MEDEF Summer School
28 August 2019
Theme – “Futures of Europe: Different Perspectives”
Speech by Tánaiste Simon Coveney
Mesdames et Messieurs, chers collègues, chers amis, c’est un honneur d’etre ici avec vous. Merci pour votre invitation aujourd’hui. President Zurabisvhili, Ministers, Ambassadors, Distinguished guests,
It is a pleasure to speak to you all today.
As I take the platform after President Zurabisvhili, I would like to emphasise our strong support for EU engagement with Georgia. Georgia has made commendable progress under the Association Agreement and the Eastern Partnership mechanism.
For our own part, Ireland has benefited enormously from EU membership. It has been critical for our economic and social transformation and political peace and stability.
And while the road to EU accession is a long and challenging one, it is in this spirit that we wish to see the benefits of EU membership extended to those countries on Europe’s eastern periphery who desire it.
It is ironic that the process of the UK leaving the EU actually illustrates how important EU membership is to a country like Ireland. The solidarity and support of our EU partners, including here in France, has been a hallmark of the process and we are profoundly grateful for this.
But Brexit represents a unique challenge for Ireland, given our strong inter-connection with the UK. It has never been our choice, and we deeply regret the UK’s decision. The EU will be a weaker union without our friends in the UK. However, with our EU partners, we respect this decision taken by the British people and have worked hard to make the best of it.
Over two years, the EU and the UK have engaged in good faith to negotiate a Withdrawal Agreement that can provide reassurance and certainty on both sides. This was a deal struck by two negotiating partners, both willing to compromise to achieve a fair outcome.
Ratification of the Withdrawal Agreement remains the only way to ensure an orderly withdrawal, and, through the transition period it provides, to start work on an ambitious and comprehensive future partnership with the UK. The closer the better from an Irish perspective.
As the European Council has consistently made clear, the Withdrawal Agreement, including the backstop, cannot be renegotiated.
Protecting the Good Friday Peace Agreement has been a key priority for Ireland, the UK and the EU during the Brexit negotiations of the last 3 years.
Through the negotiation, we have insisted on protecting the cooperation on our island between North and South that flows from and underpins that Peace Agreement – an Agreement that saves lives. We must protect the welfare of border communities and recognise the fragility of community relations across Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland is part of the UK but it is unique and complex in terms of the political agreement that has maintained peace for 21 years. A peace that both British and Irish Governments are co-guarantors of.
The EU and UK agreed the ‘backstop’ on the basis of a shared understanding of the need to address these unique circumstances to provide the guarantee necessary to reassure a concerned public. Despite what the UK Government is now saying about the agreed Backstop, it is supported by a large majority of Northern Ireland – the people it is there to protect.
As President Macron said last week, these are “not just technical constraints or legal quibbling,” but “genuine, indispensable guarantees” to preserve peace and stability in Northern Ireland, and the integrity of the EU single market too, given that the Irish border is also the EU’s only land border with the UK.
This is why Prime Minister Johnson’s proposal to abolish the backstop, in the absence of agreed alternative arrangements, is something we cannot support. The backstop is currently the only viable, if temporary, solution that avoids physical infrastructure and related checks and controls and preserves the all-island economy. It fully protects the Good Friday Peace Agreement, as well as the integrity of the EU Single Market and Ireland’s place in it. Ireland and the EU are at one on this.
No one has yet come up with credible arrangements, or technological solutions, which could replace those temporary arrangements in the Withdrawal Agreement.
We are committed to exploring alternative arrangements in the future or now if they exist within – of course we are. And that is catered for in the Withdrawal Agreement. But these alternative proposals have got to do the same job as the backstop to fulfil the commitments made to the people of Northern Ireland. That is surely not an unreasonable ask!
Ultimately, the answers lie with Westminster, as they have always done. A no deal will not be our choice. It will be the choice of the UK Government and British Parliament if they choose to allow it or trigger it. No amount of political grandstanding, or attempts to shift the blame, change this.
In a no deal scenario there are no easy answers and everyone loses. It would have far reaching consequences for the island of Ireland. That is for sure.
We are preparing intensively to mitigate the damage as much as we can. In this we are working closely with our EU partners and the European Commission to meet the shared twin objectives of protecting the EU Single Market and Ireland’s place in it, and avoiding a hard border and the disruption and security concerns that it raises.
However, any such No Deal arrangements will be clearly suboptimal to the backstop in terms of fully mitigating the risks posed by Brexit to the broader peace process.
A key focus of our work now is informing and supporting businesses to prepare for Brexit. A no deal Brexit is now increasingly likely. Whether you are in Ireland or in France, whether you are a big or a small enterprise – it is vital that you prepare and inform yourself on how to mitigate against the negative impact of the fundamental change in the trading environment between the EU and UK that no deal demands. Ireland will continue to seek solutions to avoid of no deal but we will continue to prepare for the worst.
Cooperation as EU Partners
While Brexit is an important issue, we cannot let it consume all of our attention.
We have a shared future to build that we must define together. This is a time of renewal for the EU. A new European Parliament, a new Commission and a new EU Strategic Agenda gives us the chance to set a clear course for the next 5 years. We must use this moment wisely and for the benefit of our citizens.
As the second-largest Member State and a founding member, France plays a hugely important role in shaping the EU’s policies and institutions. France is a nation that leads the way in many fields. It acts with courage and conviction on the world-stage, and in the absence of the UK in the EU, needs to take on more responsibility as a leader in Europe.
In uncertain times, it is our connections and solidarity in a shared union that make us stronger and help us to face the challenges together. And we do face huge challenges that will define our time – climate, migration, conflict, trade.
The Celtic Interconnector project is an excellent example of such collaboration. By 2025 it will deliver a 700 megawatt electricity interconnector between Britany and Cork, capable of supplying electricity to 450,000 homes.
The project is a tangible manifestation of the policies we put in place at European level to tackle the big issues that no one country can address alone.
Bilateral Trade Links
Our cooperation at EU level is only strengthened by the links between our peoples.
Last year, half a million French tourists visited Ireland and over 700,000 Irish tourists visited France. Every day French and Irish people work together, study together and do business together.
Our economic relationship is already very strong. France is one of our largest trading partners – a trade relationship that is worth €25 billion. No fewer than 8,000 jobs in Ireland and 23,000 jobs in France are the result of that investment relationship.
However, we always want to do more and that is why Ireland will step up its presence in France significantly, in Paris and beyond.
Just as there are dynamic and innovative companies across Ireland, we are conscious that France too has significant regional economic centres. I am pleased that Enterprise Ireland will open an office in Lyon this year, reflecting the strong links in that region.
There are many opportunities for new innovations, investments and collaborations between Irish and French business. Each of you, and your organisations, can play an important role in strengthening the relationship between our two countries.
We must be bold enough to look to the future, to see through the fog and confusion of current challenges. I am confident that we have the will and the means to work together in creating a shared future that is better than our past.
I hope that you will all join us in doing so.