in Northern Ireland affects a very delicate place. That action must be taken together. That is better. Any unilateral action would be an unnecessary source of tension at a time when we need to work together. The European Commission has come forward with wide-ranging solutions and remains fully committed to working with the UK. The issue of medicines was a big one in this area this time last year. That issue has been completely resolved in recent weeks. A huge amount of effort went into that. I pay tribute to those Members of the Dáil, Members of the European Parliament and members of the Government who contributed to make that happen. Nobody sought publicity for any of the work they did on it, but a huge amount of work was done to ensure Brexit did not ultimately cause disruption to the supply of medicines in Northern Ireland. We are happy and do not want a fuss. We did not want to be seen to be interfering in the elections, but that issue has been resolved. It is a sign of the European Union's good faith.
The Taoiseach spoke about the Conference on the Future of Europe. I thank the Oireachtas Members who went to the plenary debates, namely, Deputy Brady, Deputy Niamh Smyth from my party, Deputy Richmond and Senator Higgins. I thank our citizens' representative, Noelle O Connell, and the citizens randomly selected to take part in the Conference on the Future of Europe and the plenaries and citizens' panels. Their work has kind of gone unheralded. I have been encouraging them to make themselves known to the media. They will have to do that themselves. These randomly selected citizens have done a huge amount of work. We do not know who they are, but they have played a significant role in the conference and in setting Europe's and Ireland's future direction. I was glad to meet a number of them in Strasbourg. Their work should be heralded more. The Government was very conscious that they had to do that work independently, and they have done so.
There will be a lot of work ahead on the Conference on the Future of Europe. Big decisions will have to be made. The European Parliament has already spoken on it. The Council of the European Union will have to consider the recommendations, some of which are far-reaching. The important point is that we have a debate and democracy. Nobody is going to force anybody down any particular road. That is not what the European Union is about.
We mark the 72nd anniversary of the Schuman Declaration at a time of great challenge to the European family. This would have been true of Brexit alone, but now we contend with a triple threat of crises which test our community of nations in ways which seemed unimaginable a few years ago. Today, Europe and the world emerge from a pandemic that has resulted in heartbreaking loss of life and unprecedented disruption to European health systems, economies and communities. The cost-of-living crisis and energy prices have workers, families and businesses reeling as inflation soars to levels not seen for decades. While Russia's criminal, brutal invasion of Ukraine has resulted in the greatest displacement of people in Europe since the Second World War, the outbreak of conflict in Europe reminds us that peace, self-determination and sovereignty are precious and can never be taken for granted. Ireland stands with Ukraine as its people fight for the very survival of their nation. Sinn Féin has repeatedly called on the Government to expel the Russian ambassador from Ireland as he continues to act as a propagandist for military aggression and savage war crimes. The Government has said it will expel Mr. Filatov only as part of an EU-wide initiative. In that case such a position should be proposed and advanced by the Taoiseach and the Minister at European Council meetings. Of course, diplomacy must always be the goal, but diplomacy can work only with those who embrace it. Ireland should not be a haven for so-called diplomats who have turned their faces against diplomacy in favour of brutality and the violation of international law.
Despite the difficulties created, the people of the European Union have shown their resolve in supporting necessary economic sanctions against Russia. European governments should have similar resolve in not allowing mouthpieces for Russia's barbaric invasion to remain in situ. The journey to peace and the resolution of conflict can have only one credible starting point. Vladimir Putin must end his war and immediately withdraw his military from Ukraine. As thousands of Ukrainian families seek refuge, the people of Ireland are living the European value of solidarity. They have been welcoming and generous. We must do everything we can to meet this humanitarian crisis.
The challenge must kick-start a long-overdue emergency response from the Government to deliver for everyone in housing need. The Government has failed spectacularly to get to grips with a housing crisis that defined life in Ireland long before the war in Ukraine, Covid and Brexit. The time for a radical change in direction is now. We urgently need an ambitious housing plan that leaves no family or person behind. Workers, families and businesses across Europe are being hammered by a cost-of-living crisis and, in particular, skyrocketing fuel and energy costs. Many can no longer afford to heat their homes or fill their cars to get to work. While the European Commission has been proactive in putting in place a toolbox of measures that allow EU member states to keep fuel and electricity prices low, the Irish Government's response and its engagement with the EU have been slow and stuttering.
The piecemeal measures taken by this coalition have not worked and, incredibly, we have yet to see any action to reduce the cost of home heating oil. The Government has resisted calls for a mini-budget while other European states are meeting the crisis head-on. Last week, the Italian Government unveiled an ambitious €14.1 billion stimulus package to shield workers, families and businesses from surging energy costs and the threat to economic growth posed by the war in Ukraine.
-----but that is just not happening. Government inertia in the middle of a cost-of-living crisis is also highlighted by the fact that Ireland has yet to receive a single euro from our €990 million share of the EU's recovery and resilience fund. That recovery plan was agreed nine months ago. This month Italy and Greece received allocations from the fund, but Ireland lags behind in drawing down our share. That is unacceptable, given that a large part of Ireland's plan is focused on bringing about the green revolution we need. Plans to extend a schools broadband programme and health projects are also dependent on this funding being drawn down.
It is time for the Government to get its act together and start drawing down this funding to which we are entitled.
Fifty years ago, Ireland voted to join the EU. Today we can be to the fore in changing Europe. There has never been a better time. Across member states, more and more people are turning to the advancement of the collective public good over private interests. In the midst of the turbulence created by the crisis we now face, there is a real chance to shape a future built on the shared European values of solidarity, equality, human dignity and democracy. As the desire for a fairer, more democratic society grows stronger, our focus must not be on making Europe more insular, militarised or disconnected from citizens. There is an historic chance to build a social Europe in which ordinary people come together and come first. European can and must be a Europe of peace and social and economic justice, a haven for diversity and a bastion of human rights and internationalism. Austerity, neoliberalism and militarisation have failed and now, as a community of nations, we have to get the basics right. This means working together to ensure our people have affordable housing and access to world-class public healthcare and education - the foundations of a good life where every person has the opportunity to reach his or her full potential. There are those who use the crisis we now endure as alibis to do the opposite - to retreat into narrow thinking and block progress. They say we must cut our way out of economic difficulty and working people must pay a heavy price. They say we must arm our way out of military conflict and Ireland should surrender its neutrality. They are wrong. Ireland's future in Europe is too big and too bright for such a retreat.
Now is a time for a vision of Ireland as a European leader of prosperity, peace and hope. We have an opportunity to lead towards a greener cleaner world to protect our children's futures by protecting the environment through ambitious and fair change. Ireland can lead the way by becoming an international hub of clean energy through the development of our wind energy and renewable resources. It can be done. We only have to show the determination and ambition to get it done. By showing leadership now, we can carve out a legacy to leave the generations that will follow us a just, green and clean environment.
The signing of the Schuman Declaration and the fall of the Berlin Wall mark milestones of change for Europe. We stand at another watershed. Nowhere in Europe are the winds of change blowing more strongly than here in Ireland. This is a truth underscored by the historical election result in the North. The tectonic plates of Irish politics have shifted immeasurably. We all have a responsibility to prepare for the future. I see that future as a united Ireland, not only in the European Union but driving change within Europe. We need an inclusive citizens' assembly to plan reunification and prepare for a referendum, a forum for everyone in which our unionist citizens and new communities can voice their opinions and views in a spirit of goodwill and progress.
In making a peaceful and successful transition to unity we will, once again, look to the support of our European partners, the same positive and energetic support they showed for the Good Friday Agreement and in securing and defending the protocol. Just as both Governments should prepare for unity, the European Union must also ready itself for the day Ireland joins as a united nation. The reunification of Ireland can be a catalyst for real change, not only at home but right across the EU.
We have a real choice. The future of Europe can be one of reactionary retreat or one of ambitious progress, a future of citizen disillusionment or a future of citizen empowerment, a future of continued privilege for the few or one of opportunity and prosperity for all. Now is the time not to hold anxious to the past but to reach forward with confidence. If we act together with common purpose, we can build a new Ireland and revive the vision of Europe as a beacon of partnership, solidarity and equality, a changed Europe from which a changed and united Ireland finally takes its rightful place among the nations of the world.
Sinn Féin believes in and supports the European Union and the prospect of peace, prosperity and unity for all its people. That is at the core of what Europe is about. All of those things come with challenges. When we think of prosperity, which is the promise of Europe, it has been delivered for many people on this island and in other parts of Europe but we cannot ignore that we have also had difficult times. I think of the impact of the Stability and Growth Pact and the rules and regulations that have bound nation states in being able to develop their economies, not only during the recent period of austerity but long before that as well. Thankfully, Europe seems to have moved away from austerity. During this economic crisis, it seems to be recognised that Europe needs to invest in people and ensure that investment is delivered to people everywhere. We need to see that happen across the entire European Union, particularly in Ireland. The Government has a crucial role in making that happen.
We recognise that Europe has been good to people in many ways. The progress we see in certain areas must continue. We have concerns, however, about the continued and increasing militarisation of the EU. It is important that we maintain the freedom to develop our own independent foreign policy. It is also important that there is space for militarily non-aligned and neutral states to be at the heart of the European Union. That is part of what we are about and we also need to recognise that. We need to move away from the sense that Europe will have some kind of militarised force to protect our borders. I see all these people coming from Ukraine and being welcomed. The European Union has done great work in bringing people from Ukraine to all parts of Europe, including Ireland, yet the EU is housing thousands of migrants on islands off the coast of Greece. The difference we see in the treatment of two groups of people fleeing war is something on which Europe needs to reflect on the 50th anniversary of Ireland joining into the European Union.
