“Ireland Lies at the Heart of Europe”
President of European Commission, H.E. Ursula von der Leyen, addresses both Houses of the Oireachtas, celebrating EU50
President Ursula von der Leyen visits Government Buildings:
Address by President Ursula von der Leyen to Joint Houses of the Oireachtas in Dublin, Ireland:
Dear Speaker, Taoiseach, honourable Members of the Dáil and Seanad, ladies and gentlemen, a dhaoine uaisle.
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.