Thursday, 1 December 2022
Comhshuí de Dháil Éireann agus de Sheanad Éireann - Joint Sitting of the Houses of the Oireachtas - Address by H.E. Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission
What a special day. A Oirircis, Ursula von der Leyen, Uachtarán ar an gCoimisiún Eorpach, thar ceann Chomhaltaí an dá Theach agus thar mo cheann féin, cuirim fáilte romhat chuig an gcomhshuí seo de Thithe an Oireachtais.
Your Excellency, Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, on behalf of the Members of both Houses and on my own behalf I wish to welcome you to this historical joint sitting of the Houses of the Oireachtas.
Frau Präsidentin von der Leyen, hundert tausend mal, bitte Ich Sie im irischen Parlament, herzlich willkommen.
President von der Leyen, you are very welcome to the Irish Parliament. We welcome you also as the first woman President of the Commission, an inspiration to women politicians here in Ireland, in Europe and indeed across the world. Is mór againn tú a bheith linn i seomra a bhfuil sé de shásamh dúinn le 100 bliain anuas a bheith ann. Bhí sé de stuaim ag Mícheál Ó Coileáin, tírghráthóir, úsáid an tseomra seo a lorg ó Chumann Ríoga Átha Cliath sa bhliain 1922 – am a raibh an Cogadh Cathartha ar siúl in Éirinn - agus táimid anseo ó shin; ceann den líon beag daonlathas parlaiminteach a cruthaíodh le linn ré sin na réabhlóide agus a mhaireann fós agus atá ag fónamh dá dhaoine.
We have the honour, Madame President, of receiving you in a Chamber which we have had the pleasure of occupying for the past 100 years. Michael Collins, an Irish patriot, had the foresight to seek the temporary use of this Chamber from the Royal Dublin Society in 1922 - a time of Civil War in Ireland - and we have been here since; one of the very few parliamentary democracies created during an era of revolution which still survives and is serving its people.
Madame President, you come to speak to us at an auspicious time. We are on the cusp of celebrating 50 years in the European Union. Ireland signed the Treaty of Accession to the join the European Economic Community in 1972 and joined the Community on 1 January 1973. In the last 50 years we, as a people, have seen the transformative effects of that membership in terms of the transition from an agrarian economy to a modern economic model, strong economic growth, free-flowing inward investment, vast and often welcome changes in our social and civil fabric, and freedom of travel, to name but a few of the beneficial effects we have witnessed. And we are now, a small island on the west coast of Europe, at the heart of a market of half a billion citizens living peacefully.
Ní neart go cur le chéile, deirimid. There is no strength without unity. We are stronger together. And while we value peace in the Union, you also address us in a time of war in the Ukraine and of deep economic uncertainty - both circumstances created by the unjustified and unprovoked attack on a member of the European family. The Members of these Houses have had the pleasure of hearing from the outstanding and impressive President Zelenskyy. As a member of the European Union we stand in solidarity with him and with the Ukrainian people, and as a country we will remain steadfast in our support for the Ukrainian people in the time ahead.
I want to acknowledge the presence of two important people here. Our own Commissioner, Mairead McGuinness, who needs no introduction. I suppose you are not our Commissioner now but you are the Commissioner from Ireland. You are very welcome. In the Public Gallery, overlooking her Sinn Féin team, is the designated First Minister for the Northern Ireland Assembly, and we all hope that assembly assembles and allows the important work of government in the North of Ireland to commence. Michelle O'Neill, you are heartily welcome, together with your team.
President von der Leyen, the floor is yours.
H.E. Ursula von der Leyen:
Today I join you in this home of Irish democracy, and I do not feel like I have travelled to the edge of our Union, because while that may be true geographically, Ireland lies at the heart of Europe in every other way. This is a country of proud Europeans. Today all other Europeans look up to Ireland because you show Europe’s best face: innovative and inclusive, loyal to your history and traditions, open to the future and the world. This is the country that you have built in one century of independence and half a century of European membership. It is the country your ancestors fought for and dreamt of.
Exactly 50 years ago, Taoiseach Jack Lynch made a prophecy about Ireland’s future in the European Union. He was campaigning for Ireland to join the European Economic Community and he explained that not only was the future of Ireland at stake, but the future of Europe. He had faith that the Irish people could, and I quote, "help fashion for themselves and for future generations a better Ireland in a better Europe". This is what I would like to talk about today.
Most Irish people will agree that EU membership has made Ireland a better place, but the other side of the story is just as important. Ireland has made Europe a better place. Europe owes you. Today I have not come here to praise our Union and its achievements but to thank the Irish people for everything you have brought to our Union in these 50 years and everything you will keep bringing in the many years ahead. As the Irish language is, since this year, an official language of the European Union - I have to train my Irish - go raibh maith agaibh.
Let me start with how Ireland has changed, before I talk about how it has changed Europe. We all know the Irish success story in our Union. Joining the European Union has unleashed Ireland’s immense potential and has profoundly transformed this country. In 1973, Ireland’s GDP per capita was around half the European Union's average. Today, it is double the average. This is thanks to our unique Single Market and thanks to the ingenuity of the Irish people. Ireland has made the best of all the opportunities that are there and that come with the freedom to trade, travel, study and work across the European Union. Irish society has blossomed too. When I was a teenager, married Irish women were banned from working in the public sector, for whatever reason, but because of Ireland's accession to the European community, in 1973 this Parliament passed its first gender equality legislation. Since then, the rights of women in Ireland have come such a long way. In 1990, Mary Robinson became the country’s first woman President. In her words, the women of Ireland - I love this - went from "rocking the cradle" to "rock[ing] the system". Now Ireland is one of the best countries in Europe for female employment levels and women in science and technology jobs. It was also the first country in the world to legalise same-sex marriage in a referendum. Powerful grassroots movements lead to powerful legislative changes. Ireland has become a beacon for Europe and the world.
Let me again take you back to 1973 for a moment. The Troubles were blazing and attempts at bridge-building between communities would founder by the following year. However, far-sighted Irish politicians also understood that European membership could establish new economic and personal ties and gradually help remove the tensions that were obstructing the quest for peace. This is, indeed, what happened. Of course, the conflict on the island of Ireland did not end overnight. Yet, slowly but surely trust was built both between Dublin and London, and between communities
that lived on different sides of a wall. Europe was the incentive to look beyond the barbed wire, to build bridges and reap the economic benefits of cross-border co-operation. The great European John Hume described Europe´s role as being "both practical and inspirational" for the peace process. We all know our Union was once founded as a peace project. Here, on the island of Ireland,
Europe demonstrated this unique power to bring about peace. Europe’s role in the peace process brought Europe right back to its roots.
This has made Brexit even more painful for all of us. Its consequences are most deeply felt on this island, well beyond the economic dimension, but Brexit has also thrust Ireland and the rest of the European Union closer together. Ireland has benefited from the iron-clad solidarity of the Union and all its member states, big and small. All Europeans immediately understood how important it was
to preserve peace on the island of Ireland. After Brexit, our Union has doubled down on its commitment to peace. For instance, we are now providing €1 billion to the Border counties in Ireland and to Northern Ireland with our PEACE PLUS programme. Since it was created in 1995, together with the Irish and UK Governments, the EU’s PEACE programme has replaced border check-points with sports venues, schools and community centres. It has brought together people from different communities, who lived side by side but had never met each other. One thing is absolutely clear: Brexit will not become an obstacle on the path of reconciliation in Ireland. That is clear.
I am glad that today our talks with London are marked by a new, more pragmatic spirit. The European Union and the United Kingdom are still members of the same extended family, even if we no longer live in the same house. I can promise you that whenever the European Union sits down with our British friends, we will do so with "an honest heart and an open mind", to quote the great Irish band The Saw Doctors. By applying common sense and focusing on the issues that really matter in Northern Ireland, I believe we can make progress in resolving the practical issues surrounding the protocol. We are listening closely to business and civil society stakeholders in Northern Ireland but the consequences of Brexit and the kind of Brexit chosen by the UK cannot be removed entirely. The solutions we find must ensure the Single Market continues to function, in Ireland and elsewhere in the European Union. If both sides are sensitive to this careful balance, a workable solution is within reach. I believe we have a duty to find it. My contacts with Prime Minister Sunak are encouraging and I trust we can find the way. Let me reassure you: Ireland can always count on the European Union to stand by the Good Friday Agreement. There can be no hard border on the island of Ireland.