We deplore and condemn Russia's invasion of Ukraine and stand in solidarity with all the people of Ukraine. The EU, including Ireland, should be doing more to help countries in eastern Europe, particularly Moldova, one of the poorest countries in Europe that is shouldering the majority of the effort in dealing with refugees from that conflict. Thousands of Irish people have been donating and bringing all kinds of goods to parts of eastern Europe to help people who are fleeing from war. That sense of generosity is at the heart of the Irish people's and the European Union's response and it is what Europe is about. We need to ensure the Europe we develop reflects that generosity and the sense of people coming together for the greater good. It cannot be just for the good of the great. That has been the problem many people have seen with Europe in the past. That needs to be reflected on as we move forward, particularly in this crisis arising from the Russian invasion of Ukraine and in other crises coming at us hard and fast, particularly the climate crisis. We need to invest in climate change efforts. If we are to address these issues, we must have resources to do so. Ireland or any other country in Europe alone will not have those resources. They must come through the common work of all of the countries of Europe in coming together and recognising that, for the global future, we invest to build the energy resources we need, which will not damage our climate, planet and future generations. The European Union has a central role to play in all of that and it needs to take that role very seriously.
I welcome the recommendations of the Conference on the Future of Europe and the work that was done. We recognise that the future of Europe belongs to all of us and is not only for the elites. The problem in the past has been that we have not been able to an understanding that it is about all of the people and all of them have a role to play in ensuring the European Union delivers for communities in every part of the world, particularly every part of Ireland. In the part of the country I come from and elsewhere in the west, we do not have the kind of investment we require. Europe has to play a role in all of that.
On behalf of the Labour Party, I welcome the opportunity to speak today to mark Europe Day. It is a particularly auspicious date as today we also mark 50 years since the referendum to join the then European Economic Community was held and passed in Ireland. Since then the EU has driven social and economic change across Ireland, for the most part for the better. In particular, the equal rights of women have been advanced through the passage of EU laws. There have also been difficulties, of course, and the Labour Party has been very critical in many instances of the European project over the years, including at the initial point of holding the referendum 50 years ago. All of us are cognisant of the rigid economic approach taken by the EU and the ECB to the economic crash in 2009 that led to us losing our sovereignty as a nation. However, with Brexit and most recently with the horrific and brutal war in Ukraine, we have seen how the EU has acted collectively and strongly in solidarity and how being an integral part of the EU has amplified and strengthened our voice as a nation within the EU.
Learning from the Covid-19 pandemic, we have seen the potential for stronger integration across the EU in healthcare, most notably in collective purchases. After a slow and difficult start, with difficult issues around the purchasing of equipment, in particular, the EU worked together on vaccine purchase and we, as a small country, were able to access vaccines through an EU deal that a similar country might have struggled to secure without that collective strength. The war in Ukraine has shown the real potential for greater collective solidarity across EU nations through working to ensure security of supply and a refusal to deal with Russian oil and gas. This also has massive implications for our policies on climate. Indeed, one of the strongest and most positive aspects of EU policy in recent years is the European new green deal. It is important we see that collective solidarity come to the fore in working on tackling climate emissions and in meeting climate targets. Today, there was a stark and dire warning from the World Meteorological Organization regarding the path we are on currently, with a 50:50 chance that average global temperatures will exceed the Paris goal of 1.5°C over the next five years. That shows the vital importance of working collectively to ensure effective action on climate.
The war in Ukraine has put in clear focus the initial project of the EU as a peace project, in its institution shortly after the Second World War and in the aftermath of that war and the devastation wreaked across the Continent. It was born out of a desire to deliver closer economic and political co-operation and to avoid the horrors of war being inflicted on the Continent again. That idea of Europe is once again a political goal that is at the fore of all our minds as we see war being fought on our Continent and the brutal invasion of Ukraine. Certainly, for people in Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia and the countries of the Western Balkans, the peace and stability they have seen brought about by the EU are clearly an aspiration for many of them. We must support them and, in particular, the request by Ukraine that we support its rapid accession to the EU. The Taoiseach has spoken on that on a number of occasions. It is also important to note how generously the EU has responded by delivering aid and supplies and, critically, by providing refuge for so many millions of those fleeing their homeland because of the war. While Ireland is militarily neutral, we should not be politically neutral in the face of this brutal and illegal war. We have been clear in our role to support Ukrainians fleeing the devastation there and to support the non-military response to the war at European level.
As regards the European response, I wish to speak briefly about collective economic approaches being adopted by the EU. In the mechanism of the post-Covid recovery fund the EU introduced the concept of collective debt through the issuing of €800 billion worth of joint bonds to fund the recovery. That was a historical development that could have been learned from the previous response to the economic crash in the late 2000s. The same mechanism is now being proposed as a way of raising the billions of euro that will be needed to support and fund Ukraine and, when the war ends, to support the rebuilding of that country. The Labour Party would welcome that plan. We can see the clear need for collective effort and collective financing for Ukraine, as well as debt relief for Ukraine. As my colleague, Deputy Howlin, said last year, the European Union reflects the political opinions of member state governments and of directly elected MEPs. That is why we must campaign, and I am conscious it is a real challenge for our party, to elect left wing and centre left MEPs and progressive governments across the EU to deliver on our political objectives and to ensure that the EU acts with that sense of collective solidarity.
There was great relief across Europe when Marine Le Pen was defeated in France. To have seen the election go a different way and to have seen a government that was staunchly against the EU and committed to undermining the EU would have been against all our interests.
Social Europe, that collective goal to which the Labour Party and the Party of European Socialists aspire, has delivered rights for workers and women and for greater equality. It has also delivered on employment rights generally. The negotiation under way on an EU law for an adequate minimum wage will deliver on a key principle of the European Pillar of Social Rights. Tomorrow the Dáil will debate the Labour Party's Living Wage Bill 2022. I have circulated an email to all colleagues about that. It is one aspect of ensuring there is a rise in people's incomes to meet the terrible cost-of-living crisis that so many are experiencing across the country at present. We are seeking Government support for that Bill. It is in line with a commitment in the programme for Government to ensure that the minimum wage becomes a living wage and that there is a mechanism to ensure a pathway to a living wage over three years. That is the premise of our Bill and we hope to see it passed in the House tomorrow.
When one looks back on the decision by the Irish people 50 years ago in 1972 to join the then European Economic Community one must accept it was a big, brave and forward-looking decision by a country that was still in its infancy and that still had much to do to maximise the opportunity and the benefits of its independence. Only 50 years before that, the country had come through the War of Independence and the Civil War. It was still very much inward looking, yet it had this ambition, the ambition of people such as Seán Lemass, Jack Lynch, Dr. Patrick Hillery and others, to be part of the international family and to maximise its role in and input into that international family.
It took our membership of the EEC, later the EU, really to enshrine the principles of what it meant to be a republic within our daily lives. To look at and reflect on the economic progress is easy to do and a relatively lazy argument to make. The harder thing to do is to look at the other progress. There is the progress of our education system and the various funding opportunities in education and particularly the ability to grow the regional technical college, RTC, system. There is the equality agenda, how that has changed inconceivably since 1973 and what had to be done. One thinks of things such as the marriage bar, which sounds so arcane now and had such an impact on so many people. That was one of the parts of our accession. Then there were all the subsequent changes. We can look back at that decision 50 years ago and be proud of those who took the decision and of those who voted "Yes" and took that leap into the place of ambition and looking forward. Fifty years later, they cannot but be happy with their decision and with what has been achieved.
However, we cannot rest on our laurels either. Europe Day 2022 comes at a time of enormous challenge. The foundations on which the EU as it is now was established were to build peace and economic development. Those foundations are under threat once again, but never in the simultaneous way they are at present. The war on the Continent of Europe as a result of one country that seeks membership of the Union being attacked by an outside aggressor, is leading to the enormous economic challenges that will be faced over the next weeks, months and years as a consequence. That citizens of Europe and citizens who seek the protection of the European Union in terms of membership are being attacked in their home states makes this a time for reflection.
The rather grand ambitions of the Conference on the Future of Europe are important but they have been slightly sidelined. They need to take on board this situation.
The Minister of State was in the Chamber in February when I was critical of the response of the EU prior to the invasion of Ukraine. I have to say that, since then, I have been impressed by its focus and unity, and its determination to maintain that unity in spite of the enormous pressures it faces. It is vital we maintain this unity during this phase, which will be far trickier in terms of the impact of sanctions and the decisions that have to be taken. Last week showed the Union can do this. It can take difficult decisions that will impact on its member states and maintain its unity. This unity is crucial not only for the people of Ukraine and the Union but also for many other issues. Once this challenge passes, and it will pass, there will be other challenges.
The situation with climate change keeps getting relegated as the priority of the day. We had Covid and climate change was relegated. We have Ukraine and climate change has been relegated. At some stage we will not be able to relegate it. At some stage the European Union will have to treat climate change in the same way it is treating the situation in Ukraine and how it treated the pandemic. It will have to treat it with an all-encompassing and, as they say in basketball, an all-court response. It will have to take the type of decisions on climate change that it is taking now in the context of a war on every citizen of the Union and beyond. Younger generations who did not have a vote 50 years ago and who were not born 50 years ago expect nothing less. They have an ambition, particularly those who are much younger, for climate change that is far greater than that expressed by the institutions of the European Union at present. This in part is a tribute to the successful educational record of the Union, the Erasmus programme and the opportunities the EU has given generation after generation in Ireland to open their imaginations and their minds and see the opportunities. I commend the Government on continuing to fund the Erasmus programme for people in Northern Ireland. It is an enormous opportunity. This needs to be expanded and continued to ensure the dream of membership continues to challenge the minds and views of people.
Rule of law issues and the manner in which there was an à la carteversion to rule of law were the priority this time last year. Some countries still have this. Granted they have stepped up to the mark with regard to the challenge in Ukraine. They have made some extraordinary responses. If the European Union is true to its values, which Ireland endorsed 50 years ago and has endorsed on many occasions since through referendums, then rule of law issues cannot be let slip. The standards of membership and the demands of what it is to be a member cannot be allowed to slip. Unless we do this and continue to keep a focus on it we will undermine these very principles.
