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Address by Mr. Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission

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Address by Mr. Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission

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Address by Mr. Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission

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Snippet Contents:

President Juncker, on behalf of the Fianna Fáil Party and on my own behalf, I am very pleased to join with the Ceann Comhairle and the Taoiseach in welcoming you to the Oireachtas and to thank you for your openness to holding this dialogue with us. We remember many years of co-operation with President Juncker both in the European Council and in ECOFIN.  While we were not always on the same side of specific issues we never doubted his commitment to the fundamental European ideal of shared progress. His background as a leader of a small nation, which has also struggled over many centuries to secure its sovereignty and identity, always demonstrated itself in what we saw as a sincere interest in Ireland and its concerns. His visit to the Oireachtas comes at a critical moment for the world in general and for the European Union in particular.  Dealing with the fallout of the Brexit vote is quite rightly the focus of his visit and our principal concern. However, it would be wrong for Brexit to exclude discussion of other issues fundamental to the future of the European Union and Ireland’s position within it.
As a starting point, we believe that it is important for President Juncker to understand that Ireland’s commitment to Europe is not a selfish or opportunistic one; it is fundamental to who we are. In fact, the European context has been central to the very development of the democratic republicanism which is the strongest political tradition on this island. At different points in our history our link to Europe was the lifeline by which many distinct aspects of our culture were preserved. At every stage, the development of our struggle for independence was influenced by contemporary European ideas and events.
Last weekend the people of Wexford in the south east commemorated a major battle which took place on this day 220 years ago. The Irish rebels of 1798 took to the field in what was the only major popular uprising in Europe in favour of the ideals of the French Revolution.  It was the Tree of Liberty which inspired them, not a narrow vision of a defensive nation. This European context to our political and cultural revival continued to be a vibrant factor long after that.
The generation which fought for our independence a century ago was also deeply international in its beliefs and this State is one of the few in the world whose revolutionary founders insisted on the role of international law. Our Constitution, adopted by popular referendum in 1937, states this is a country which believes in co-operation with others and respects the fact that international agreements can limit national action. The father of our involvement in European integration, the former Taoiseach, Seán Lemass, first talked about the need for a formal economic and political co-operation in Europe as a young man as he sat in prison for his revolutionary activities. Therefore, Ireland’s commitment to the founding principles of what is now the European Union goes back much further than 45 years and I can assure President Juncker that it is as strong today as it has ever been. That is why my party believes that the reform and development of the European Union should be a defining priority.
The Union is threatened by many forces.  All of these are determined to try to damage an organisation they see as standing in the way of their profoundly anti-democratic, extreme and populist agendas.  In the face of this, the Union has critical weaknesses which must be addressed. We strongly support proposals to complete the banking union, an essential protection against a recurrence of the financial crisis. We also believe that the Union must have a substantial financial backstop to help regions and countries in difficulty.  There is no other way of preventing new sovereign debt crises from emerging.
In regard to the Union’s budget, the current budget is simply too small to fulfil more than a few of the responsibilities placed on the Union. We welcome the proposals for an expanded budget more focused on sustainable economic development; however, we would caution President Juncker that attempts to fund this by undermining existing successful programmes is not acceptable. It must also be said that the Union cannot expect countries to lose all of their remaining fiscal and economic levers in the name of harmonisation. I know that he has personally set out an ambitious programme of reform and development and we wish him well with this.
Brexit is, at its heart, a challenge to the fundamental principle of solidarity within the Union. Britain has rejected the idea that it should submit to binding rules or recognise the benefits of compromise. In the negotiations, the Union must continue to protect the interests of members who will be worst hit by the British decision and it must maintain the principle that there has to be sustainable prosperity for all members. The negotiating guidelines agreed last year and those matters which have been agreed so far represent a robust and reasonable approach by the Union.
We would like to acknowledge the lengths to which Michel Barnier’s team has gone to protect Ireland’s interests from the earliest discussions onwards. This includes an accessibility and transparency which has meant that for Opposition parties here, a key source of information on the negotiations has been the Commission. We also thank Commissioner Hogan for his co-operation and assistance in that regard.
It is important for President Juncker to understand that there is a considerable and growing unease about the failure to move from generalities to concrete and final agreements in the negotiations. There comes a point where we will have to stop shaking our heads at the undoubted incompetence and incoherence of London’s position. The exotic edges of the Tory party have long since stopped being amusing, no matter how absurd their cast of characters is. The simple fact today is that London may actually never come up with a credible proposal. The core contradictions in December's text remain unaddressed.  Prime Minister May’s letter on this matter at the last summit simply restated that her Government is in favour of both a soft border and not introducing any trade or other barriers within the UK. This position is indistinguishable from her Government’s stated position for the last 18 months. We are extremely concerned with how negotiations on the Irish text have now been linked with the overall withdrawal treaty text and its provisions for final status negotiations. An outcome where there is ongoing regulatory alignment North and South and where Northern Ireland has effective access to both the customs union and the Single Market is one which we fully support.
The current proposal for a deep free trade agreement actually represents the second-worst scenario in the economic review commissioned by our Government, with certain agrifood sectors and the services sector as a whole being particularly badly hit. This review suggests a permanent loss of €2,500 per person, a level on par with the hit to the British economy. Therefore, the need to help our businesses to diversify in terms of both products and markets is more urgent than ever. We have no doubt that the Commission will need to come forward with proposals for support programmes for the worst-hit regions and industries and that a temporary and targeted exemption from state aid rules will be required.
In the short time available I have tried to give President Juncker some background to how we are approaching both limiting the damage of Brexit and, more importantly, supporting a European Union which is more dynamic and effective. Let me assure President Juncker that he can safely ignore the reports that there is any question about the stability of the core Irish political consensus and mandate on Brexit.