Honourable Members, European membership has done Ireland good, but that is only half of the story. Today, I would also like to reflect about what Ireland brings to our Union and what it could contribute in the years to come. Europe is what we all make of it. Indeed, we can all benefit from a bit more of the Irish approach to life, as John F. Kennedy pointed out when speaking here almost 60 years ago. He quoted George Bernard Shaw, another great Irishman, when he said, "Other people ... see things and say: 'Why?' But I dream things that never were - and I say: 'Why not?'" Ireland´s future is built on opportunity, optimism and openness. Europe needs this positive vision for a competitive economy, for a green, digital, trade-oriented European Union, with a global role, reinforced by Ireland’s strong links across the Atlantic and with the English-speaking world.
Today I would like to dwell on five Irish virtues that will help our Union to face our common challenges ahead.
The first is the Irish passion for freedom. This country knows what it means to struggle for the right to exist. Today, another European nation is fighting for its independence. Ireland is far away from the frontline in Ukraine, but you understand better than most why this war matters so much to all of us. Like our friends in eastern Europe, you know that in Ukraine, more is at stake than the future of only one country. Ukraine is fighting for freedom itself, for self-rule and for the rules-based global order. Ireland has gone above and beyond in its support to Ukraine. In these months, tens of thousands of Ukrainians fleeing Putin’s bombs in the east, found the famous Irish welcome here in the west. Ireland was also an early supporter of Ukraine’s application to join the European Union. I want to thank you, Taoiseach, for being such a vocal and determined supporter. When the citizens of Kherson raised the European Union's blue and gold flag, as well as the blue and yellow flag of Ukraine to greet their liberators, it was a powerful visual confirmation of the people's desire to belong to our Union. We have shown that our Union is the home of all European countries striving for freedom and democracy. Our support to Ukraine must continue for as long as it takes until Ukrainians fully recover what Russia has tried to take from them: their freedom, a saoirse.
This leads me to the second point. Europe should learn the Irish resolve or, some may say, the Irish stubbornness. History has never been easy on Ireland, but you have never surrendered your soul. Whenever history hit you, you fought back. A country of emigrants has turned into a magnet for global talents. After each crisis, you have risen up again; after the Troubles, after the financial crisis and again after Covid-19. Ireland has constantly transformed its economy to make it one of the most successful in Europe.
Now, a new crisis is hitting Europe. The fallout from the war in Ukraine is weighing on households and businesses across the European Union. The whole of Europe needs your stubbornness today to keep supporting Ukraine for as long as it takes and to break free from our dependency on Russian fossil fuels. We need your stubbornness. Since the start of the war, Russia has cut 80% of our pipeline gas, but Europe has managed to replace most of it. We have saved 15% of our energy demand and our storage is full, at 95%; we are safe for this winter, but let us look beyond. It is no exaggeration to say that we stand at a crossroads; either we ignore the lessons of this crisis and fall again into the trap of a carbon lock-in for the future or we use this crisis to leapfrog to clean energy. Renewables are not only good for our climate, but they are home-grown and thus also good for our independence and our security of energy supply. Here, too, Europe has much to learn from this green island. Even though Ireland is far away from Russia and Ukraine, you are making an essential contribution to overcoming our energy crisis. Ireland is a wind energy superpower and a key player in our European Green Deal. Last year, 31% of Ireland’s electricity came from wind turbines, a share topped only by Denmark. You are now doubling down on your commitments. Ireland's landmark Climate Act 2021 set ambitious goals to cut emissions by 51% by 2030 and to increase your renewable share up to 80%. This is good for Ireland and it is good for Europe because Ireland can become a net exporter of energy and help the rest of Europe replace Russian fossil fuels. The new electricity interconnector to France, supported by European funds, will become yet another engine of growth here in Ireland.
This leads to the third Irish contribution I would like to discuss, which is ingenuity. This country of poets and artists has now become a country of start-ups, too. Several Irish start-ups have become global players, from Stripe, the multi-billion euro payment processing platform founded by two Limerick brothers, to Flipdish, digitising restaurants and bars, for instance, by setting up online orders and QR codes at tables. Access to Europe’s Single Market, amplified by Ireland's supporting policies and qualities, helps indigenous start-ups to grow. It has also made Ireland hugely attractive to foreign investment. Ireland has become a hub for the world’s most innovative companies, from pharma to high tech. You are taking the responsibility to regulate this crucial sector. Europeans depend heavily on Irish authorities to ensure that the many tech giants based here comply with our common privacy rules. Ireland can be the home base for the human-centred Internet Europe wants to build. The European Commission looks forward to working very closely with Ireland in implementing new EU digital legislation such as the Digital Markets Act and the Digital Services Act. This will keep the digital economy fair and competitive.
This brings me to my fourth point, openness. Ireland is Europe’s springboard over the Atlantic, a gateway to the world. Two centuries of emigration have given Ireland an unparalleled soft power and diplomatic network. Right now, both the US and Australia have leaders with proud Irish ancestry; there are few countries more skilled than Ireland at leveraging the influence and friendship of a historic diaspora, but it is not just that. Ireland is an exporting powerhouse and a staunch supporter of free trade. Europe has an unparalleled network of trade agreements, with 46 deals with 78 partners. As we confront a more fragmented global order, the value of trade agreements is increasing, which is why, in the coming years, Europe will need to invest even more in its trade with the world. It is not just about energy, we must also supply the essential raw materials we need for the green and digital transitions. Over the next year, we aim to sign trade deals with New Zealand, Chile and Mexico, and to advance ongoing negotiations with Australia, Indonesia and India. Trade is once again at the heart of Europe’s foreign policy agenda.
Honourable Members, the last and most important contribution from Ireland to our European Union is your optimism.
Let me go back to 1972 again, when 83% of Irish people voted yes to joining the European Community. The Irish were by far the most pro-Europe of the three applicant countries that held referendums. Today, 50 years later, the exact same percentage of people in Ireland, 83%, are optimistic about the EU's future. This is once again the highest percentage of any country in the European Union. The story of Ireland in the European Union is a story of optimism. You, the Irish people, have built your own good fortune through thick and thin. Jack Lynch was an optimist when he said that he could make Ireland and the European Union a better place. The heroes of the Easter Rising and the architects of the Good Friday Agreement were optimists because they believed that they could change the course of history. That is their greatest lesson for us. They dared to look beyond the imperfection of what is to see the beauty of what could be. This is what Europe needs today. We need to believe that Ukraine can win this war. We need to believe that we can break free once and for all from the enslavement of Russian fossil fuels. We need to believe that a climate-neutral future is within reach. We must do everything in our power to turn this hope into reality because it depends on us.
Long live Ireland. Long live the European Union.
A Cheann Chomhairle, a Chathaoirligh, a Bhaill an Oireachtais agus a Uachtaráin von der Leyen, cuirim céad míle fáilte romhaibh chuig an gcomhshuí speisialta seo de Dháil agus de Sheanad Éireann tráthnóna inniu. Is pribhléid agus onóir mhór dúinn, a Uachtaráin, go bhfuil tú anseo linn ag ceiliúradh 50 bliain de bhallraíocht na hÉireann san Aontas Eorpach ón uair a chaith pobal na tíre seo vóta sa reifreann ar 10 Bealtaine, 1972. Táimid fíorbhuíoch díot, a Uachtaráin, as ucht do cheannaireachta san Eoraip agus ar son do chuid oibre ar fad agus an tacaíocht go léir a thugann tú go leanúnach don tír seo. Mar Thaoiseach, táim iontach sásta go bhfuil an tír seo lárnach i ngnóthaí na hEorpa agus go dtugtar cluas éisteachta don tír ag leibhéal Eorpach.
I thank President von der Leyen for her visit here today. It is a day to celebrate and to reflect on our membership of the European Union. Let me begin by recalling the words of my predecessor as Taoiseach, Jack Lynch, who President von der Leyen described as an optimist. I reflected as she said that it is obvious why he was an optimist - he was born in the city of Cork where optimism is always aplenty. When Taoiseach, Jack Lynch, speaking in Brussels in January 1972 where he had just signed the Accession Treaty with his colleague Patrick Hillery, said:
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... 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.