Tá sé iontach tar éis feachtais an-láidir go bhfuilimid in ann an Ghaeilge a úsáid mar theanga oifigiúil san Aontas Eorpach. Léiríonn sé na deiseanna atá ann maidir le cúrsaí Gaeilge agus do na daoine a labhraíonn Gaeilge agus a bhfuil an caighdeán Gaeilge acu. Ba chóir dúinn i bhfad níos mó Gaeilge a úsáid. Ba chóir do na hAirí atá ag dul go dtí an Eoraip agus do Bhaill Pharlaimint na hEorpa an Ghaeilge a úsáid agus iad ag obair san Eoraip.
We can be very proud of all of the Irish people who have served the European Union, the European Community and the European Economic Community. They include our Commissioners, Members of the European Parliament and civil servants. The debate can be very lazy on what Ireland has got from its membership. Ireland has also given a lot. We have given some of our best in Commissioners, MEPs and taoisigh who have chaired instrumental decisions of the European Council, such as German unity and the new accession states. The Minister of State knows more than most that we have to reset our relationship. The relationship of the next 50 years will be very difficult as our nearest neighbour has gone a different path. The work of former taoisigh, MEPs and Commissioners on building relationships will make this reset a little bit easier but the work has to be continued every day. I appeal to the Government to double its efforts to encourage Irish people to work in the secretariats, the Parliament and the Commission at senior Civil Service level so we do not lose the opportunities behind the scenes where the levers really get pulled. We do not have the influence we once had. We need to work harder and smarter.
One hundred years ago this country was on the precipice of a civil war. It was one of its most inward-looking times. Those who fought on both sides had huge ambitions for statehood and for where the country would stand. Fifty years ago we set on the path of maximising this statehood in the Continent of Europe. Today we can reflect with pride and quite a lot of happiness on our membership. We cannot be complacent. When we were complacent, our people gave a message to the political classes in referendums that we cannot treat our membership of Europe as a constant or be complacent about it. We have to defend it and fight for it every day. We have to defend our interests every day. There were times when we were not good at defending our national interest. We have to make sure we do so. We can do this while fighting for European interests also. We should be incredibly proud of the Taoiseach and the Government with regard to how we have responded to Ukraine over recent months as a small state defending the interests of another small state, which should be given fast-track membership of the European Union. Ultimately, this would be the statement that would endorse our 50 years of membership, whereby fledgling states would get the opportunities we did on this day 50 years ago after a referendum.
We are all in agreement that the European Union is one of the greatest peace projects of all time. We only need to take a very quick run through European history to see the benefits it has brought. Like a number of others, I was very lucky to be part of the Conference on the Future of Europe. While it was a privilege, I will be only too delighted not to see the hemicycle in Strasbourg for quite a while. I agree with the Minister of State, Deputy Byrne, that the citizens, especially Irish citizens, have played a huge role in it. A number of people really stepped up to the mark. I make the argument that the conference started rather chaotically. It was constrained by time to suit the French Presidency. It probably took it a period of time to bed down and find where exactly it was going and how it was going to construct itself. There were many issues regarding plenary sessions and working groups. At the end of it we know what could be done better.
It is vital for the survival of the European Union that there is consistent and constant engagement with the citizens. The Conference on the Future of Europe was not sufficiently representative of Irish society never mind of European society. There has to be a greater level of engagement, particularly with communities and those at the periphery. If people go through the proposals, they will see some very good ones. They will also be shocked at some of what is not there. We dealt with proposals on health. There were some progressive proposals on people's right to universal healthcare, but there was no mention of the drug addiction issue we have throughout the European Continent. We know communities here especially are suffering.
We all know everything changed because of Russia's criminal invasion of Ukraine and we know about the ongoing campaign by Vladimir Putin's regime. Regarding war crimes, we will only know at the end of this just what the people have had to endure. It has been necessary for solidarity and European co-operation.
I have a difficulty in the sense that some citizens probably worried about the likes of Hungary, rule of law issues and almost wanting to move from unanimity to qualified majority voting. We need to make the argument that unanimity is a necessity, particularly around foreign policy, defence and security issues. Throughout the pandemic and in dealing with the Ukrainian crisis, we have shown we can co-operate. I agree with the Minister of State, Deputy Byrne, when he said democracy is the best option. From time to time, there will be difficulties in coming to arrangements but the alternative is we have one guy with a big table making all the decisions. We have seen how this works out and it is not great for anybody.
If we are serious about climate change and the environment, and there are many great proposals, we need to deal with the fiscal constraints foisted on us by the EU. I know we are in especially constrained times but we will have to learn from the pandemic in the sense there is a necessity for the State to do the heavy lifting. That is a requirement. I have seen really brilliant proposals around social justice, particularly regarding trade and where climate change crosses social and human rights. This is a necessity so that Europe does not become a protectionist set-up. However, there are still significant difficulties. We need to get to absolute terms in respect of rule of law issues. We know we are all dealing with significant issues relating to hybrid and cyber issues, difficulties we never looked at previously. We all look back on recent events and see them through the prism of the changed world.
The other reality is that accession must be facilitated for countries in the western Balkans and for the likes of Moldova and Ukraine. We must facilitate them and they need to step up to the mark. I would put Scottish independence in that equation. Irish unity needs to be prepared for. I still think that not only is there a failing at European level, there is a failing here. In particular, we need to do it following the historic result in the northern elections recently.
The writer John McGahern once wrote that Ireland was a peculiar place in the sense that it was a 19th century society right up to the mid-1970s and then it almost bypassed the 20th century. As we are asked to celebrate and reflect upon Europe Day in the national Parliament, that quote above all captures for me the pace of change that occurred in Irish society after we joined the EEC in 1973. My party, members of my generation and I were proud Europeans. We are Irish and European. The EU has its faults and I intend to address those in some detail, but it is important to begin by expressing my belief that the EU on the whole has been a force for good as a driver of economic and societal change in Ireland and, above all else, as a guarantor of peace for the Continent following the global conflicts that predated its existence. That peace has once more been threatened by violent despotism we all hoped had been consigned to the 20th century.
Membership of the EU has very clearly changed Ireland. We joined almost 50 years on from achieving independence from the UK and, as we did, I would argue we were a nation struggling for identity. It was a society upon which social conservatism was forced as a form of jingoistic patriotism. It was a state that in turn abandoned vital public services in health, education, care and welfare so that citizens were reliant on the Catholic Church to provide what a State ought to provide. It was an economy that was overly agrarian, protectionist and lacking in confidence. In December 1972, 84% of the people of this country voted to remove the special place afforded the Catholic Church in our Constitution. Earlier that year and on this date 50 years ago, almost an identical percentage of our population voted for Ireland to join what was then the EEC. It would be very wrong to point to that year or indeed to those referenda as the moment when Ireland threw off its cloak of conservatism on social or economic grounds - the various struggles for LGBTQI+ and reproductive rights or even the right to divorce testify to that - but for me, that was an important moment when the Irish people were very clear in their determination to chart a new course and to be outward looking to the point of being part of a collective bigger than ourselves.
The Taoiseach touched on this point in his speech when he said that membership gave us the impetus needed to strengthen our human rights record, drive forward civil and social rights, introduce gender equality legislation, improve the protection of workers' rights and become a much more tolerant, kinder and inclusive country than Ireland had been up to that point. I also wish to highlight the role civil society played in driving that forward but we should not in any way undermine the role of the EU in giving us that confidence. It is important to note that Ireland in 1972 was a much darker place than it is today. I think this gives us the legitimacy to point to the type of rule of law issues with which we were dealing in the EU before the invasion of Ukraine. We should not be afraid to challenge those who do not meet those standards, be they friend or foe. In particular, I am pointing to the horrific sequence of LGBT exclusion zones that exist in Poland, the exclusion of members of the community and the banning of literature. All of this is very much prevalent and we should not forget about it nor should we shy away from confronting those and holding them to a standard. There are rule of law mechanisms to which we need to return and we should apply zero tolerance when discrimination abounds in the EU or even among our friends that wish to join.
It would be remiss of me not to talk about Russia's invasion of Ukraine. It is important to reflect upon the fact that, as missiles rain down on Ukrainian cities, towns and people, one of the calls being made most loudly from Ukraine involves becoming a member of the EU. It is to our credit and that of the Irish State that we have been most vocal in supporting those calls, but what is to be the legacy of the collective response to this most horrific attack by the forces of Putin on the people of Ukraine? It has been said that this too will pass. We need to be there to support the rebuilding of Ukrainian cities and welcome it into the EU, but we also need to look at the factors that contributed to the Russian state being able to engage in this horrendous assault on Ukraine and reflect on how we remove ourselves from dependence on fossil fuel extraction, which has fuelled this war. We cannot simply say that with these sanctions and our unwillingness to engage with the Russian Federation, we are going to engage with undemocratic regimes elsewhere, be they Saudi Arabia or in South America. We must remove ourselves from dependence on fossil fuel extraction.
We hear much about the militarisation of the EU and we must oppose it in every single way. In the case of previous wars, we have seen great increases in industrialisation. There needs to be a new green impetus where fossil fuel extraction is eliminated. We need to invest in solar, wind and, if necessary, wave energy. This will allow us to remove ourselves entirely from dependence on these types of despotic regimes that are funded by this type of fossil fuel extraction.
I am also very conscious of another threat facing the EU. When we talk about the EU and Ireland's role in it, we are also told that Ireland's membership of the EU has given us access to a market of 440 million people. The EU must be much more than a market-based economy. A total of 96.5 million people are living in or are at risk of poverty. This is a massive threat to the EU. As evidence of this, I often point to a place just across the water from us, namely, Holyhead in Anglesey in Wales, which I believe is the poorest part of the UK. As we approach the six-year point of the Brexit referendum, we should remember that this part of the UK, which was totally reliant on exports coming from Ireland to the EU, voted to leave. The average household income there is just under €14,000. This town was totally dependent on exports to the EU before the UK left the EU, yet it still voted to leave. If people do not feel the benefits and warmth of EU membership, they will remove themselves from it. Poverty is not often discussed in the EU. I believe we can be leaders in confronting it.
We can no longer tolerate a situation where anti-poverty strategies are brought forward every five years and simply left on a shelf to rot, because poverty, among other things, is a huge threat to the very foundation of the European Union.
