Today, Taoiseach (Prime Minister) of Ireland Leo Varadkar was the first leader to take up the European Parliament President’s request to address the Parliament on the future of Europe. He broadly called for more cooperation in Europe, and also said that the EU allowed Ireland take its place at the centre of Europe and the world.
EU “allowed us to take our place among the nations of the world”
He delivered a very pro-European speech, highlighting among other things that Ireland simply wouldn’t be where it was today without the EU. Varadkar stated that the EU had helped transform Ireland from one of the least developed European countries to one of the most prosperous. He also highlighted that “the promise of Europe unlocked the potential of Ireland, and allowed us to take our place among the nations of the world.”
Nigel Farage however said that normally small nations don’t count for anything in the EU, but that Ireland was currently useful to the EU for blocking Brexit. “At the minute, you’re important and you’re useful, because you helped with the obstructionism and the delay of Brexit.”
Farage accused the Irish PM of putting his devotion to the European project above the interests of Irish farmers.
Solidarity with Ireland on Brexit
Leo said it was hard to imagine the Good Friday Agreement, a cornerstone of peace in Northern Ireland, being made without Northern Ireland and Ireland being shared members of the EU.
He also thanked other EU countries for backing Ireland during the Brexit talks, stating “we are deeply grateful for the remarkable solidarity and support from other Member States. It is everything we hoped for, and proof positive of why small countries benefit so much from membership of this Union.”
He said he hoped that the new relationship between the UK and the EU would be as close and deep as possible, but also that it would be consistent with the EU’s need to protect its internal market and customs union. He did also warn that there could be no ‘backsliding’ on what has been promised in the first phase of negotiations.
In his remarks, Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said he saw “no more important use of our new budget than guaranteeing and financing the peace process in Ireland. This is an unconditional European commitment.”
A strengthened EU budget?
Ireland also signalled its openness to contribute more to the EU budget, and advocated for avoiding cuts on policies such as the common agricultural policy, Horizon 2020 and Erasmus+, which have worked and “stood the test of time.”
“Ireland has moved from being a net beneficiary of the EU budget to one that is now a net contributor. Nonetheless, we’re open to contributing more, but only if it’s spent on things that contribute to the advancement of the European deal and the European project.”
Juncker pointed out that introducing new tasks to the EU, such as a European border guard, or civil protection teams, require more money to be paid for these projects. “Our new budget must be as ambitious as the goals we set ourselves, and as flexible as possible, to adapt to new and unforeseen challenges”, he said.
The Prime Minister agreed, stating that “Europe can do new things, and Europe should do new things, but new programmes require new money.” For example, he said he supported an EU ‘Marshall Plan’ for Africa.
A more accountable Europe with reformed powers
He provided the case for European cooperation, stating that “many of the policy challenges we face are increasingly global, and cannot be met by nation-states acting alone.” Issues such as mass migration and climate change can’t be solved by 28 countries coming up with 28 different solutions, the Prime Minister said.
To “protect what we have”, European countries need to stick together, especially as European countries will be small states in the future, even if, he said, some don’t realise it.
He drew a parallel with US states and Canadian provinces, arguing that many of them have more diversity and powers than EU member states do today. “So do we have the balance right? Not always. Does everything have to be harmonised and standardised? I don’t think so.”
The Taoiseach said he supported the Commission’s taskforce on subsidiarity and proportionality, which would seek to “get some order into the whole mess of competences between member states and the EU”, according to Juncker. It will assess where it makes sense to devolve powers to the member states, but he said that in some areas Europe has to do more.
Prime Minister Varadkar also threw himself behind the Spitzenkandidaten process, as well as electing MEPs from transnational lists, which already won support of Southern EU members. “I’d like to get people in cafes in Naples and restaurants in Galway talking about the same election choices”, he said. He also suggested democratising the choosing of candidates for other leading EU positions, as well as strengthening direct democracy in the EU.
The Future of Europe
“The European Union has always offered the promise of a better future. It is is a future that will not be handed to us. We must work to create it. We can achieve a more perfect union, and we can speak to Europe’s soul.”
Varadkar said he believed that Europe was one of the greatest acts of political creativity in human history, and also a great success. “I believe that with imagination and with courage, we will be able to give Europe a heart and soul, and create opportunities for all citizens.”
Juncker reiterated that the future of Europe can’t remain a scenario, as set out in his white paper, and that decisions need to be taken now.
“Our future cannot wait. Together with Leo, with the Irish, and with others, we’ll swim in that direction.