These words continue to resonate and help to explain, five decades later, why our welcome for President von der Leyen in these Houses today is such a genuine and heartfelt one. One of the most inspiring things about that decision 50 years ago is that despite the misgivings and opposition of some, the Irish people took the path of hope, voting overwhelmingly in favour of membership, a decision that has been vindicated time and time again. During the past 50 years sharing our sovereignty with our European partners has helped to make us all safer, stronger and more prosperous. Close reciprocal co-operation with our European partners has been central to our transformation, helping us to emerge as a modern, open economy and society. Ireland’s membership of this Union has had an overwhelmingly positive impact across all dimensions of our society. For our part, Ireland has been proud to contribute strongly to the shaping of today’s European Union, which we have come to see as our home.
A Cheann Chomhairle, it is unfortunately impossible to talk about Europe today without reflecting on the appalling events unfolding in Ukraine. Russia’s illegal and immoral aggression against its peaceful neighbour represents an horrific and violent assault. The impact on the Ukrainian people has been devastating and truly shocking. When I visited in July I heard first-hand civilian accounts of the brutality and violence visited upon Ukrainian men, women and children by occupying Russian forces. The wanton destruction, including targeting of nuclear facilities and of other energy and civilian infrastructure, shows Russia behaving as a rogue state. The impact of Russia’s aggression has also reached far beyond Ukraine and has affected every home and business. The energy crisis and its impact on the cost of living is as keenly felt here in Ireland as it is in other countries throughout the European Union. The Irish people have, in the face of this destruction and devastation, opened our communities, our homes and our hearts to more than 65,000 Ukrainians who have fled to Ireland since the end of February. We remain unswerving in our political support for Ukraine, including in championing Ukraine’s path towards European Union membership. The Government in Kyiv is firmly determined, despite the awful circumstances in which it operates, to meet the high bar required for accession to the European Union. I have consistently advocated that a free, sovereign and democratic Ukraine is part of our European family and belongs in the European Union. As temperatures drop and as Russia keeps up its relentless attacks on vital civilian infrastructure, the people of Ukraine face a long and very difficult winter.
President von der Leyen, like you, this Parliament stands in solidarity with Ukraine. With you, the people of Ireland stand shoulder to shoulder with the people of Ukraine. President von der Leyen, I would like to commend you on your leadership in response to this horrific war. When you and your new team of Commissioners took office this day three years ago, you committed to deliver a greener, fairer and more digital European Union. The strength of your commitment to this objective has been maintained, and indeed increased, through two historic crises, the Covid-19 pandemic and Russia’s war on Ukraine. The scale of the challenges which have confronted the European Union and its member states since early 2020 has been immense but our response, with your leadership, has been likewise unprecedented.
When Covid-19 struck, the European Union found itself in uncharted territory with responsibility at national level potentially limiting the European Union’s scope for action on public health. Despite this complexity, the leadership provided by the European Commission played no small part in mobilising a decisive European Union response that demonstrated to our citizens the strength in our unity. In particular, the European Commission was central to efforts to accelerate the development, manufacturing and deployment of safe and effective vaccines.I well remember our many both brief and detailed conversations at critical times during the early months of the vaccine programme. I would like, on a personal level, to thank you on behalf of the Irish people for your steadfast commitment to ensuring equality between countries in achieving access to the vaccines. We were only able to implement one of the most successful vaccine programmes in the world because of the secure supplies which we secured through joint European Union programmes. Many lives and livelihoods were saved because of this. Europe was not only the place where the world’s first licensed MRNA vaccine was developed, by BioNTech in Germany, but unlike others, Europe exported vaccines and their components throughout the pandemic, offering hope and solidarity to others around the world.
The European Union also broke new ground in response to the economic challenge of the pandemic. The historic €2 trillion EU budgetary package agreed by the European Council in July 2020 was a milestone in European Union solidarity. It sent an important message that, in the most testing of times, European Union leaders can work together and find a solution that delivers for our citizens. This has provided substantial funding for economic recovery across Europe through targeted and front-loaded green and digital investments.
In response to the current energy crisis, you have maintained a strong focus on accelerating the green transition, through initiatives such as REPowerEU, as the only viable long-term solution. The war has only reinforced the need to step up investments in energy infrastructure, including interconnections, and in innovative renewable technologies to enhance our energy security and to meet our climate ambitions. There is no time to waste. Last week in Paris, we signed contracts for the Celtic interconnector project. A remarkable 575 km of cable will link Cork to Brittany. Over €500 million has been contributed through the EU Connecting Europe Facility, and the interconnector will bring real benefits to the citizens of both France and Ireland. It is a further practical demonstration of the mutual benefits of co-operation throughout the European Union and is only the first step in terms of developing a true European grid.
The Commission has also played a decisive role in reinforcing our collective commitment to social progress through support for initiatives such as the European Pillar of Social Rights. This is reflected in the endorsement by European Union leaders in May 2021 of the Porto declaration, which includes concrete employment, skills and poverty-reduction targets to be achieved by 2030. It is a reminder that the EU has been the greatest force for employment growth and social progress in our history. As we have discussed many times, the facts show that it is the citizens of Europe who have benefited every time we have shown urgency and ambition in developing the Union.
The EU is, of course, one of the finest examples of conflict resolution and peace building the world has ever seen. During my visit to the European Parliament in Strasbourg in June, I had the honour of unveiling a bust of one of the greatest Irish people and Europeans of the 20th century, John Hume. John Hume saw the same three principles at the heart of the European Union that came to underpin peace in Ireland: respect for difference, which otherwise becomes conflict; institutions which respect this difference; and working together in the common interest that breaks down the barriers of the past.
The part played by the EU in our journey towards peace and reconciliation on this island has been significant. Our European partners also made, and continue to make, their contribution through steadfast support for generous peace and reconciliation programmes. You have stood with Ireland and Northern 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 objectives of sustaining peace, avoiding a hard border - I welcome your strong comments again today in respect of that - and protecting the all-island economy a European Union priority from the very beginning of negotiations.
I had the opportunity earlier today to once again express to you, President von der Leyen, our appreciation for the European Union’s unswerving solidarity with Ireland throughout Brexit. Like you, we want to see a new and vital partnership with the United Kingdom, a constructive one, which will be achieved if we can resolve the issues relating to the protocol. With the right political will, I believe we can achieve that.
We are a free democracy. We have loud debates which include a full range of opinions, but let there be no doubt where the Irish people stand in relation to the European Union and our membership. The Eurobarometer report earlier this year showed 71% of Irish citizens holding a positive view of the European Union, the highest figure recorded, and significantly higher than the EU 27 average of 44%. It showed as many as 88% of Irish citizens being optimistic about the future of the European Union. We should never take this support for granted. We must continue to seek and embrace ways to engage citizens on the aims and the benefits of this great Union. We must continue to have a positive agenda of seeking ways to make our Union stronger and more effective. Thank you, President von der Leyen, for your visit today, for your support over the past three years and for your distinguished contribution to shaping Europe’s future.
Thank you. It was remiss of me at the outset not to welcome members of the diplomatic corps from across the world who are joining us here today, and in particular to make mention of H.E Larysa Gerasko, our great friend and the champion of Ukraine here in Ireland, who does so much work for her people and her country. The ambassador is very welcome.
On behalf of An Tánaiste, I call the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Coveney.
Is mór an onóir dom a bheith anseo ar an ócáid stairiúil seo. On behalf of the Fine Gael party, as you know, a proud member of the European People's Party, I am privileged to join with the Ceann Comhairle and the Taoiseach to welcome you to the Oireachtas today - there is a Cork thing going on today. Your leadership as President of the European Commission over the last three years and your friendship towards this island has time and time again proven indispensable to Ireland as we navigate the unprecedented challenges that have been faced. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about these three years is not the extent of the challenges our Union has faced, but the degree of solidarity with which we have collectively met those challenges. That is thanks to your able and steadfast leadership through that period of turmoil. During the darkest days of Covid-19, we saw that solidarity when our fellow citizens were airlifted from one member state to another, granting crucial relief to overburdened hospitals. We saw how you and your Commission led the purchase of life-saving vaccines to ensure that all 450 million EU citizens had fair access.
