Vice-President of the European Commission, EU Justice Commissioner
Ireland and the European Union: A Steadfast Partnership
Joint Oireachtas Committee on EU Affairs /Dublin
25 September 2012
I am delighted to be addressing this house today and thank you for the kind invitation.
Since 1973 Ireland and Europe have overcome difficult and complex problems by working together. And today our paths are bound more closely than ever.
In 1975, it was under the first Irish presidency of the Council of Ministers that the European Regional Development Fund – later to become one of the structural funds – was set up to support the poorest regions in Europe. This is a policy which goes to the heart of what the European Union is all about: a commitment to bring about shared prosperity grounded in the principle of solidarity. Since joining the EU in 1973 Ireland has received over €17 billion in EU Structural and Cohesion Funds support – a proof for citizens that European integration is about more than just providing a single market.
It was during the second Irish Council presidency in 1979 that the first session of the directly elected European Parliament was held, representing a historical step in the democratisation and legitimisation of a European Union of citizens.
It was during the 1990 Irish Council Presidency that the decision was taken to convene two conventions: one on economic and monetary union and one on political union.
And during the latest Irish presidency in 2004, the Irish steered the Union through its biggest enlargement, welcoming 10 new members.
So you see, for decades now, Ireland has been playing a key role in creating a strong and democratic Europe.
I don’t have to tell you that these days we are at another very delicate juncture of European integration. And soon it will again fall to the Irish to provide leadership when you take up the Council presidency once more in January.
The crisis Europe is facing today is one of confidence – confidence, firstly, in the long-term ability of individual euro area states to restore stability.
And this is partly of our own doing – because we have been too timid to trumpet our own achievements. But look at how far we've come in just two years:
In 2010 we were stranded in a terrible storm.
Indeed, in the two previous years Irish unemployment had doubled. The country's economy had contracted by over 7%.
Irish government support to banks had reached almost one third of annual GDP. More than the taxes collected that year. The costliest banking crisis for an advanced economy since the Great Depression.
This led some to question the fate of our common currency and even Ireland’s place in Europe. But, just as we have done in the past, we have proved the critics wrong and we are working together to put Ireland and Europe firmly on the road to sustainable growth and a brighter future.
We are riding out the storm – and Ireland is showing the way:
Ireland has turned the corner: the return to the short- and long-term debt markets after a two year absence is a clear sign of confidence for the Eurozone as a whole, confidence that doing the right things rightly restores trust.
The Irish economy will grow this year, reaching almost 2% growth in 2013. A higher predicted growth than the UK, France or Germany.
The Irish fiscal deficit is set to fall below the 8.6% target in 2012, showing that the implementation of Ireland's EU/IMF Programme remains firmly on track.
There are of course many challenges still ahead. Unemployment in Ireland remains painfully high. People are concerned about the future – for themselves and for their children. I am sure the Members of Parliament among you today have seen this in your constituencies.
But Ireland has a steadfast partner in the European Union and I am confident that Europe will emerge stronger out of the crisis.
Europe has a long history of rebuilding and reinventing itself – that is what we do: we adapt, we grow, we progress.
And today, once more, Ireland and Europe are seeking European solutions to European problems.
Europe 2020 is still our compass. A European approach giving us our bearings for a long-term recovery.
Once it becomes operational in October, the new European Stability Mechanism will be a new testament to European solidarity. It will act as a sail – pulling troubled economies out of danger and into calmer waters.
Finally, our proposed banking union – announced by President Barroso two weeks ago – shows that we have learnt the lessons of the crisis. It is our reinforced hull allowing us to weather future storms stronger than ever.
A single banking supervisor to ensure that:
Never again will banks remain unregulated and unaccountable.
Never again will a nation's people – as in Ireland – pay the price for their banks' mistakes.
Never again will problems in one country spread unchecked to the countries around it.
Together, we have achieved a great deal. We have come a long way. But this, alone, is not enough. We, as politicians, serve our citizens. We are here to serve their needs, not the markets' needs. We must not forget this human element.
Because the crisis of confidence is not just a lack of confidence in the economic capabilities of Eurozone members. It is also a crisis of confidence in European politics in general. The rapid pace of international financial markets has forced Irish and European politics to adapt at a dizzying pace. And for every decision we take we need a summit and for every Treaty change, ratification by 27 national parliaments, and in some cases, like in Ireland, even referenda. It is often hard enough for citizens to fathom national politics, let alone the complexities of European policy-making. It is perhaps no wonder then that the crisis of confidence that has befallen the Eurozone has also become a crisis of confidence in the entire European integration project.
Just as we are regaining the confidence of the financial markets, we now need to regain the trust of our citizens. After the Growth compact and the Fiscal compact, what we need now is a legitimacy compact.