I am pleased to have the opportunity to say a few words to mark Europe Day 2022. I am conscious of the fact, like other speakers, that overshadowing Europe Day this year is the Russian invasion of Ukraine. War has returned to Europe. The European Union, at the outset, was fundamentally a peace project and the Russian invasion makes us reflect again on the aims and objectives of the EU and the values underpinning it.
The year 2022 also marks the 50th anniversary of Ireland joining the EEC, as it was called then, when 83% of the electorate voted Yes on the day. That is worth commemorating and the Government has put together an EU 50 programme to ensure we do just that and celebrate and commemorate our membership of the European Union.
I would also like to say something about the Conference on the Future of Europe. The EU is not perfect, far from it, and there is always room for improvement. At a basic level it needs to be responsive to the needs and aspirations of all its citizens, particularly with regard to its economic policy objectives which should not foster inequality or exclusion. The final report of the conference, which contains 49 proposals across a wide range of areas, was presented to the EU Presidents yesterday. The proposals include the abolition of the veto in almost all areas of EU-decision making, that is, replacing the need for unanimity with qualified majority voting. Also in the report are proposals for greater powers to be given to the European Parliament and for enhanced EU military co-operation. In summary, the report advocates greater integration, swifter decision-making and a more powerful and proactive EU. Of course, this raises the prospect of treaty change and Ireland will need to be vigilant and proactive as this process unfolds. I note that the Taoiseach said earlier in his contribution to this debate that we need "careful and considered reflection" on the report. That was significant. Already, 13 member states have apparently signed a letter opposing any institutional reforms in the context of this report. I would suggest the Oireachtas will need to be kept fully briefed on the Government's intentions in respect of the 49 proposals outlined in the final report of the conference as they are further considered by the EU institutions.
I also want to say a few words about EU enlargement. A number of countries in the western Balkans wish to join the EU, including North Macedonia, Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro and Serbia, while Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia also want to join. They have completed their questionnaires and these are being assessed by the European Commission for a further report to a European Council meeting. As a general principle, Ireland is in favour of enlargement but joining the EU is a complex and often lengthy process. As the Russian bear eyes these countries up and tries to destabilise them, we need to give them every practical assistance, including financial aid, help to resolve internal conflicts, assistance with governance and public administration issues, help to reduce their energy dependence on Russia and so on. However, they do need to meet the EU criteria and there can be no backsliding from adherence to European values.
European Movement Ireland has just published another Red C poll to coincide with Europe Day and the 50th anniversary of our EU membership. The findings of the poll are interesting, with 88% agreeing that Ireland should remain a member of the EU. This confirms, yet again, Ireland's strong ongoing support for EU membership down through the years. The Brexit vote in the UK in 2016 has not affected this. If anything, the opposite is the case. The Euroscepticism associated with Brexit has not raised its ugly head here, thankfully. Another finding is that 59% agree Ireland should be part of increased EU defence and security co-operation. This is significant against the backdrop of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the agreement reached recently on the so-called strategic compass.
There can be no doubt that EU membership has been enormously beneficial for Ireland. It has brought about peace, prosperity and progress in many ways. It has transformed Irish society and is responsible for dramatic changes in the economic, social and cultural life of this country. I think of the changes that have taken place with regard to environmental laws, consumer legislation, and labour law, to name but a few. The EU is continually adapting to new issues and challenges. It is at the forefront in tackling climate change. In recent years it responded to the Covid-19 pandemic by successfully co-ordinating the acquisition of vaccines for its citizens and bringing forward the EU recovery and resilience fund. Following Brexit, the EU concluded negotiations on the withdrawal agreement and the trade and co-operation agreement and put in place the Brexit adjustment reserve.
At the core of the EU is adherence to liberal democratic values, fundamental human rights, free and fair elections, a free press, ethics in politics and judicial independence. These are the essence of the European values. They are always threatened by autocratic regimes so there can be no backsliding from these fundamental principles.
The 50th anniversary of Ireland's membership of the European Union is a major milestone in our history. Fianna Fáil campaigned for a Yes vote in the referendum on joining the EEC on this day 50 years ago. At the time, 83.1% of the Irish people voted Yes to Europe. It has been great to grow up in the heart of Europe and so many of us cannot remember a time when Ireland was not part of the European Union. We have been part of the EU for a generation and have seen what support from our neighbours can mean. During the Brexit negotiations, EU support meant we were able to retain the common travel area and secure the Northern Ireland protocol. We may be an island out on our own on the western tip of Europe but we never feel alone because of our close relationships within the EU. We are simply getting better because we know it is better to work together. We see this now as moves are being made to dismantle the protocol, but I urge everyone to harness the spirit of Europe and work together to bring about a stable government for Northern Ireland. As John Hume famously said, the European Union is the best example of conflict resolution in the history of the world. On a separate note, I congratulate all of candidates who were elected in the assembly elections in Northern Ireland. It was really good to see so many women standing for election.
We have seen major changes in Ireland in recent years, including Brexit and the Covid-19 pandemic. Now we have women and children coming here who are fleeing war in Ukraine. Recent years have taught us a lot about the goodwill of the people of Ireland and about our community spirit. When we are asked to do something, we go at it and we really do our best to help in whatever way we can.
I have invited Mr. Billy Kelleher MEP to come to Carlow this week because it is important to recognise and mark 50 years of EU membership. For Carlow, my own home town and county, it is important to mark this anniversary. Mr. Kelleher will be meeting students, business people and farmers in Carlow to discuss the fact the European Union plays such a significant role in our daily lives, especially as other speakers have said, in respect of climate change, which a major issue.
It is so important to mark this occasion. I am a firm believer in the role of education and communication and, 50 years on, we really have come a long way. While we have a lot more to do, at least we are all together and working together.
I felt the Covid pandemic was a game-changer for us, with the vaccines and how we all worked together to make sure we did not lose lives. We did our best with the vaccine and there was a great supply. It goes to show that everybody working together can make that change.
I am delighted to speak on Europe Day. I am delighted to have our MEP in Carlow on Friday to celebrate 50 years in the European Union.
On 9 May 1950, the French Foreign Minister, Robert Schuman, proposed that France and Germany pool their resources of steel and coal in an organisation that would be open to other European countries. Just five years after the Second World War, it was a remarkable moment, with old enemies seeing that they had more in common than what divided them. Eventually, they would build a new European Community through a Common Market which we ourselves joined on this very day in 1972, exactly 50 years ago. I did not have a vote at the time but if I had voted, I would have voted for no other reason than to break the connection with England, to quote another Kildare man from my neck of the woods. Being members of the European Union has brought many opportunities to us on the island of Ireland, as we build peace and prosperity for all the people who live here.
I said that we are Europeans in our own right but Ireland had a leading role in Europe centuries before the Common Market and the EU. Columbanus, now considered a patron saint of Europe, set up communities across the Continent in France, Austria and Italy. One does not have to be religious to see and value the significance of Columbanus in Europe, his unifying spirit for the people and his rescuing of civilisation in the sixth century of the common era. It is no wonder that Robert Schuman referred to him in his speeches in Europe and no wonder he reminded Europeans of the value and power of the man born in Wexford - or Carlow, as was mentioned a few minutes ago - around the year 540 and who died in Italy.
On this Europe Day, 72 years after Schuman made his declaration, we see war in our Continent and invasion on the borders of our Continent. Leaving out the conflict in the North and the Balkan genocide, it is the first time we have seen all-out invasion and war in Europe since the Second World War. There is now a lot of talk about the values of Europe and I believe we need to look closely at them again. I believe we need to bring the management of our Union closer to the people because the EU cannot be a situation of the rulers and the ruled, with unelected, unaccountable bureaucrats and technocrats deciding the future of peoples from a position of distance. People must have the confidence and security that they, through their votes and elected representatives, hold the power.
I am delighted that Chris MacManus MEP, who replaced Deputy Matt Carthy for the Midlands-North-West constituency, is so often in the constituency of Kildare North, as, indeed, Deputy Carthy was before him. It is important that MEPs are connected to the people they represent in Europe and Chris MacManus certainly keeps me busy finding people that he wants to meet around north Kildare.
The EU also plays a key role on the Northern Ireland protocol, which is of such significance to people in the Six Counties, who want their children to live in the future and want a good life, prosperity and progress for all. That the majority of MLAs elected last week are in favour of the protocol is of significant importance to us here. I want to take this opportunity to congratulate the members of my own party, who increased their vote in the North, and to all who had success in the elections. I offer my commiserations to those who lost their seats. It is an awful position to be in, particularly if they are working for constituents as that awful feeling that they have let them down can be soul destroying. It was unfortunate to lose the two Green MLAs but I know that Philip McGuigan in North Antrim will take up that baton.
On the bright side, I have lost count of the number of people who came into my constituency office on Friday and again yesterday, just popping their head around, or who stopped me when I was out and about, because they see this new dawn for our beautiful island. It is great to see that interest in the Twenty-six Counties at this seismic and historic change that took place in the North.
In the Brexit referendum, the majority who voted in the North chose to remain in the EU and, in the inevitability of a united Ireland, they will realise that voted intention and be fully back in the EU automatically. That is something we must start preparing for. We cannot put a citizens’ assembly on unity on the long finger. We must be ready for that inevitability, particularly as Europe has worked so hard to support the North during Brexit.
Ukraine too is anxious to join a union of peoples. We have opened our hearts and our homes to the Ukrainians fleeing Putin’s war. I met H.E. Larysa Gerasko yesterday and the pain on her face was palpable. The value of dignity, freedom, hope and solidarity needs to be recommitted to, especially here in this State as we face our own crisis of homelessness. With those same values, I hope that next Europe Day we will see peace on our Continent for all of our peoples.