Ireland knows first-hand the value of European solidarity. Throughout the EU-UK negotiations following the Brexit vote, the European Commission has never once wavered in its solidarity with Ireland in a Union where, increasingly, we look out for one another. Four years ago, when your predecessor addressed this House, my colleagues thanked both him and Michel Barnier for the leadership they had shown through the Brexit negotiations. Today, I want to echo that gratitude by sincerely thanking you and, in particular, Vice-President Šefovi, for your tireless work in supporting peace in Northern Ireland, for your continued patience and intelligence and for your willingness to continue to look for solutions to the ongoing issues of concern around the Northern Ireland protocol.
The United Kingdom is our neighbour. It is our friend and a country that we and the rest of the EU want a deep partnership with, as they travel a new journey outside of the European Union.I hope that with a new UK Prime Minister and, indeed, a new context internationally, we can now grasp the opportunity to resolve our Brexit-related differences in the coming weeks through dialogue and compromise. I too believe a solution is within our grasp if we have a partner to achieve an outcome we can all accept and move on from.
In doing that, I hope we can create a basis for a new and stronger relationship at a time of international conflict and strife. The European Union is, after all, a peace project founded on bringing peace and stability to our shared Continent. That is why we in Ireland will not waver in our support for Ukraine. We have made it clear since the horrors of this war began that military non-alignment does not mean that we stand on the sidelines. In the face of Russian aggression and blatant breaches of international and humanitarian law, Ireland is not neutral. Indeed, following the leadership of the European Commission under President von der Leyen, Ireland stands in full solidarity with Ukraine and its people today and in the months ahead. Irish people have warmly accepted more than 65,000 Ukrainians into their communities across the country, in virtually every parish and indeed into their homes. We will continue to work with President von der Leyen financially and politically to support Ukraine in its fight to protect its own sovereignty and territorial integrity. We will work with her to protect the Ukrainian people from the brutality of Russian military attack on a daily basis.
We will also use every avenue at our disposal to hold Russia accountable for its actions and we will continue to support EU sanctions that increase the cost for the Kremlin of its continued aggression. We strongly support your efforts, President, to make progress on investigating and ultimately prosecuting Russia's crime of aggression in an international court setting supported by the EU and the UN. We look forward to the day when Ukraine will be part of our Union and we will continue to support Ukraine every step of the way on that journey towards full membership. For us, this is the essence of what our Union is all about - the right of every European country and every European citizen to enjoy the benefits of peace, prosperity, human rights, dignity, equality and the protections of the rule of law on which every citizen should insist.
Some 50 years ago, Ireland joined the then European Communities. I was delighted that President von der Leyen was able, earlier today, to meet some of the schoolchildren who took part in the Ireland EU50 Youth Competition. The Ireland in which those schoolchildren are growing up today is vastly different from that of 50 years ago. EU membership has transformed almost every aspect of Irish society. Ireland today has a modern, open and innovative economy at the heart of the EU Single Market but, more important, we have a diverse, open and tolerant society looking to the future with optimism. We are the better for all of that.
This peaceful and prosperous island is not just an Irish success; it is a European success. In this dark winter of war, we would do well to remember the hope that stems from the European story we have to share, written over the past 50 years. Yes, President von der Leyen, that is a story of optimism in the face of immense challenges. Thank you for your leadership and, perhaps more important, your continued ambition for the journey the EU must continue to travel. We are by your side.
President von der Leyen, go raibh maith agat for your leadership during the Covid pandemic. Danke schön for your strength in our response to the war in Ukraine. Merci beaucoup for standing up for the Good Friday Agreement and the Irish protocol. On behalf of the European Green Party, I thank you for putting the European Green Deal at the centre of the whole economic strategy and social strategy for our Union at this critical time.
We know it is the right strategy because Europe is at risk. We could end up with a situation where we import all our software from the US in the west, all our hardware from China in the east and all our energy from Russia and Ukraine. Where would that leave us in terms of security or prosperity for the future? We believe and agree, like President von der Leyen has shown in her leadership, that this is a time to go back to our roots, but instead of a coal and steel union, at the centre now is going to be an electricity cable and fibre optic cable future for our 27 member countries. That strategy is why I thank President von der Leyen for the leadership she is showing. It will be renewable, as she said. It will be digital and it has to see nature restored for all our countries and people.
When it comes to Ireland doing that, yes, as President von der Leyen stated, we can sometimes be a beacon of light, but we should be open and honest and recognise that at times in the past 50 years we have been through storms. Sometimes, that light has not been seen. You have to accept us, as a fellow Member said using an Irish political phrase, warts and all. In that 50 years, we may have taken our beautiful island with its 40 shades of green for granted at times and not protected our local environment. We tripped up on two or three occasions when we had major recessions and saw ongoing emigration. All Members of this House recognise that we have a real issue at the moment providing homes for our people and the people who come rightly to our shores in need of help and looking to be part of this country that has, as President von der Leyen stated, stubborn optimism and openness to the world. We are not perfect, but in some way that puts us in a good place. If we can live up to this vision of a low carbon, digital and renewable future, other countries will say that if Ireland can do it, they can do it too. If the prodigal daughter can make it back home to living on this planet in a sustainable way, maybe we could be a lesson to the rest of the world.
What President von der Leyen stated is true. We stand on the precipice of real opportunity, at this cutting edge of the Atlantic and Europe, ready to tap into that Atlantic power and share it with our neighbours. The interconnector in respect of which the Taoiseach and I signed an agreement in Paris last Friday is not just a power cable. It is also fibre optic connected. We are going to look to connect Irish universities to France and beyond using that cable. The Leas-Cheann Comhairle will be glad to hear that the previous week we saw a similar cable coming from Iceland into Galway Bay. Now we are looking to see if we can head south to Portugal to be part of this interconnected and digitally connected European Union. That is what we can and will do as a country as part of the transition that President von der Leyen is leading.
We have done this sort of transition before. From the late 1950s through to when we joined the European Union, we went from a closed economic model to an open one. We did that by being consistent on some principles behind it, such as investing in education for all our people, joining the European Union and being open to enterprise and trade. Today, there are some similar principles in this new Union President von der Leyen is leading. First, it has to be based on climate justice. We saw that in Sharm el-Sheikh, where the European Union team made a significant contribution in breaking the north-south divide in the world. I was so proud when, at 4 o'clock on Saturday night, Sunday morning, the Polish representative said that what we had done was an example of European collaboration. That was true. We also need that justice here at home. The Fit for 55 legislative package President von der Leyen is leading out, with 20 major pieces of legislation, has to provide a just transition in this new economy. Last but not least, I will pick up on what the Minister for Foreign Affairs said about this being a peace project. It can be in this way; this new power is a shared power that has particular characteristics that are diverse, decentralised and limitless. We are in a race to the top with China and the US on this. Their success will not undermine ours. The Inflation Reduction Act could see their technology develop, but we can share in that because it is a shared power. If we go out with that attitude to the world, being innovative and clever on this and seeing it as a peak project in that way, we will succeed. I wish President von der Leyen the best of luck. I thank her for her leadership.
Ireland is a proud, ancient European nation. In the new year, we will mark 50 years since becoming a member of what was then the European Communities in 1973. Since then, it has been quite a journey. There have been so many positive advances in areas such as equality, workers’ rights, environmental standards and economic progress. There have been many challenges too, including growing militarisation, deregulation and privatisation, to mention just some. However, on this journey, solidarity, fairness and a conviction that we can be at our strongest when we work together to make a real, positive difference to people’s lives has guided our greatest successes.
I warmly welcome President von der Leyen. Cuirim fáilte mór roimpi go dtí an Teach. Through her leadership of the Commission, she has been a very good friend to Ireland and demonstrated her desire to work with Ireland towards these common goals.
This year, Europe has shown the power of its unity and solidarity in standing squarely with the people of Ukraine. Vladimir Putin’s barbaric invasion has shocked the world. His illegal and unjust war must be stopped and the horror and bloodshed must end. In this time of crisis, Europe has come together in solidarity with the people of Ukraine as they endure and courageously resist this grotesque war. This solidarity has sent a powerful message to Putin that Ukraine is not alone, and that Europe and Ireland will stand up for what is right.