Let me be very clear. The European Union is already democratic. Indeed, every citizen in every European Member State has the right to vote for their representatives to the European Parliament. I, myself, was elected to the European Parliament before becoming a Commissioner. As a Commissioner I was confirmed, after a three hour confirmation hearing by three parliamentary committees, by a majority vote of the European Parliament's plenary, together with the other members of the Commission – a process which is much more under parliamentary control than the appointments of government ministers in most EU Member States. And as a Commissioner, I can be removed at any time from my post by the European Parliament. Elected national parliaments, including Ireland's, also have more influence than ever before over European decision-making. And citizens are indirectly represented by their elected leaders in the European Council.
The current crisis has served as a sobering reminder of how the economic decisions of one European state directly affect all the others. The recipes of the past of individual and uncoordinated action have often led to excess of debt and endangered trust and confidence in our economies. These recipes no longer function. To stop future imbalances, Member States have granted Europe greater powers - such as reviewing national draft budgets – requiring new checks and balances.
But this new path raises the question of a political union and the European democracy that must underpin it. This means putting in place a political process to strengthen the democratic legitimacy and accountability of further integration moves.
The magnitude of the decisions that Europe will need to take over time to remain a strong and relevant global player will require a great effort from all of us and we need to engage in a serious discussion with the citizens of Europe about the way forward. This means expanding the public debate on the future of Europe. And that public debate is a responsibility for all of us – elected officials – to engage with citizens.
Last week President Barroso set the political horizon: a stronger Union will need to move towards a Federation of nation states – a democratic federation of nation states that can tackle our common problems, through the sharing of sovereignty in a way that each country and each citizen will be better equipped to control their own destiny. In the age of globalisation more power comes as a result of pooled sovereignty. This new move will require a new Treaty which in turn will require a broad debate all over Europe and a serious discussion between the citizens of Europe about the way forward. This means that we will all need to engage with citizens. It also means that you – as elected representatives of the citizens – will have a special responsibility and will have to take action and engage with the citizens about the future of the European Union.
We all know about the changes that our continent has experienced and continues to experience. We know about the benefits of peace, democracy and freedom. We know about the benefits of a Union bound by the rule of law and solidarity. It is now our responsibility to share this knowledge with our fellow citizens. To illustrate what Europe means. To explain what Europe makes possible.
The days of European integration by the implicit consent of citizens are over. Europe is not technocratic, bureaucratic or even diplomatic. Europe has to be more than ever democratic.
And democracy is about more than just elections. It's about people feeling their voice is heard at every step of European decision-making. It's about listening to citizens before we legislate.
The European Year of Citizens in 2013 will be at the heart of this exercise. But legitimacy comes not just from listening, but from acting upon what people tell you.
I will be back in this very city at Dublin Castle early next year for the first "Citizens' Dialogue" event of the Irish Presidency in the European Year of Citizens. We, at the Commission, are counting on your support to make the year a success and I hope to see many of you there!
I believe we need a real debate and in a democracy the best way to debate is by listening to citizens’ concerns and prepare the ground for future elections – such as the European elections in 2014. And we will all have a responsibility to ensure that those elections will be on truly European issues.
But Europe's future will not just be decided in Strasbourg, Luxembourg and Brussels. Each and every national parliament must become a "European Parliament" in its own right.
The Lisbon Treaty made the role of national parliaments crystal clear, calling for greater parliamentary involvement in EU activities in its very first Protocol. This is why it will be up to you, honourable members, to lead the debate on European citizenship.
To conclude, I would like to thank you, once again, for your on-going efforts to help Ireland emerge from the crisis. The road to recovery will be long, but we now know the way and how to get there. Working together, Europe and Ireland, we have already achieved so much.
But we must go one step further. We must involve our citizens in determining Europe's future. Each generation needs to affirm its commitment to Europe. To achieve this goal we have to be mindful of our citizens' interests and concerns and design the best solutions to ensure that citizens understand and embrace why European unity is more important than ever in the present globalised world. All this cannot be achieved if we fight one another. All this cannot be achieved if we put the interests of some groups above the common interest. We need to act together or become isolated and weak alone.
Looking ahead, 2013 is set to be a decisive year not only for Ireland economically, but also for Ireland's role in Europe politically:
Taking up the Presidency of the European Council.
Celebrating 40 years of EU membership.
Leading the European Year of Citizens.
2013 will be the year that Ireland builds Europe and, in doing so, secures its own future. I count on you to engage in a debate in the next year about what type of European Union citizens will want to be responsible for in the future. What type of European Union you will want to leave to the future generation of Europeans.