Europe Day saw the conclusion of the Conference on the Future of Europe. There has been very little reportage of this conference in the Irish media. I have had to scan the pages of the international media - The Financial Times, Reuters, France 24, The New York Timesand so on - in order to get a full picture of what went on there. I want to make some points about it to the Dáil as they are important. The Conference on the Future of Europe was made up of various European politicians as well as randomly selected people. One key recommendation was for the removal of unanimity for foreign affairs and defence issues. Emmanuel Macron and Ursula von der Leyen supported the opening of a discussion to reform the European Union treaties and have called for the establishment of a convention to discuss that. This was also backed by the European Parliament and by Mario Draghi last week. Mr. Macron also spoke of a European political community in parallel to the EU institutions that would be open to non-EU countries, including the UK and Ukraine. The German European Minister spoke about the possibility of deeper integration of those who are willing.
Mr. Macron, the German Government, the Italian Government, the Commission and so on want either the EU or, if necessary, a subset of EU states to have greater punching power for the inter-imperialist rivalries of the 2020s and 2030s. They want to have the weight and the flexibility of the United States, China, Russia and so on in defending their geopolitical position and the interests and profits of Europe's big corporations. At the moment, it is the United States that is calling the shots in regard to the Western intervention on the Ukraine crisis. The top European leaders want to have greater impact and weight for Europe's capitalist powers. The removal of national vetoes and replacement with weighted votes on foreign affairs, up to and including military action, will be a big step in this direction.
Where does the Irish Government stand in this debate? Will the Irish Government support a two-tier Europe and which tier does it want Ireland to be in? Will the Government support the convening of a convention for a new treaty at the European Council, as this is likely to be on the agenda at the June European Council? If so, the Government is supporting a move to a more militarised Europe. I remind the Minister of State that any removal of powers from the Irish State to the European Union, such as a removal of unanimity, will require a referendum. It is a referendum that the Government could very well lose.
The speeches this week, in my view, exposed the real nature of the European union as a capitalist bloc. These days, we hear less and less about a social Europe and the rights of working people and more and more about militarism and increasing military expenditure.
I call on people, not just here in Ireland but throughout the European Continent as a whole, to oppose and organise against this agenda and to campaign for an alternative Europe which puts the interests of working people and the majority of ordinary people ahead of the interests of big corporations and arms manufacturers.
It is, as ever, a pleasure to take part in these annual statements on Europe Day. As has been referenced by many, this is an especially important Europe Day as we mark 50 years from the date on which when the Irish people voted massively for Ireland to join the then European Economic Community, EEC, which I fundamentally believe was perhaps the most important decision taken in the State's young history. We should all aspire to our continuing membership of the European Union for another 50 years as a proactive member.
I will not caveat my remarks in this speech. I will not focus, as others may, on unelected bureaucrats or try to find the one or two negatives because we know that the vast majority of Irish people are in favour of our continuing membership of the European Union and recognise that it is has been beneficial for Ireland to be part of the European Union. The events of recent months and years, including the war in Ukraine, the pandemic and the impacts of Brexit, have really hammered home for many people how important our continuing membership of the EU is for all people. It is not some capitalist agenda. It is something for everyone.
As one of the Oireachtas delegates to the Conference on the Future of Europe, I fundamentally believe the recommendations coming out of that should be embraced not just by the European Commission and European parliamentarians, but also by member state governments. However, I have some concerns in terms of where Irish people may be a little bit concerned. I know the Minister of State has already read through some of the findings of the wonderful RedC opinion poll, commissioned by European Movement Ireland. The overall finding - that 88% of Irish people support Ireland's continuing membership of the EU - is of course heartening to see. However, there is a bit of a worry that needs to be addressed. The level of support is not as high among females as it is among males; it is 90% among males and 80% among females. In my own age category, the 36- to 44-year-old group, just 83% of people are in favour. That needs to be reflected on as the Minister of State continues his work, but also in terms of dealing with EU jobs, communicating Europe and everything else. The poll also found that 79% of people think EU membership has been beneficial to Ireland. It is an absolutely wonderful result but there is again a disparity because this view is shared by 85% of males and just 73% of females. That desperately needs addressing and reflection. It is very interesting that among the 45- to 54-year-old group, just 71% have that positivity. These figures are all part of the challenges when we talk about communicating Europe.
It is wonderful that we have these annual speeches about Europe Day. It is an opportunity to say whatever we want because everything comes back to our role in the EU. It can be about agriculture, workers' rights, the economy, defence, security or whatever the topic du jouris. Ultimately, every day we talk about our role within the European Union. In our role as domestic politicians, it is often handy to do what various Ministers from my own party and others have been guilty of in the past, which is to look for the very easy punching bag that is the EU. If we are bringing in legislation that might not be very popular, we can say it is something that has to be done because of Brussels. When funding is announced, however, that is said to be an achievement of the Government regardless of what role the European Commission or other member states have played. We have to reflect on that in our language and sometimes in our desperate search for headlines or indeed criticism for the sake of criticism. It is okay to be positive, to talk about the good things and to see the Minister of State and many other Ministers travelling to schools throughout the country with ambassadors for Europe Day, for example through the blue star programme or the European Parliament access programme. It is okay to be positive and to talk about how different things were for my own parents' generation, the generation of the marriage bar, when the thought of going to Spain on a two-week holiday without having to change money was simply foreign.
One of the key issues facing all of Europe is the rule of law. We talk about the rule-of-law crisis in certain EU member states. I am happy to name Hungary as being one of them. We talk about the brutal abuse of international law by the Russian Federation as it invades Ukraine. Once again, we have to raise our concern that unnamed sources in the British media are saying that the British Government is prepared to break international law and to use domestic legislation to override an international treaty in terms of the protocol. Neither this Government, anyone in this Parliament nor the European Commission can stand by that. I urge the Minister of State and his Government colleagues to continue to be strong with European colleagues to face down the British Government in its attempts to override the commitments it made.
I take this opportunity to congratulate those who were successful in the Assembly elections in Northern Ireland and commiserate with those who lost their seats, including the two Green Party MLAs who served the Assembly very well in the years they were there. I am sure they will come back again. I thank Deputy Cronin of Sinn Féin for her generous comments a few minutes ago.
Today we mark Europe Day which celebrates peace and unity in Europe. The 20th century was a century of hostile conflicts but also a century of pursuing peace. In 1920 the League of Nations was established to promote international co-operation and to achieve peace and security in the wake of the First World War which had left Europe in ruins. It unfortunately failed for many reasons. Among those reasons were that multilateralism was a new idea and that the great powers ignored the League of Nations in their efforts to appease the emerging dictator.
What followed was the deadliest military conflict in history. The Second World War caused unimaginable suffering and destruction. At the end of it, vast areas of Europe had been obliterated. In less than a decade approximately 80 million people were killed. Afterwards, the borders were redrawn, efforts were made to permanently dismantle the war-making abilities of the aggressors and peace agreements were signed. The most important of those peace agreements was that establishing the United Nations which, like its predecessor the League of Nations, was created with the aim of preventing future wars. However, with the United Nations only in its infancy and with the growing tensions between western powers and the eastern bloc, the result was the Cold War and the spectre of an unimaginable third world war still loomed real.
The destruction seen in the First and Second World Wars was a catalyst for ideas of strong European co-operation that went beyond the policy of balance of power. Yesterday marked the anniversary of the historic Schuman Declaration, which set out the idea for a new form of political and economic co-operation in Europe. The declaration was a proposal to place French and West German production of coal and steel under a single authority with the purpose of making war between historic rivals France and Germany "not merely unthinkable, but materially impossible". We may be moving away from coal but the ownership and control of natural resources still defines the geopolitics of Europe and the world. We should ask ourselves what peace means. Peace is not just the opposite of or the absence of war. It is actually much more than that. Peace is stability, opportunity and diversity. It is the opportunity for adventure and meeting people and for a long, enjoyable and healthy life.
Yesterday I met with students in Castletroy College in my constituency and I was greeted by Mr. Flanagan, principal, and Ms Gunnigle, politics and society teacher. We were accompanied by Ms Barkan-Cowdy of the French Embassy. We learned how the European Commission works and how it interacts with the European Parliament. It was a very worthwhile session and I commend Ms Barkan-Cowdy on coming to Limerick and the staff of Castletroy College on a very interesting session. There is an opportunity for those young people now to work overseas throughout Europe. There is an opportunity for them to work in Brussels and to continue this peace machine; the great effort at peace that has been the European Union of the past 50 years.
We have always been good participants in the European project. As Deputy Calleary mentioned earlier, we send our best and brightest to Brussels. Both Brexit and the climate crisis require us to reinforce that connection and to redouble our efforts at building it. The Green Party was not part of that referendum 50 years ago because it was not founded for another seven years. The party was born in Germany on the day that I was born. The Irish Green Party, an Comhaontas Glas, was founded the following year.
At the outset the Green Party established itself as a pan-European party. Perhaps more than any other, we believe in co-operation throughout Europe. We believe we cannot solve the great environmental challenges without this level of co-operation.
In this House, we are perhaps the party that embraces Europe more than any other. We have a strong network across every member state and we have an ongoing dialogue with our colleagues in every country of the Union and outside it. For us, nationalism is a vestige of a darker past, and, unlike others, it is a label we do not attach to ourselves. We have no greater right to a safe and healthy life and a clean environment by virtue of where we are born. As a party, unlike others, we do not have a Eurosceptic past and we are proud of that. We believe in the European project and always have.
I have spoken many times here about Ireland's opportunity in renewable electricity generation. I am happy that my colleagues across the House are on board and are demanding that it be realised as soon as possible. It is an opportunity that would not exist except for our connection with Europe. We will provide clean energy to our neighbours and enlist the help of our neighbours to exploit this resource. Our connection with Europe will strengthen because of this mutual interdependence and necessary co-operation. Together, we will help to quit our dependence on fossil fuels from the east and we will build a lasting peace.
Yesterday marked 70 years since the Schuman Declaration. It was a time when states were struggling to rebuild after the brutal destruction of the Second World War. With the horrors of that war still fresh in the minds of so many, the core of the declaration presented a strong determination to prevent another war. It aimed to "make war between the historic rivals [...] 'not merely unthinkable, but materially impossible'". This declaration set in place a vision for a new Europe, one with co-operation at its core. When we look at the aims and values of the EU today, we can see the potential of this community. It is important to acknowledge and commend the great social advances made across the EU member states in the last 70 years.