Recent years have also shown Ireland the importance of European solidarity as we weather the storm of Brexit. There was never any such thing as a good Brexit for Ireland. The people of the North of Ireland voted to remain in the EU, but were dragged out against their will by Britain, spearheaded by the Tories at the urging of the Democratic Unionist Party, DUP. Throughout years of fractious negotiations, the EU stood steadfast with Ireland and our determination to protect our peace process and the Good Friday Agreement - a peace agreement that will be 25 years old next year - which has transformed our island and shown that conflict can end and peace can triumph. Prior to the Good Friday Agreement, British Army checkpoints marked the Border. British military installations, built and reinforced from the 1970s onwards, were symbols of division and conflict. The invisible border on the island of Ireland has now become our greatest symbol of peace. There can never be a return to a hard Border in Ireland. I welcome President von der Leyen's forceful assertion of that reality today.
It is important to acknowledge that the Good Friday Agreement is a mighty diplomatic success, not just for Ireland but the European Union. For that, we commend and thank President von der Leyen. The EU has been a critical partner for peace, providing political and financial support leading to greater economic and social progress on an all-island basis. It is important to acknowledge and thank, in particular, Michel Barnier, Maroš Šefovi and their teams for their determination and tenacity in holding firm in defence of the Good Friday Agreement and the protocol defending peace and progress in Ireland. The EU’s solidarity will remain essential to us as we continue to address the fallout of Brexit.
Currently, the institutions in the North of our country lie dormant as the DUP continues its shameful boycott. Workers and families in the North pay the price of not having an Executive to work hard and deliver for them during the current cost-of-living crisis. It bears repeating that the protocol is working. It is necessary to protect the North from the damages inflicted by Brexit. It is supported, as President von der Leyen knows, by the majority of democratically elected representatives in the North and throughout the island. While issues around the implementation of the protocol exist, they can be resolved by good faith engagement. We must see calm and clear leadership from those at the negotiating table. We heard words from the new British Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak. He has committed to restoring the political institutions and resolving issues around the implementation of the protocol. Of course, those words are very welcome but they must be matched by action and meaningful talks between the British Government and the European Commission. I know it is President von der Leyen's fervent desire to engage constructively. That is precisely what is needed, not sabre-rattling or any more threats to breach international law.
Ireland has changed and is changing. Brexit is responsible for some of that. The EU took a significant decision when it stated to our then Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, at the outset of Brexit that, in the context of Irish reunification, the North will automatically rejoin the EU and the North’s citizens will become full EU citizens once again. That is a very important statement recognising that the Good Friday Agreement sets out the next step on Ireland’s journey; the ending of partition and the holding of referendums on reunification. The responsible thing for all of us to do now is to prepare for democratic, orderly and planned constitutional change. President von der Leyen acknowledged our great love of saoirse, freedom, and our refusal to give up, concede or surrender to division or discrimination. We have come a very long way but we have another length of the journey to go. Just as the Commission played a key role in the peace process, I believe that the EU can and will play a positive role in the last length of that journey to Irish reunification, namely, a united Ireland within the EU.
Tá an t-athrú seo ag tarlú tar éis 50 bliain de bhallraíocht na tíre san Aontas Eorpach. Is é an rud is tábhachtaí sa chomhrá seo ná go gcaithfimid éisteacht le muintir na hEorpa. Tá dúil aige sa chomhionannas agus sa phróiseas. Caithfear todhchaí a thógáil ina mbeidh oibrithe, teaghlaigh agus pobail cosanta os cionn leasanna dílsithe nó iad siúd a bhfuil cumhacht acu. We want to see a bridging of the democratic deficit at a European level. We want to see advances on workers' rights, environmental protection, social justice, sustainable and ethical trade, research and development, which are all areas where we can make progress but they will challenge the EU. They will challenge certain orthodoxies and we must rise to that challenge. The climate emergency is an existential one. As Ireland works to secure energy security and energy independence, as President von der Leyen acknowledged, and a greener future for younger generations, we know that solidarity is crucial in delivering the major changes that are needed to secure a really meaningful impact. Through working together on these issues, we can deliver tangible and lasting change to our citizens’ lives. That is our vision for Europe.We are an island nation at once on the periphery of Europe and at the heart of Europe. However, to be Irish is not simply to be from a small nation. We are also part of a powerful global family. We are something of an outlier as a European state in that we were colonised; we were not the coloniser. We have seen conflict, partition and occupation. We are and will remain a militarily neutral and non-aligned country. The President quoted a formidable Irish American earlier on and I want to go to the other side of the world and echo the words shared in this Chamber 35 years ago by the then Australian Prime Minister, Bob Hawke. He described us well when he said:
Ireland is the head of a huge empire in which Australia and the United States are the principal provinces. It is an empire acquired not by force of Irish arms but by force of Irish character, an empire not of political coercion but of spiritual affiliation, created by the thousands upon thousands of Irish men and women who chose to leave these shores, or who were banished from them, to help in the building of new societies over the years.
In an increasingly complex world in which our multilateral institutions must work and prevail, the presence of military neutrals and non-aligned countries can be a critical interlocutor in the work of peace, disarmament and social justice. The next step is the recognition and acknowledgement of military neutrals and non-aligned countries within the EU treaties and EU basic law. That must happen within the Constitution of our country also. This would be a hugely positive step forward and would add to the diplomatic repertoire and scope of the European Union.
There is no doubt there are many challenges facing Europe. If we are true to our shared commitments and values, they can show what can be achieved through solidarity and resolve and they can improve our citizens’ lives. We remain committed to working with our European friends on these issues as we work for a better life for all our people. Seasann muid ag tráth athraithe san Eoraip. Is tráth dúshlánach é a chuireann deiseanna os ár gcomhair. Is am don rogha é freisin. Is féidir le todhchaí na hEorpa a bheith mar cheann de dhul chun cinn.
We stand at a crossroads and we have decisions to make. The future of Europe can be one of retreat or one of hopeful progress; we must choose progress. It can be a future in which citizens can be disillusioned or empowered; we must choose empowerment. It can be a future of opportunities for the few at the top or a future of opportunity and prosperity for all; we must choose a race to the top. Now is the time to look forward to the future with ambition and hope. By working together we can build a new Ireland and reinvigorate the vision of Europe. We still believe we can make Ireland better. We still know we can help in making Europe better and we believe above all that, working together, we can make the world better too.
Cuirim fáilte roimh an Uachtarán. It is my honour, on behalf of the Labour Party, to welcome her here to address our Oireachtas. I express our appreciation for her warm and optimistic words by way of address to us today. I also thank her for not only quoting our iconic first woman President, Mary Robinson, but also that iconic band the Saw Doctors. We all appreciated her quoting those. On a more serious note, I also welcome the President's officials and our distinguished guests today, the Ukrainian ambassador in particular. I thank the President for her words and her long-standing support for Ireland, both personally and through the Commission more generally, as we have moved through the ongoing fallout for this country from the Brexit decision and as we move to secure a resolution on the Northern Ireland protocol. We thank the President for her solidarity on that front too.
The President made history as the first woman to lead the Commission and, as I have said, she has quoted from our first woman President here, Mary Robinson. We are all conscious of the huge gains that have been made for women's rights and for equality more generally in this country as a result of EU membership. It should be noted that Ireland has led on equality issues too. We have led across Europe in our referendum on marriage equality in 2015 and in our historic referendum to bring about abortion rights for women in 2018. We have led in some areas. However, we still have a lot more to do. While the President will hear from a number of women Deputies today, there are still far too few of us in the Dáil. Only 23% - fewer than one in four - of our Deputies are women, so on that front at least we have some way to go.
In her tenure as President of the Commission, Ms von der Leyen has faced some of the greatest challenges that have bound us closer together as a European Union. These include Brexit, to which I have referred, the dreadful Covid pandemic, and more recently, Russia's brutal war on Ukraine. These challenges have reminded us all of the importance of the EU as a peace project, a collective endeavour and a model for promoting economic and social progress. In this country we are particularly conscious that the financial crash damaged the Union and important lessons were eventually learned. We hope the mistakes made then by the EU and the European Central Bank, ECB, will never be repeated. What all these crises have shown is the critical importance of the role of the state, and of collective action across states, in tackling crises and problems. We have learned that over-reliance on the market will not solve complex transnational and international problems.
