Saturday 25 January 2020

Populist talk about Ireland following Britain out of EU is simply madness

Brexit was one of the topics brought up in Irish Leaving Cert Paper 1. Photo: Reuters
Brexit was one of the topics brought up in Irish Leaving Cert Paper 1. Photo: Reuters

Charlie Flanagan

The weekend marked the 60th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome, which led to the formation of what we now know as the European Union.

From the ashes of World War II, Jean Monnet, Robert Schuman and others had a vision of an organisation of European states that would build peace and prosperity among the countries of Europe, making any future war unthinkable.

In the course of two world wars, more than 60 million people had been killed in horrendous circumstances.

Mr Monnet and Mr Schuman's vision of a peaceful Europe seemed extraordinarily ambitious, but during the last 60 years that vision has largely been realised - we are, today, a continent at peace.

Taoiseach Enda Kenny and 26 EU leaders gathered in Rome on Saturday to reassert the core values of Europe; which include free movement, freedom of speech, reasoned debate, consensus decision-making, economic opportunity, and social responsibility.

These common values are more important now than they have been in decades, in the face of the recent rise in populism and extremism and an increasingly unstable international order.

Even in Ireland, a country where polls consistently show more than 80pc of the people as being 'pro-EU', a populist argument has arisen recently which actually suggests that we should follow the UK out of the European Union - swapping a community of 27 states, for either isolation and exposure to every international financial shock, or a community of two, where we would be very much the junior partner.

As a small, open economy which is overwhelmingly dependent on both our exports and our direct access to the European market, I believe this course would be simply madness.

More than 100 multinational companies, employing in excess of 200,000 people in this country, have chosen to locate here for a variety of reasons. These include our relatively young, English-speaking, well-educated workforce; our stability; and our pro-business environment. But they also include the fact that we are an equal partner in a community of 28 (soon to be 27), with direct access to a market of 500 million people. To disregard this would be naive, or worse than naive, it would be reckless.

The EU now faces challenges in the post-Brexit world. It faces the challenge of adapting quickly and effectively to urgent issues including globalisation - although there is now renewed momentum in the economies of Europe following the economic downturn of recent years; political instability on the borders of the EU; and the migration crisis.

The EU is a complex organisation with an enormous programme of work. This creates the challenge of becoming more understandable to people's everyday lives. Some say the EU is not relevant. In fact it affects our lives in countless positive ways. We take for granted our right to travel without a visa to 27 other member states; we enjoy the simplicity of a single currency when visiting eurozone neighbours; we enjoy a whole range of reciprocal rights in other member states - work, study, healthcare are just some examples.

In fact, EU legal, economic, social, cultural, educational and environmental laws have improved the lives of almost every conceivable group within society - from women, to the LGBT community, to workers, to students. They have protected many areas of natural beauty or natural resources that might have been decimated in other circumstances.

If tangible examples are needed: the average income in Ireland is today 20 times greater than it was when we joined the then-EEC in 1973.

Ireland, once seen as an insular and under-productive backwater on the periphery of Europe, is seen as one of the world's most innovative countries - at the heart of the technological revolution.

Those of us who remember what life was like before the EU are acutely conscious that membership is a privilege which we must not take for granted. Indeed, to ignore the many achievements of the EU is to ignore reality. Henry Kissinger once famously asked, "When I want to talk to 'Europe', who do I call?".

Every country or trading bloc in the world now knows the answer to that question, and they will receive a considered and consensus-based response. To ignore the influence of the EU in the re-unification of Germany and democratisation of the former Warsaw Pact, and even our own peace process, is to ignore not only reality, but history.

Charlie Flanagan is Minister for Foreign Affairs

Irish Independent

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