I am, however, concerned that the EU has drifted dangerously far from its values and aims. The EU's aims in the wider world are clearly defined. These include contributing "to peace, security, the sustainable development of the Earth [...] strict observance of [...] international law" and to "solidarity and mutual respect among peoples, free and fair trade, eradication of poverty and the protection of human rights [...]", which of course sounds great. The reality of the actions of the EU and its member states paints a different picture. The military-industrial complex in the EU has silently developed into one of the largest in the world, where making profits by EU states has clearly taken precedence over the aims of the EU worldwide. EU policy on arms trade clearly states that "Member States are determined to prevent the export of military technology and equipment which might be used for internal repression or international aggression or contribute to regional instability". It has been clearly documented, however, that arms and military equipment produced in Europe and sold outside the EU have been used in brutal war crimes and caused forced displacement and migration.
We only have to look at Saudi Arabia and Israel as prime examples. The Saudi Arabian Government is one of the biggest clients for European arms, with the EU arms purchased frequently ending up in war-torn regions. While MEPs voted for an EU-wide arms embargo against Saudi Arabia because of its horrific crimes in Yemen, it was disappointing that the vote did not compel EU member states to act. It was merely symbolic. This symbolic act made little or no difference to the thousands of Yemeni men, women and children killed or maimed by weapons supplied by EU member state governments.
I have raised the subject of the crimes of apartheid Israel here on many occasions. What many of us might not realise, though, are the massive amounts of money being made by EU states when arming Israel. Between 2015 and 2020, Germany exported more than €1 billion worth of arms to Israel. Despite countless international human rights groups documenting Israeli war crimes and acts of apartheid, the EU stayed silent while EU member states made large profits selling weapons to these rogue states. We urgently need the EU to be pulled back onto the track of its original aims and values, namely, peace, justice and the protection of human rights.
I am delighted to be here to contribute to this historic debate. I recognise the significance it holds for the peoples of Europe as it marks Europe Day yesterday. I also recognise the special significance it holds for the people of this country, because 50 years ago today, exactly, on 10 May 1972, our parents' generation voted to join what was then the European Economic Community, EEC. The rest, as they say, is history. I do not think either the Minister of State or myself were around at the time of the referendum, but I certainly recall the 1980s. I remember the poverty, the mass unemployment, the mass emigration, the social repression and the armed conflict that blighted this country for decades. When I compare today's Ireland with that of the 1980s, they may be the same country, but they are utterly different worlds and almost exclusively for the better.
That has not happened by chance. There is a reason the great majority of Irish people, 88%, are in favour of EU membership and why so many countries in the world wish to join the Union. The reason is that the European project is a success. It is not a complete and utter success, but it is a success nonetheless. It is important that we reflect on why this is the case. First, all 27 EU countries are at peace, with themselves and with their neighbours. This has not occurred by chance. There is also much more tolerance now and many more forums for the peaceful settlement of disputes, be those economic, diplomatic or political. Not a single EU country has been at war since the foundation of the EU and that is an achievement in itself. I am only a humble soldier, but even I know the best way to destroy your enemies is to make them your friends. The EU is a classic living and breathing example of that principle. All we have to do is to look over the wire or the wall to the east of Poland and we can see the alternative. A war of conquest is going on there, and that was the norm only 80 years ago. We should never take the peace on this Continent for granted as a result.
I also agree with Deputy Calleary regarding his focus on education, which has been the second major impact and legacy of the EU on this country. We have all been beneficiaries of it. I refer to the moneys from the Structural Fund that built our schools, at primary and second level, as well as the research grants and other funding that financed research in our third level institutions. Deputy Calleary was also correct in pointing out the importance of the Erasmus+ flagship programme. I am also happy to see that being extended to encompass people in Northern Ireland. Equally, through Léargas, this programme is now available not only to those in third level institutions but also to adult learners and to secondary and primary school students. This is greatly important, because not every lesson can be taught effectively. Some can only be experienced. Travelling around Europe, one experiences the different cultures, different understandings of tolerance and different ideas and visions, and it is important to bring those ideas back home. I am greatly in favour of the Erasmus programme and I encourage everybody listening to this debate to seriously consider participating in it, if they have not done so already.
Third, the EU's support in the context of Brexit was exemplary. We had 26 other countries in our corner. Many of them had absolutely no skin in the game. It was largely irrelevant to them what happened in Brexit, but they backed Ireland completely and we should never forget that. Even if we compare the posture of the two negotiating teams, we had one side which was consistent, constructive and courteous, while the other side was reckless and cavalier in its approach. I am extremely glad that all the members of the EU, each of the other 26 members, were entirely on side in that perspective.
The EU is of course not perfect. It was never intended to be. It was always meant to be a work in progress. I suspect the Minister of State has heard the phrase about the United Nations that is applicable to the EU as well: "The UN was [never designed to bring] us to heaven, but to save [us] from hell". It is apposite to assign that phrase to the EU as well. The Union is imperfect. It has its faults and failings. When we reflect on the last 50 years, though, we should also focus on the next 50 years. In that context, perhaps, the next 50 days are all important. The number one focus of the EU now is to bring about a peaceful settlement to the situation in Ukraine. The Ukrainian crisis is rapidly becoming a Russian crisis. We must use every lever at our disposal in this context, whether military, economic, diplomatic or political. We must use carrots and sticks. There is a lot more stick than carrot now, but I share the concerns mentioned by President Biden today regarding President Putin not having an off-ramp.
He does not have an exit strategy. He does not have a ladder to climb down. It is very important that the EU, while it is using the stick, also uses a small bit of carrot and says that if a ceasefire is declared, unilateral or otherwise, and Russian troops withdraw from Ukraine, there are positive steps that are going to happen. We have to remember we are not just talking about Putin any more. We are talking to his potential successor. That is what we have to keep in mind.
Moving beyond that, in respect of the fifth day horizon, I am in favour of more countries joining the European Union, particularly those in the Balkans, Ukraine, Moldova and the tiny Republic of Georgia, which should not be forgotten. They are very keen to get in for the same reasons we were and to achieve the same benefits we achieved.
On the need to tackle the climate crisis, which has not gone away, this new-found cohesion and sense of belonging and togetherness that the European Union has found over the last few months needs to be applied also to the climate crisis. We need more funding for the retrofitting programme, to support the purchase of electric vehicles and to ensure that we move to a renewable future from a climate point of view and an energy security point of view.
The European Union is not some stuffy office in Brussels, Frankfurt or Strasbourg. We are the European Union. If there is a problem with the European Union there is a problem with us. We have to engage more and recognise that we can influence and shape the direction of the European Union. I will leave my last word to our parents' generation. I am very grateful for their wisdom and vision 50 years ago today, when they recognised the opportunity and potential of the European Economic Community as it was at the time. They passed on the greatest gift they possibly could by making our lives much better than their own. Whether they passed on their vision or their wisdom is for other people to decide and is perhaps a question for the next generation.
I am sharing time with Deputy Alan Farrell. I am very pleased to be here to mark 50 years of Ireland's membership of the European Union. It will be for others today to balance whether that was a broadly positive or negative move in their view. In my view it has been overwhelmingly positive. It unlocked the potential of a State that was emerging from oppression under an empire and happened under a generation who had fought for that freedom. They were so far-seeing in their open approach to nationalism that they wanted to share and pool their sovereignty across the Continent. They believed that was the best way for Ireland to protect itself and to have its place among the nations.
I am very proud of the part that Fianna Fáil played in leading us into Europe. Many of those who fought in 1916 went on to found our party but we do not believe that any one item of history is owned by any one political party. I saw a row yesterday on Twitter between different Members of this House and journalists about who voted for and against accession. There were people who campaigned against it and had fears about the European Union but rather than taking glory in that, I would say that I am happy that their fears did not come to fruition. They did not. Many of the concerns people had were addressed by our membership of the European Union. I refer to better pay for women, better opportunities for younger people and better access to services right across Europe. For all of those things, today is an important day.
It is also a day to reflect on what the European Union means to each of us, "my European Union" as Deputy Berry said. I just listened to a podcast series called "Revolutions" by Mike Duncan. It traces the history of revolutions across Europe and how democracy took a foothold. Inevitably, halfway through each revolution, the country involved ended up going to war with another European country. All of the striving for progress to make people's lives better in that country or city was stymied by the impact of war. It is the great peace process. The absence of the commonality of the European Union in the North, I believe, is a significant factor playing into some of the divisions. We know that when nationalisms rub up against each other it creates friction and that is what is happening with a more overt form of British nationalism through Brexit. It does not come at no cost. When its nationalism rubs up against the sovereignty of other countries it creates friction. We know that the European Union is one place where such friction is reduced and in many cases, competing nationalism is eliminated.
Europe is worth having as something to inspire us. Europe needs to protect that inspiration and protect itself as well. It needs to do that by making its citizens' lives better. One of the places where Europe fails to do that is in our urban centres. We have regional economic balance within Ireland but there are pockets of disadvantage in every city of Europe, where the right wing and populist nationalism are exploiting some of the real concerns and problems in those communities and saying that popular nationalism is one of the ways to solve them. We in this House know that popular nationalism has led us down culs-de-sac before and does not deliver solutions. This country is largely exempt from a rise of the populist right but we will not always be. One of the ways in which we stopped the populist right from exploiting problems in places like inner cities where there is urban disadvantage is by having instruments that go in there and solve those problems. Europe does not do enough to tackle disadvantage. It does a lot to tackle regional imbalance but not enough to tackle urban disadvantage. We need to do more.
Europe is something worth protecting and worth fighting for. We can look at what we have in Europe, the openness, the tolerance, the belief in each other, the belief that we can live in an open and tolerant society. There are many places in the world where that does not exist. There will be times when we will need to fight for that, both diplomatically and, perhaps, on occasions when we are attacked, militarily. Europe is and continues to be something worth protecting and fighting for.