At EU level, the energy crisis brought on by Putin’s imperial war of conquest in Ukraine has shown the weaknesses of our artificially constructed energy markets, as record profits are made on renewable electricity due to the reliance on gas prices as a reference for setting electricity prices. That has been acknowledged at EU level. Too often in this country the excuse of EU competition rules is used as a barrier to necessary State action and it has also become a shield for Departments to put social services out to tender that should instead be run and funded directly by the State. However, it must be acknowledged, and it is welcome, that at EU level we have seen the benefits of transnational action on collective procurement for Covid vaccines, which was a huge benefit to this country and other countries during the pandemic. That ensured that, as a smaller country, we were able to secure supplies alongside larger countries. The need for collective action is nowhere more apparent than in response to the brutal war in Ukraine.
The strong action of the EU, in which Ireland has played a strong role, in delivering multiple rounds of sanctions against Russia has been welcome but we can do more. Our Government has failed to take up our Labour Party's proposal of Magnitsky legislation to punish human rights abusers and seize their assets. I would ask that the Commission would consider acting on this in an EU-wide approach to bring together a European Magnitsky law. On behalf of my party I welcome the President's move to establish a court to investigate and prosecute Russian crimes in Ukraine. That is a hugely important collective endeavour.
The war has also reminded us, as the President has said, of our enslavement to Russian fossil fuels across this Continent and of the need for swifter transformative climate action to address the existential climate emergency. The EU represents our best collective chance to achieve this by ensuring a community of 500 million people decarbonises in speedy time. More than ever we need the European Green Deal to be translated into action in our countries, across Europe and across the world, by supporting developing countries with a just transition and adequate resources to tackle the adverse effects of the climate emergency.
Our party is the Irish member of the Party of European Socialists, PES. When I addressed the PES leaders conference in Berlin six weeks ago, I outlined the need for more action at EU level on workers’ rights, childcare, housing and the cost of living and on delivering the social Europe, that collective goal to which the Labour Party and the PES aspire. While we recognise the huge achievements of the EU in delivering rights for workers and women and in delivering maternity leave and employment protection rights, we recognise there is still much more to do. In Ireland we are seeking to bring forward legislation to provide for leave for women and their partners undergoing fertility treatment and to support women during early miscarriage. Again, we are urging the Commission to take this up at EU level.
I thank the President again on behalf of the Labour Party for her unwavering support for the peace process, for her stated commitment to ensuring the Good Friday Agreement will be protected, and for her optimism.
I warmly welcome President von der Leyen to this joint sitting of the Houses of the Oireachtas. On behalf of the Social Democrats, I am delighted to have the opportunity to speak on what is an historic occasion. In exactly one month, we will mark the 50th anniversary of Ireland joining what was then the European Economic Community. We do so as the region faces one of its greatest perils, namely, the barbaric invasion of Ukraine. We in Ireland stand firmly with other EU member states with Ukraine and against Putin's regime. We will not waver from this position.
Ireland has always been an enthusiastic member of the EU and the consequences of membership have been, in the main, positive for us. Membership has fast-tracked social and economic progress that would otherwise have taken much longer to advance or, indeed, that may not have happened at all. From establishing the principle of equal pay for men and women in 1974, through almost five decades to last year's ban on single-use plastics, EU law governing such things as anti-discrimination and equality, dignity and respect in the workplace, environment conservation and pollution reduction, economic good practice, data protection, and so much more, have pushed reluctant Irish Governments to do the right thing sooner than they might otherwise have done.
The principle of free movement which allows Irish citizens to work and travel all over the EU has been a great benefit to millions of Irish people. Our country has been greatly enriched when EU citizens have travelled here. Significant economic benefits have accrued to Ireland as well. Most notably, access to the Single Market and moneys from the Structural Fund did so much to assist our infrastructural development at a time when the Irish economy was something of a poor relation in Europe. It is safe to say that Ireland would be a less developed and less progressive country had we not joined what is now the EU.
It is also fair to say, however, that it has not all been positive. Being forced to bail out the bondholders during one of our lowest ebbs is a case in point. The increased militarisation of fortress Europe and its consequences for desperate migrants, thousands of whom have died trying to reach our shores, must be regarded as shameful. The bloc's fiscal policy, of course, must also come under the microscope. The goal of the Stability and Growth Pact is to maintain fiscal stability within the Union. The pact's suspension to allow member states to provide unprecedented support throughout the Covid-19 crisis was a tacit acceptance of its limitations. This welcome suspension is also surely evidence of the need for increased flexibility on a more permanent basis. It is not only economic shocks that require fiscal flexibility and the ability to react to circumstances.
It is not news to anyone in this Chamber that Ireland is facing - and has been for several years - a raft of crises in different policy areas, most notably housing and health. We have also committed to taking extraordinary and unprecedented action to reshape our economy and society to meet our international climate-related obligations. I fear that in spite of the obvious need for significant Government intervention in these areas, Ireland - and indeed other countries - will continue to be constrained in its ability to meet the challenge of dealing with these crises. The fiscal rules have been suspended, as we know, until 2024. The reality, however, is that the rules need to be reformed and not reinstated. I hope the EU can learn from its mistakes and live up to the ideals which it claims to profess. Otherwise, we will undoubtedly be doomed to repeat them. I thank the President.
I welcome President von der Leyen to the Dáil and to Ireland. I appreciate her comments about Europe's commitment to ensuring that there will be no hard Border on the island of Ireland or that the exit of Britain from the EU should not in any way adversely impact on the peace on this island. To be honest, nobody out there in the world would thank me if we used this opportunity just to slap each other on the back. With that in mind, I am going to raise some issues in respect of which I think there is concern about and necessary criticism of the EU.
To take up the final point made by Deputy Shortall, we are suffering an absolutely devastating housing and homelessness crisis in this country. What is going on is shameful. I refer to the number of people in emergency accommodation and suffering hardship as a result of this housing crisis. While much of the responsibility lies with successive Governments failing to address it, a large component of the responsibility also lies with the decisions taken by the European Commission and the ECB, as part of the troika, to ram billions worth of austerity down the throats of the people of this country, which has left us with this legacy of an utterly devastating housing crisis. It is long past time that the EU acknowledged its mistakes in imposing that austerity and devastating consequences it has had.
I also note that this week the President has called - I support her in this - for a tribunal to be established to investigate the undoubted war crimes of Vladimir Putin in Ukraine. We all condemn the utterly barbaric and murderous invasion of Ukraine by Russia. We support the people of Ukraine in their struggle for self-determination. I must say, however, in the week when there is the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People, for the President to not call simultaneously for an investigation into the ongoing war crimes and crimes against humanity being committed by the apartheid state of Israel against Palestinian people makes me wonder about the consistency of the ethics of the EU's foreign policy. It is utterly unconscionable that we can say, on the one hand, that we must investigate the war crimes and atrocities of Vladimir Putin but remain silent, as the President did when she spoke in June in Israel beside the then Israeli Prime Minister, Naftali Bennett, and not say a word after we have had two devastating reports from Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch on 70 years of ongoing crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing, apartheid and the siege of Gaza, which was a 15-year long criminal action. Do we talk about investigating the war crimes of Israel? No. Do we sanction Israel for these crimes, as we have sanctioned Russia? No. Instead, we continue to give Israel favoured nation trade status, import great amounts of gas from it, deepen relations with it and engage in considerable military and defence trade with it. This is all with the state that is doing what I described to the Palestinians.
I also find it remarkable when we say that we must break our dependence on Russian fossil fuels, including oil, when, at the same time, we are increasing our imports of Saudi oil. Ironically, Saudi Arabia has this year doubled its imports of Russian oil and is effectively laundering it. We are now importing more oil from the Saudi dictatorship - one of the most brutal dictatorships in the world - which, just like Vladimir Putin, has engaged in a 15-year long war against Yemen that has claimed the lives of tens of thousands of people.Leading European states continue to arm that regime. Indeed, Dr. von der Leyen herself, in 2015, went over and signed a defence arrangement with Saudi Arabia when she was Minister of Defence in Germany. If we are to condemn, as we must, the war crimes of Putin, we must simultaneously condemn all war crimes and all crimes against humanity, even when they are committed by people that the European Union perceives as allies, such as Israel, Saudi Arabia or those that arm and support them.
