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European Commissioner for Research, Innovation and Science
Speech: European Union must deliver economic recovery if it is to prove its relevance to all the people
Opening of Ireland-EU 40th Anniversary Exhibition/Dublin
14 March 2013
Ladies and gentlemen,
I am delighted to open this exhibition celebrating the fortieth anniversary of Ireland's accession to the EEC.
Forty years – and a world away.
Ireland was so very different, back then. Immeasurably different. In how we worked or, if you were female and in the civil service and got married, in how we didn’t work, because getting married got you fired. In how we lived. In what we imported and exported.
At that time, we exported mainly agricultural products. Cattle on the hoof. Now, Ireland exports electronics, pharmaceuticals and services.
The number of women working outside the home has nearly tripled, while the number of people in higher education has increased sixfold.
Ireland has made the most of EU membership – politically, economically and socially.
We are a small country, but we have taken our place on an equal footing with our European colleagues, and extended our international influence.
That’s the beauty of the European Project.
EU membership enables a country like Ireland to matter in a globalised world. It plugs us into wider cooperation on issues that really matter: the economy, the environment, social and employment.
But when I talk about EU membership plugging us into wider co-operation, I shouldn’t miss one of the less measurable things it plugged us into. Confidence. EU membership profoundly changed the psychology of the country – we are now more outward-looking.
We know how positive the EU has been for Ireland, but we have the confidence to recognise what Ireland has brought to the European Union.
It’s brought the capacity to – if I may quote a previous President – build bridges. We have led and concluded difficult negotiations within Europe, arriving at solutions that serve the interests of all the people.
The current Irish Presidency is the seventh time that Ireland has been at the helm, often at historic moments when Ireland helped broker significant achievements such as:
When I served as a Minister in the Irish Government, the guns were loud in Northern Ireland, the death toll continuous, the mourning ever-present. Now, it is a joy to go to Northern Ireland, a place of hope and enterprise.
The EU has played a major part in that transformation, providing 1.5 billion Euro in support of peace and reconciliation since 1995.
Only last month EU leaders proposed a further 150 million Euro for the new Peace 4 programme for the period 2014-2020. This initiative will have an enormously positive impact on the lives of people living in Northern Ireland and in the border region.
Ireland is at the forefront of ensuring that the EU plays a leading role in helping the poorest and most disadvantaged people of the world, through humanitarian and development aid.
Irish troops have participated in EU-led peacekeeping missions under a UN mandate such as in Chad and the Central African Republic in 2008, or the latest EU mission in Mali, all the time secure in the knowledge that Ireland's cherished neutrality is respected. Ireland stands shoulder to shoulder with other Member States in facing so many important challenges.
We can celebrate four decades of openness to new ideas, to pooling knowledge and working with our European partners on the issues that are just too big and too complex to be solved by one country alone.
I see so many examples of this in my work as the European Commissioner responsible for Research, Innovation and Science.
I see those examples in fields like rare diseases, antibiotics resistance, climate change, energy security, the health of older people, the fight against AIDS/HIV, Malaria and Tuberculosis.
I mentioned earlier the restrictions under which Irish women lived when I was growing up. Europe helped lift many of those restrictions. It’s given its citizens the protection of gender equality legislation, worker's rights, and laws on health and safety in the workplace. EU law has also tackled discrimination on the basis of race, disability, age and sexual orientation.
Since it joined the EEC, Ireland is a net beneficiary of structural, regional, cohesion and CAP funding.
This has helped to modernise Ireland's infrastructure - roads, water and sewerage, educational facilities, our farming and food sectors. The European Social Fund has invested nearly 4 billion Euro in training and employment measures since 1993. These have all contributed to economic growth.
When Ireland joined, its GDP per capita was just under two thirds of the EU average. It is now one quarter above the EU average.
It is important to register that, particularly at a time when the country’s been hit by major economic challenges…
It is important to look back and see how far we’ve come – because that’s what will give us the certainty that we can make matching progress in the next few years. And we will!
Key to that will be growth in exports.
Ireland is part of the world's biggest trading bloc, the Single Market. A huge market for Irish goods and services, giving Ireland a level of clout in international trade negotiations as part of the EU.
Yes, we are going through difficult times, but Europe and Ireland can and will come out stronger on the other side.
In the current economic climate, however, many Irish people are concerned about the European Union. While the referendum passed, we also have to recognise that 40 per cent of voters rejected the fiscal treaty.
The European Union must deliver economic recovery if it is to prove its relevance to all the people. This is both a political and a communications challenge. We cannot have a Europe of the 'haves' and 'have-nots'. That is why we have proposed the 6 billion Euro Youth Employment Initiative that includes the Youth Guarantee to ensure that all those under 25 can find a job, training or place in education within four months of leaving school or becoming unemployed.
Ireland has held more referendums on European issues than any other Member State - so one could perhaps say that Ireland has often acted as a gauge of public opinion that resonates beyond these shores.
President Barroso has called for a broad debate about Europe's future - a debate with a truly European dimension. Information is key and this excellent exhibition will also help bridge the information gap.
From accession to the recent years of crisis and recovery; from economic growth and the Single Market, to the Euro and Enlargement – the exhibition shows very clearly how much we have achieved, so it’s wonderful that it will tour the country until the end of the year.
Ladies and gentlemen,
Family and community are important in Irish society – in any healthy society.
It's good to be connected.
Ireland is an established and treasured member of the European family.
Our dedication and hard work are much admired and appreciated by the other members of this extended family.
After 40 years, we have gained much valuable experience.
Since 1973 Ireland and Europe have together overcome many difficult challenges, always in a spirit of openness and cooperation.
Membership of the EU has been overwhelmingly positive for Ireland. It has transformed our economy and our society for the better in countless ways – including the social and economic status of women – and has given this small country a role on a bigger stage.
It has given each of us the right to make a statement of pride, position and progress. A dual statement it’s worth making as I conclude, because sometimes we take it for granted:
I am proud to be Irish. I am proud to be European.