It is 72 years since work first began on building a closer, more peaceful, more successful European Continent. The aftermath of two world wars left deep scars across Europe and fostered a resolve never again to repeat the failures of the past. It is also 50 years since 83% of the Irish people supported joining that Union and began a journey of transformation and development. Accession did indeed unlock the potential of our nation. As Deputy McAuliffe mentioned, it also freed us from the oppression of an empire. It also exposed us to multilateralism and different concepts and economic models which removed the oppression of an economic ideology that was very firmly in this State at that time and from which we had only recently emerged.
According to a recent RedC poll, a very encouraging 88% support our EU membership in this State. Today, we live in a different world from that of our parents and grandparents. The advent of the internet, globalisation, cultural integration and mass media are just some of the significant changes that have taken place since the beginning of the European project.
However, despite the best efforts of peace-loving Europeans across the Continent, we mark this Europe Day in the shadow of the dark cloud of tyranny and violence. Russia’s attack, its war of aggression against the Ukrainian people, is an assault on the ideals of the European Union and every civilised person who wished to see war in Europe consigned to the ash-heap of history.
During Ireland’s membership of the European Union, we have seen radical change and enhancements to our own society that would simply not have been possible without our membership of the Union and the assistance of our allies. In a world based on ever-increasing interconnectivity, we chose to reach out to the people of Europe and to the world. We did not close ourselves off from the outside world or seek to better ourselves through the denigration of others. In that sense, we cannot turn away from events in Ukraine, nor can we pretend that the world or our Union will ever be the same following this invasion of territorial sovereignty.
Will more invasions follow? Will Georgia, Moldova and perhaps even Finland be subject to Russian aggression?
It is appropriate, on the basis of what I have said, that on this Europe Day we acknowledge that we stand at a crossroads. The decisions we make today and in the near future with respect to the security of Ireland and the rest of the Union, self-defence, climate action and energy security, to name but some, will shape how our global society moves forward and how our Union builds on hard-won progress and rejects the narrow nationalism and populism of some on the international stage.
Ireland and its people have long looked to the future with hope. It is that spirit that has sustained us through our darkest chapters and given us the strength to overcome our biggest challenges. Our history demands that we continue to be a voice for hope in the world and share our knowledge and passion for growth, togetherness and ambition with the world.
We can still turn the tide on the rising aggression and nationalism around the world. We can limit the worst effects of climate change by working together. As Deputy Berry pointed out quite rightly, the example that has been shown recently through our response to the energy crisis can and should be replicated when dealing with climate action. We can build a sustainable, more equal society at home and abroad in the years ahead; however, to achieve this, every European must act.
It is perhaps the irony of our time that the chipping away of freedoms and truth reveals itself when the situation becomes critical. Therefore, we as European citizens have a duty of care to democracies and, most important, the truth.
The EU has been the most successful peace process in the history of mankind. It has brought progress, abundance and, most important, peace that preceding generations could only dream of. We cannot take our success for granted, however. Peace and stability require continual work and attention. In an hour such as this, with uncertainty regarding what the future holds in nations across Europe and the rest of the world, we must redouble our efforts to ensure the future is hopeful and sustainable.
A new chapter of recovery and prosperity was expected after Covid in Europe. The inflationary pressure caused by the European Central Bank’s money-printing over the past two years, the policy move towards eliminating fossil fuels without first having alternatives in place and Vladimir Putin's decision to invade Ukraine have put paid to that. Spain recently approved an emergency package to mitigate the economic and social consequences of the Ukraine war, mobilising €16 billion in public funds, including €6 billion in direct support and tax reductions. Here in Ireland, the supports being offered are weak, patchy and completely insufficient. Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael are allowing the Green Party to dictate their senseless green policies, which are damaging the economy and crippling families. These policies are now the leading cause of inflationary pressure in Ireland. The refusal to slash energy taxes and scrap the carbon tax means that Irish consumers are being fleeced by Government-induced energy taxes in the middle of an energy crisis. It is cold and calculated that the Government continues to refuse to address this issue, which has now become the elephant in the room. My colleagues and I tabled a motion two weeks ago to axe the carbon tax. The Government pursued it full on, imposing more pain on the Irish people.
All over the country, we are discussing rising energy costs, which are having a major impact on Irish agriculture and the agri-food sector. The price of fertiliser alone is up 300%. The Government, in response, announced a paltry sum that makes no difference to the ordinary farmer. We have a Minister responsible for the marine who gave away 25% of our pelagic quota. The Sea-Fisheries Protection Authority above in Killybegs is sending what fish we have to make fishmeal. What is happening? Where is Europe intervening in this? Our Government cannot intervene; it cannot do anything for us.
We should consider how the funds we get from the EU are spent. Last week, there was an announcement of funding for piers from the Brexit funds. While many piers around Donegal got millions of euro, why did Keelbeg Pier, Union Hall, get nothing? The council has announced the closure of part of that pier because there is no funding. It desperately needs funding from the EU as a consequence. I am totally opposed to the announcement by the council to close part of the pier. It is a disgrace that the people of Union Hall were forgotten by the Government in last week's announcements of funds. This needs to be addressed immediately. Funding needs to be got in Europe and brought home for the pier urgently. Even more shocking, despite the fact that the Taoiseach, Deputy Micheál Martin, with Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael policies, visited the pier in 2021, it got zero. I am sorry that I was not there on the day for the people of Union Hall because I would certainly have forced the Taoiseach to announce some funding for the pier. What has happened is a scandal.
Today is the 50th anniversary of the Irish referendum on EU membership, which was held on 10 May 1972. Many good regulations and enforcements have come because we joined the EU. Roaming charges were abolished and data protection regulations were introduced. However, since 2019, when the European Green Deal was introduced for the EU, with the aim of achieving climate neutrality by 2050, Ireland paid a huge price. This is particularly the case for agriculture.
We had expected a bounceback in the economy at the end of Covid. It happened but it was quickly flattened by the rising energy prices, which are having a major impact on Irish agriculture and the agrifood sector. The continually rising costs of fertiliser, fuel and foodstuffs are affecting every family and farm across the country. What industry in the world other than the agriculture industry would be told, on the one hand, to increase animal numbers in 2011 and then, on the other hand, to cull animals? What other industry in the world would be told to cut its supply? Guess what: our grass production has reduced by 5% and our cattle number is down by 3.3%. These are all Teagasc-backed figures. The European Green Deal has set our agriculture sector in a spin.
I am not sure whether I can celebrate Europe Day when I know in my heart and soul that the Green Party has jumped on board in enforcing green policy that will damage our economy, driving inflation upwards when we have no alternative. Inflation is currently at a high of 6.9%, a high that was not seen in 40 years. Where will the factories get their supplies from? The supply chain is broken. I do not think I will celebrate Europe Day. It is more like "Mayday, Mayday", which signals distress — distress for our farmers caused by the Government.
I remember helping as a buachaill óg - I was 13 at the time - the enthusiastic Fianna Fáil team that was pushing to join the EU. We did join it. We got benefits from it, let us face it, but they have dried up. Now we have regulations and sifting and Ministers going over to Europe to ask, "How do you want us to jump today?". We are the best boys in Europe; that is the fact of it. We are getting penalised. Punitive measures are being imposed on us by Europe, yet we are the best boys in the class and take what we get. If we are asked to do 100 lines, we say we will do 200.
Where the definition of a young farmer is concerned, anyone over 35 is on the scrapheap. Our pig industry is lying in tatters. The Commissioner for Agriculture appeared before the agriculture committee and said we should use every tool in the toolbox, but the Government did not even open the toolbox and look for money. What is going on with it at all?
I appreciate many EU directives and people's recourse to the European courts when ours will not give any sense of justice. I am very sad, however. I am not celebrating Europe Day either. We are now ignoring conflicts all over the world. Christians are being slaughtered in different parts of the world but now that there is savagery going on in Ukraine — it is savagery — we are all on top of it. It goes on elsewhere as well but there is not a peep out of us. So, what is going on? Not-too-savoury things are going on, yet we wonder why we had Brexit and things like that. We need a total re-evaluation of where we are going as a people. I am not referring to the Government because it does not lead the people anymore; it dictates to the people. The Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, is dictating and the Taoiseach cannot even answer the questions. He could not even mention the name of his former great leader today when Deputy Michael Collins raised Seán Lemass. He could not bear to speak his name. Lemass was a visionary, and visionaries came after him, but now, as an island off Europe, Ireland is left on the scrapheap. Our fishing and agriculture industries have been decimated and everything else as well, yet we get nothing only regulation after regulation, being the good boys in Europe, and "Croppies, lie down".
I welcome the opportunity to take part in this discussion. It is hard to believe that 50 years have gone by since we signed up to what was the European Economic Community, and 72 years since the Schuman Declaration. It is hard to imagine that. I thank the other Members for their written speeches. I note what the Taoiseach said: "those convinced that Ireland's future lay in Europe showed the courage to imagine a new Ireland". After 50 years, we are at the point where we need the courage to imagine a new Europe, because the Europe that was set up for peace has not happened. I am aware that the Minister of State disagrees with me. I will come to the figures, which are absolutely astronomical.
I referred to them last week in the Dáil and I will repeat what is being spent on military that we know about. At some stage, rather than the Minister of State just shaking his head, he will have to deal with these facts. I am a committed European. I campaigned against the Lisbon treaty because of the militarisation of Europe, which was clearly set out, and the freeing up of the neoliberal agenda that has commodified everything.
I say that, while at the same time saying that I am a committed European. I spent a substantial period of time in Europe, as did my family. This is not a simplistic thing. I understand that under Article 9 or 10, decisions in the EU will be made as close as possible to those on the ground. That has never happened. We have come to a point where it is Europe Day, but we should have a planet day because we are facing an existential threat in regard to climate change and neoliberalism, which Chomsky referred to as neither new nor liberal. It is a commodification of every service that we know. There is a price on everything, but a value on absolutely nothing.
While the EU ostensibly and theoretically started out on a good foot to prevent war after the horrible Second World War, it went off in a different direction gradually over the years. More cynical people would say it was there from the beginning. I would like to take a more benign view that it happened gradually and became more and more of a military force. I will again repeat for the record why I say that.