Finally, in that regard, it is similarly unconscionable when the European courts have found against the EU-Moroccan trade agreement, which involves essentially taking the fish and mineral resources of the occupied Western Sahara people, that the EU Commission has lodged a legal appeal against its own courts in order to continue a trade deal that is robbing the people of Western Sahara of their resources while they are subject to an illegal occupation of their land and territory. President, we must have consistency in our foreign policy, in our ethics and in our morality if we are to be taken seriously as defenders of human rights and opponents of war.
Tá fíorfháilte roimh Uachtarán an Choimisiúin Eorpaigh go dtí Teach Laighean inniu.
I thank the President of the Commission, Dr. von der Leyen, most sincerely for addressing the Oireachtas today marking our 50th year as a member of the European Union. Over those years, Ireland has developed both socially and economically with the assistance of the European Union.
As a people, we are proud members of the European family, a relationship that many of us had taken for granted until Brexit challenged it. We must all now redouble our efforts to do what is right for the people on our island and for the citizens of the European Union in finding a practical solution to the current impasse. Since the vote on 23 June 2016, the Commission has stood side by side with Ireland, both in terms of negotiating an agreement with the UK neighbours and in building greater linkages with our continental neighbours.
One of those linkages is the Celtic electricity interconnector, which finally came to fruition last Friday with the Taoiseach leading a delegation to Paris for the signing of the legal agreement for the 700 MW interconnector with France. As the then Minister who engaged with the Commission and the French authorities on this project on behalf of the Irish Government, I formally acknowledge that this vital project would never have happened without the EU Commission's support and that is not only in terms of finance.
President von der Leyen, with the dramatic disruption to energy supplies across Europe as a result of the war in Ukraine, we can all now see the need for a far greater level of ambition for electricity interconnection right across Europe if we are to achieve our climate goals and our energy independence. Last December, Dáil Éireann unanimously passed a motion that, among other things, called on the Government to design a strategy in conjunction with the European Commission to construct an Atlantic electricity interconnector that would bring renewable electricity generated off the coast of Ireland to the mainland European grid. We have a 90 million ha maritime resource off our coast - nearly three times the landmass of Germany - providing us with the potential to develop 70 GW of offshore renewable electricity. That is enough capacity, not only to meet our own long-term needs here in Ireland but also to meet the long-term needs of France and Austria. The Atlantic interconnector must only be the first step. We need a pan-European approach to transmission planning facilitating investment in new transmission technologies and constructing electricity superhighways right across the EU, both west to east and south to north. However, the current EU regulation on cross-border transmission planning must be reformed to meet the energy security challenges of the future. I ask the President of the Commission, the Commission and her colleague, the Commissioner, Ms McGuinness, here, to amend our approach to gird development and to create a much larger cross-border pan-European meshed electricity superhighway that will bring solar energy from the south and wind and wave energy from the west right into the heart of Europe providing the EU with reliable clean green European energy.
Tá fíorfháilte roimh Uachtarán an Choimisiúin go dtí Teach Laighean inniu. I welcome the President of the Commission and thank her for her address. Indeed, I thank Dr. von der Leyen for her acknowledgement of the benefits that Europe had to Ireland and, more importantly, the benefits that we brought and gave, and delivered to the European project.
On 6 December 1922, 100 years ago, the Irish State officially came into existence. This monumental achievement was the result of a huge sacrifice by generations of our ancestors in order that we as a nation would be at least partially free, sovereign and, indeed, independent. Fifty-one years later, in 1973, our nation joined the EEC. I can remember campaigning for it. We joined to work in union with our friends and neighbours in fellow European countries. We had great hopes and the people welcomed it and voted for it.
However, since then, through various treaties, from Maastricht to Amsterdam, to Nice and to Lisbon, which we had to vote twice for - imagine, the first result was not accepted - we have seen much transfer of decision-making which originally rested with sovereign countries to the EU Commission and we have issues of concerns about militarisation and considerable privatisation.
I certainly have concerns, as have many people, with the way we handled the Covid pandemic and the fact that the Commission was discussing Covid passports, in 2012, 2013 and 2014, long before Covid reached our shores. I am concerned at the way that big pharma have been indemnified, the way that it was favoured and got favouritism, and the way people were locked down and imprisoned and the fear that was created. The narrative could not be questioned by anybody in any country. Goodness, we see that today in China and elsewhere. I have those concerns and I espouse them here to the President of the Commission today.
As I said, nation states such as ours seem to have handed over their sovereignty to the EU. The erosion of our sovereignty is greatly concerning to the citizens of Ireland. This loss of sovereignty is the reason that our fishing industry has been unceremoniously wiped out; sold out by our own Government. The latest scandal announced is that one third of our fishermen are being forced to decommission their boats permanently. It is shocking. I remember a thriving beet industry in Ireland, in my own county, in Tipperary, in Thurles, and most small farmers had beet. We lost our beet industry; also sold out. This loss of sovereignty is the reason our manufacturing, which took place in every town, village and hamlet in rural Ireland is now gone. Tá sé imithe. Small businesses thrived then but now it is difficult for small business. It is so cumbersome. Our officials and our Government come back from Europe stating it is a European diktat but I do not know did they even question it. Sometimes, we have not even applied for funds to support some of our ailing and struggling businesses. That is the fact of the matter. People are aghast at this because ní neart go cur le chéile is important to the Irish, as is the sense of meitheal, but it has not been there. This loss of sovereignty is the reason the Government tells farmers that they must reduce their herd size while at the same time the EU, which Dr. von der Leyen leads, wants to import more beef from Brazil and elsewhere. It is an act of madness. It is disquieting. It is unfair and it is downright wrong to our farmers. Farming is such an important part of our country and sustained us through several recessions.
This loss of sovereignty is the reason we were forced to bail out the euro currency, paying the debts of privately-owned banks and financial speculators. In fact, we paid 42% of the total European banking costs, costing €9,000 to every fear, bean agus duine óg. Every man, woman and child had to pay, will pay and is paying.All these bankers and investors, who may have been from President von der Leyen's own country, had bonds and insurance but we were made the patsy to pay them and our Government here voted for it. I voted for it and it was the biggest political mistake I ever made in my life. Did I vote for the bailout? No, I did not. The IMF gave us money at less than 3% and our so-called friends in Europe charged us 6% interest on the money. This is some friendship we voted for.
What is the end goal of the European Union in terms of member states' sovereignty? I ask this in all sincerity. Will President von der Leyen as President of the European Commission guarantee today to the Irish people that Ireland will remain the free and sovereign country our ancestors fought so bravely to achieve? I come from Tipperary, the land of Breen, Treacy, Robinson and Dinny Lacey who gave their lives. Liam Lynch, a Limerick man, was shot in the adjoining parish to mine. We commemorate these people with pride. Here we are undermining daily what they fought for. I do not know if President von der Leyen knew of Thomas Davis. She quoted the late John Hume, and rightly so. He was a wonderful European and Irish man. Thomas Davis was a man who championed Irish sovereignty. He wrote a famous song in which he expressed the hope that Ireland long a province be a nation once again. The words have inspired many generations of Irish people, young and old. Does the EU want to make our nation a province once again? I ask this in all sincerity.
President von der Leyen spoke about climate change and just transition. There is no just transition for people who have been forced to shut down their industries. They are not allowed to keep heat and warmth. President von der Leyen mentioned we are a beacon of light. Yes we were and are, but the candle and flame have been quenched in many homes and houses. We have homeless people and a situation with our healthcare. We have welcomed many Ukrainians from the horrible war. We have limits as to what we can do with regard to migration from all other countries. Some countries in Europe have ceased and put a pause on it. We have to cut our cloth according to our measure. This is Ireland of a thousand welcomes, of course, and President von der Leyen is welcome today, but we need to be respected for who we are, what our are people are and our sovereignty.
Today's meeting has been organised to celebrate 50 years of our membership of the European Union. I welcome President von der Leyen for this discussion. As a representative of a fishing community in Ireland, this is a sad commemoration because that was the start of the decline of our fishing communities. It was a combination of Government incompetence and the European Union taking advantage of it that has meant we have seen the decline of our fishing across the board.
I express solidarity with the Members who have spoken about the housing crisis we are experiencing in this country. The EU has a sad role in this. It has been aided by the Government of the country.
In 1972, Ireland was a proud, neutral, unaligned country. I note President von der Leyen said Europe was once a peace project. It was probably telling that she said it was "once" a peace project. Again, with a willing government, the EU will get rid of our neutrality. This is something we should regret in this country. It is something every political Member should oppose to ensure we maintain what has been a proud tradition. It is a tradition of which we should all be very proud and we should send a message to Europe and to the world that neutrality is a way to move forward.
I join my colleagues in welcoming President von der Leyen in the building in which we have sat for the past 100 years, each year of which has been as a neutral state. The Taoiseach is correct that we have been proud Europeans for 50 years. We have been proud Europeans for much longer than 50 years. It is worth recalling that our initial attempt at accession was blocked as part of the power play between bigger states. For all of our proudness in being Europeans we have been avowedly neutral throughout.
The Taoiseach paid tribute to Lynch and Hillery who led our accession to the European Union. It is worth recalling that even when our own citizens were under attack by military forces and paramilitary forces backed by a state in a part of our island that we then considered part of our territory, they eschewed a military solution for a diplomatic one. They engaged in quiet diplomacy and not bombast. There is a difference. Their approach was vindicated subsequently. It is easy to fan the flames of war. It is easy to engage in jingoism, but wars very rarely end in unconditional surrender. Instead, they are brought to an end by people who engage in painful and painstaking negotiation with people and forces with whom they profoundly disagree because they believe in the greater goal of peace. I ask that the European Union be a force for peace in the world, as it was founded to be.
President von der Leyen is welcome to Ireland. As a supporter of the old EEC, I wonder where we are going in the EU. This is for the simple reason that, in my opinion, the European Union is like marriage; it is either love or divorce. People either buy into everything or they do not. I welcome what President von der Leyen said about the UK. We need the UK, especially in the agricultural sector which, unfortunately, has not been mentioned today. I listened to President von der Leyen speak about freedom. Every time we ask a question of any government it tells us it has to ask the EU, whether it is about VAT or tax. No matter what it is, environmental law or whatever, we have to ask the EU whether we can do something. It seems to be our master. We do not have our freedom or our own nationality, unfortunately, if that is the situation.
President von der Leyen spoke about heritage and tradition. At present, EU law is taking a lot of heritage and tradition away from the people of this country. I know there were benefits to the old EEC. I would never deny that. Unfortunately, if we look at the likes of the Common Agricultural Policy, CAP, the budget has decreased. With the policy being pursued at present by the EU, under the green agenda and the food policy, a country such as Ireland and the EU will end up having food shortages within the next seven to ten years with the agenda being pushed on the agricultural sector.
I welcome President von der Leyen most warmly. I want to do her the honour of being brief. At this stage she has heard a vigorous series of exchanges of views from parliamentarians and she can see we cherish our democracy. People have spoken about it being 50 years since we joined the European Union. It is interesting to note that, 50 years ago this very day, the House was in crisis. The Government of Jack Lynch was teetering on the brink of defeat on an issue to do with the terror campaign happening on our island. The Government narrowly survived that night thanks to the Fine Gael Party. I mention this because peace on this island is not to be taken for granted. I also make the point that peace and reconciliation in Northern Ireland are not to be taken for granted. The European Union has a huge role to play in this.
Maroš Šefovi has gone very far down the road of bringing pragmatism and flexibility to the discussions about the Northern Ireland protocol and its implementation in Northern Ireland regarding the movement of goods. The Minister, Deputy Coveney, complimented President von der Leyen on the support he has received. I ask that the European Union be very flexible, pragmatic and realistic. The danger of increasing sectarian and political tension on the island exists. I know the European Union has the best interests of Ireland at heart. I know that, by showing flexibility and pragmatism in these negotiations, this issue can be put to bed and this country will prosper North and South as a consequence.
I welcome President von der Leyen to the Oireachtas on the 50th anniversary of Ireland's accession to the EU.One important early benefit of accession was the impetus it created for more progressive national policies in areas such as gender equality, the environment, employment, ending the marriage bar and the working time directive. That version of Europe, as a collective momentum for the raising of social standards and promotion of fundamental rights, is one which still resonates deeply with citizens in many countries, including Ireland. The introduction of the general data protection regulation was also another positive moment in that regard.
Unfortunately, there was a period during austerity when the momentum to which I refer and any long-term, sustainable and inclusive vision for Europe seemed to be cast aside in favour of short-term fiscal targets. Austerity eroded public services, the social fabric and public confidence across the EU, the consequences of which are still being felt. Some learnings have been taken from those mistakes, as reflected in the very different economic and social approach during the recent pandemic. There is much to be praised in the generous and collective European response to the crisis, with the sad exception of the shameful position taken by the EU in blocking and delaying a trade-related aspects of intellectual property rights waiver.
Another acknowledgement of the need to deepen connection between the people of Europe and its institutions was the holding of the Conference on the Future of Europe recently. I was honoured to be one of four national parliamentarians from Ireland to take part in that process. It was moving to see citizens from different countries share similar concerns and express common desires to make Europe a better, more equal and sustainable place for all to live in. While the citizens emphasised values and rights, it was concerning that some of those in powerful positions seemed more focused on European economic dominance and military strength. It was also interesting how many of the citizens' recommendations reflected issues long-raised by social and environmental NGOs and trade unions - a reminder, perhaps, that the EU should listen more to citizens and civil society and less to corporate lobbyists. The public good must be prioritised over the profit of a few. This is particularly crucial when it comes climate action. We simply cannot afford the dilution of the taxonomy of the due diligence directive and Fit for 55. We cannot afford to remain within the energy charter treaty or investment court structures when we need to deliver ambitious energy and climate policies.
Madam President kindly acknowledged the contribution Ireland has made to Europe, and I would suggest our active record of neutrality is part of that contribution. Our neutrality is not something we leave aside to engage with the world. It is the basis for our engagement with the world, a basis that has allowed us to be champions on international law, humanitarian action and to bridge the links between Europe and much of the rest of the world. The importance of peace is crucial in this regard. The President heard the applause for no hard Border on the island of Ireland. It is also important that the EU does not support the creation of hard borders in Africa as part of an immigration control mechanism. The EU, at its best, is like the UN - an example of the possibilities of multilateralism grounded in principles rather than interests. We must not return to big-power politics. I would urge that the honest heart and open mind the president spoke about must turn outwards from the EU towards the world and must not be turned solely inwards towards our citizens.
A Uachtaráin von der Leyen, a Thaoisigh, a Sheanadóirí, a Theachtaí Dála, a dhaoine uaisle. Your Excellency, President von der Leyen, Taoiseach, Deputies, Senators, members of the diplomatic corps, distinguished guests, on behalf of all the citizens of our democracy, I thank you for addressing these Houses to mark 50th anniversary of Ireland’s accession to the European Union.
Irish membership of the European Union has been one of the most positive events of our lifetimes. The European Union has shown when the nations of Europe work together, it benefits all our citizens. The European Union brings freedom: free movement of goods; free movement of capital; freedom of services; free movement of people. The economic benefits of freedom are clear to be seen throughout this island. The European Union came from the ashes of the Second World War and an alliance for peace among its member nations was formed. It has also been described by you as a peace project.
Next year, those of us on this island will celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement. This agreement was only possible through the support of our partners in the European Union, the United States of America and the United Kingdom working together. The current impasse will only be solved by us working together again. The European Union’s strong and steadfast support for Ireland, its continuing support for our peace process and the hard-won peace on the island, as well as in the negations following the Brexit referendum, are greatly appreciated by the Members of this Parliament and the people on this island.
President von der Leyen, your presence in our Parliament is a sign of your solidarity with us and with the people of this island. Your support is appreciated; your support in the past has been appreciated, and your support in the future will be greatly appreciated. A Uachtaráin von der Leyen, go raibh maith agat.