The Minister of State might note a report I referred to last week,At what cost? Funding the EU’s security, defence, and border policies, 2021–2027, from StateWatch, regarding transnational justice. The Minister might look at that. The Ceann Comhairle happened to be in the Chair when I quoted the figures last week. They are so astronomical that I doubted them. The EU increased security, defence and military budgets between 2012 and 2027 by 123%, compared with the last budget round of €19.7 billion. EU funding of law enforcement, border control and military research is 31 times higher, at €43.9 billion, than the funding for rights, values and justice, at €1.4 billion. The largest increase is the European Defence Fund, which has a budget of nearly €8 billion. Again, I doubted this figure and went back and checked it. It increased by 1,256%. This money will, for the first time, be used for the research and development of high-tech military weapons. What I said last week is on the record. The biggest figure is for the EU border agency, Frontex, which jumped by 200% in less than 20 years. I did not believe these figures. I know this debate is not interactive. I wish it was. There is no doubt that, at every level, no matter what criteria we use, we are moving closer and closer to a militarised Europe.
We are also moving closer to a consensus-type mentality when we know in Ireland the damage that does. We need the courage to stand up and show a different way. That is why we got a seat on the Security Council.
Lately, two men showed tremendous courage and I want to compliment them. I did not get a chance to do so on the last occasion. I understand they are in their 80s and 90s. They took direct action in Shannon and a jury found them not guilty on two of the charges and fined them on another charge. The two men, Tarak Kauff and Ken Mayers, are members of an anti-war group, Veterans for Peace. I want to put their names on the record because they are veterans of Vietnam. They took courage into their hands because they want to draw attention to what is happening in Shannon, which millions of American soldiers are passing through on their way to war. I do not know how long we have used this language in the Dáil. I have been using it, along with my colleagues, and I was only elected in February 2016. We are constantly told to bring the evidence to the House if we think there is something on the planes. Of course, we cannot do that. These men took courage in their hands and tried to do what was right.
I refer to EU policy regarding Frontex and building up the borders, and the amount of money that has been spent on that. We distinguish between different types of refugees. All war is horrible. I am on record as having utterly condemned the Russian invasion of Ukraine, but it is my duty to question what we are doing as a country with our policy of neutrality. I am sorry if the Minister of State is getting restless, if his body language is anything to go by. At what point will we bring some honesty to our discussion on where Europe is going? At what point will we bring some clarity on what we are spending on the military-industrial complex? As has been mentioned, arms are going to Saudi Arabia to slaughter people in Yemen. When will we have honesty about our attitude to Israel and the fact we are ignoring the report from Amnesty International that stated it is operating an apartheid regime?
We have had some interesting contributions, but to be honest, at some points this debate has been a fact-free zone. I refer to Deputy Michael Collins and funding for piers in Cork this year from the European Brexit adjustment fund. He came in and made a point that a pier was not funded, when only a few weeks ago the most money ever was given to piers in Ireland, including Cork and his constituency, from the Brexit adjustment fund. It is a major victory for the Government, the Minister, Deputy McConalogue, and our membership of the European Union and it shows solidarity. I do not know whether the Deputy deliberately came in to complain or refuses to acknowledge that 14 out of 15 projects in Cork, as I understand it, were approved, including millions for Kinsale in his constituency, all the way down to Glengarriff and many other piers in between. There has been huge funding from Europe.
We have had a lot of talk about the European Union's alleged militarisation. The European Union budget for defence is probably around the same as what we spend on defence in the country. The European Union does not pay soldiers or send people into battle. When we talk about the military-industrial complex, I do not deny that can or does exist, but it exists within member states of the European Union. Quite frankly, if the European Union was in charge of it, we would spend a lot less money and would be far more subject to the human rights considerations that Deputies Connolly and Andrews spoke about. That is the reality. That is not where we are going. We are not involved in common defence. We cannot do that under our Constitution and it is not going to happen.
I cannot understand the criticism of Frontex. We are not part of it. Is Deputy Connolly proposing that we abolish our border control and do not have passport control at Dublin Airport? Is she suggesting that countries cannot have border control and decide to do it together through Frontex? There is no conspiracy theory; it is exactly the same as passport control at Dublin Airport. Let us have a bit of honesty about this instead of coming in here with all of the conspiracy theories.
I am delighted to see the Opposition now suddenly in favour of the European Union. We have had at least eight or nine referendums on European Union membership. Sinn Féin is always against them. In fact, when we first joined the European Union we were told by Sinn Féin that it was a sell-out. It was not a sell-out. Sinn Féin was wrong then. I am very proud of the Fianna Fáil Party. Sinn Féin denigrates our years in government, but the big decisions we made were the right decisions. We are one of only two parties which campaigned for a "Yes" vote in that referendum and I am glad we did so.
Regarding the application for funding from Next Generation EU, which Deputy Brady spoke about, we are fully on schedule with our application for funding out of that. As I have outlined, we have already drawn down Brexit funding.
Regarding the example Deputy Brady gave about Italy and Deputy Michael Collins's reference to what Spain spent on cost-of-living measures, we have spent more per capitathan those countries have. Deputies would want to start looking at their calculations before coming in and complaining about what the Government is or is not doing. The Government has done a significant amount in regard to the cost of living. We are expecting another package from the European Union in the next couple of weeks, which will set out views on how to deal with the energy market and reduce prices for consumers.
We can simplify all of these things all we like, but democracy, as I said, is complex. It is never perfect but dialogue, working together, having disagreements and getting our facts right are important.
I was happy to meet many students from County Meath yesterday for celebrations to mark Europe Day. I am relieved that when they study civil, social and political education, CSPE, and history in school, they are getting accurate information from their teachers that will allow them to challenge much of the misinformation in respect of the European Union that wafts through social media and parliaments right across the European Union. At a time when cynicism - we have seen it in the Dáil today - can often penetrate the consciousness of society, a panacea for this cynicism is the passion and enthusiasm that so many young people from across the country showed towards the European Union yesterday, on Europe Day. In fact, it was the number one trending item on social media yesterday and for a large part of today. This year has been officially designated the European Year of Youth. Young people have never had such opportunities. Indeed, the young people of Ireland before 1972 did not have the opportunities that there are today. As we mark Europe Day and the celebrations to mark 50 years since Ireland signed the accession treaty, let us act with renewed vigour in working towards a more perfect Union that all citizens, young and old, can enjoy and benefit from.
We also need to remember that the scare stories at every referendum - that we were all going to be conscripted, that Europe was going to sell us out and that there were going to be no farmers left - have all been completely wrong. I was surprised to hear criticism from Deputy Martin Kenny, who is a very thoughtful Deputy, of the European Union's approach to rural and less-populated areas. He did make that criticism. I could not believe it when he said that because the truth is that the big debate on and criticism of the European Union in the past decades has been the amount of money it has spent on agriculture and rural development. At various points, more than 80% of the budget was spent on agriculture, and that includes the LEADER programme. Other funds were spent on the PEACE programme and continue to be spent on it. I estimate that at least €40 billion, and probably significantly more, has come into rural areas of this country through the European Union since we joined. To say that the European Union is not involved in rural or less populated areas is the opposite of the truth. In fact, Deputy McAuliffe, in criticising the EU's possible non-involvement in urban areas, made the point that the EU has been known to be heavily involved in rural and less isolated areas. These are places that, frankly, the Rural Independents represent. They really need to get with the programme on behalf of their constituents. The best interests of their constituents in rural Ireland have always been served by being part of the European Union, engaging with it and taking opportunities from it. The scaremongering to which I referred has always been wrong and disproven.
The European Union has been the greatest vehicle for peace in the history of the world. It has no interest in war. It is always trying to prevent wars. It tries to make peace - to force peace - and to uphold democracy and the right of Deputies such as Deputy Connolly to criticise. She would not be able to do so in many countries outside the European Union. Indeed, that right has been threatened within the European Union. We must protect and value these freedoms. We must engage in the debate but not scaremonger. We must not throw around fake news, as regularly happens across this Continent in respect of the European Union, but recognise it for what it is.
The European Union is a complex democracy. Laws are passed by elected MEPs and elected governments on behalf of the people. Almost everything the European Union has been doing through many years has been in the best interests of the people of Europe. Almost all the equality legislation enacted by the Dáil originally came from European directives. It works the other way as well, however. When Ireland became the first country in the world to have a referendum to allow same-sex marriage, other countries followed us. The European street, as the President of Ireland refers to it, is not a one-way street. We have benefited from the European Union and been inspired by it, but other European countries have benefited and been inspired by our actions at various times. Nobody is perfect but the structure that in place has proven time and again to be in the best interests of the people of Europe. If we do not like the people who are in those structures, we can just vote for different people but maintain the structures.
Tá mé bródúil freisin go bhfuil an Ghaeilge mar theanga oifigiúil. Indeed, one of the Sinn Féin objections to joining the European Union was that the Irish language would be threatened. Tá an Ghaeilge ag teacht ar ais anois de bharr an Aontais Eorpaigh. Is é aiséirí na Gaeilge é. Bhí an Teachta Calleary ag iarraidh orainn go léir, mar Airí, dul go dtí an Eoraip agus an Ghaeilge a labhairt. Labhraím an Ghaeilge ag gach cruinniú de Chomhairle na nAirí sa Bhruiséil agus i Lucsamburg. Ba cheart níos mó Gaeilge a bheith againn anseo ach tá an inspioráid ann anois ón Aontas Eorpach. Tá mé bródúil as na hÉireannaigh go léir atá ag obair ansin agus atá ag labhairt na Gaeilge agus ag obair léi agus á húsáid agus á cur chun cinn agus ag athchruthú na Gaeilge don ré nua-aimseartha seo. Ar aghaidh leis an Eoraip. Tá mé lánsásta lenár mballraíocht. Tá mé lánsásta an ceiliúradh seo a dhéanamh agus ceiliúradh a dhéanamh ar dhul chun cinn eacnamaíochta, ar shíocháin agus ar dhul chun cinn sóisialta.