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Address by European Commission Vice-President Margot Wallström, Athlone, 10 September 2009
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"Ireland and the EU"

Address by European Commission Vice-President Margot Wallström

at public "listening" event at

Athlone Institute of Technology

10 September 2009

European Commission Vice-President Margot Wallström

Ø     I have been coming to Ireland regularly as a Commissioner for 10 years. I have always loved visiting your country, perhaps because I feel that we Swedes have a special link with Ireland. We share a lot in our approach to the European Union as smaller Member States. I think also that we have had some similar historical experiences. We too suffered from the potato famine, and we also understand the rapid growth and transformation of ways of life that the Irish experienced in the last 30 years. I think it gives us both a very pragmatic approach to Europe: we look at it thinking what difference Europe will make to our lives and weighing up whether it's on the whole good or bad.

Ø     My first visits, as environment commissioner, were during very different times: rapid economic growth meant that at times environmental standards, particularly for landfills and waste sites were at risk. The Commission at that time was the last line of defence when citizens complained about these issues.

Ø     Today, though, I am here as the responsible Commissioner for communication, and for institutional issues such as the new Treaty. I want to make one thing very clear at the outset. I have not come to lecture you. The decision on how you vote is just that: your decision. I am here because I believe that it is for you to hold me accountable. I have come to answer questions about the Treaty. I believe that as European citizens, all of you have the right to know what the EU is proposing and doing, and that this is a central part of democracy.

Ø     And Ireland is a very important Member State in the European Union. It has been an example and a model to all of the countries, including my own, which have joined the European Union after you. Why? Because you have consistently and successfully shown how smaller countries can punch above their weight; how the MEPs and Commissioners you have elected to send to Brussels can become big players in Europe's decisions; how the big structures of the Union can be harnessed to deliver results for Ireland.

Ø     I could, of course, talk about what the EU has delivered for Ireland: the contribution that the EU made to support the peace process, the role of structural funds and the single market in Ireland's economic transformation; the way that European law has strengthened women's rights here. But more important is how much Ireland has contributed to the European Union. Your Presidencies of the Union have always been big successes: I wonder if it's because of the gift of the gab: when you need to find a compromise, the Irish can be very persuasive. I think it's no accident that the most senior official in the whole Commission, Catherine Day, is an Irish woman.

Ø     Talking of finding compromises, agreeing the new Treaty was one long exercise in finding compromise, and, for the first time, it was a compromise between 27 countries. So it's a bit like a three dimensional chess puzzle to get it right. And it's taken us 8 years to get to this stage.

Ø     But the No campaign asks some very relevant questions about why the Irish should vote on the same text that they rejected last year. At the time I said that the Irish vote was an answer but not a solution. Why? Because the Irish had said no but 25 others had said yes. The question was whether the concerns you had raised could be addressed. A lot of effort has been made by the other 26 Member States of the EU to do everything possible to accommodate Irish concerns. Why? Because, as I said, Ireland is important to the Union.

Ø     Now it's for you to decide whether enough has been done. So the question you are being asked today is a different one from the one you were asked last year. And I want to publicly thank the Irish for making sure that the Commission in the future will have one Commissioner from every country of the Union sitting around the table. Long before the Irish referendum I have publicly and privately argued against reducing the size of the Commission. You have guaranteed that there will be an Irish Commissioner, but you have also guaranteed that there will be a Swedish, a Bulgarian and a Danish one.

Ø     For the rest, I can promise you that there will be no conscription of your children into a European army, abortion and euthanasia are not going to be legalised, and the size of the minimum wage will remain the responsibility of your government, and your government alone.

Ø     And on worker's rights, as a social democrat who has defended these rights for my whole political life, as a Commissioner, a Swedish minister and as an MP, can I say this. I share the concerns of working people in this country and across Europe about the implications and effects of Court judgements. I would prefer that we review certain European laws to make sure that we maintain the right balance between the single market and the rights of all workers to decent wages and living conditions. We absolutely have to avoid the kind of race to the bottom that could destroy the European social model. But the new Treaty will help us to do that because the Charter of Fundamental Rights will be a legally binding part of it.

Ø     And here, I want to quote John Monks, the secretary general of the European Trade Unions. Speaking to the Irish trade unions in July, he said: "we support ratification of the Lisbon Treaty and I hope the Irish people approve it. We don’t say it delivered all that we wanted by a long chalk. It missed some opportunities to reinforce social Europe. But we also said it was a step forward compared to existing provisions, for example in relation to the legal enforcement of the Charter of Fundamental Rights, commitments to full employment, the social market economy, and public services."  

Ø     Do you really think that the trade union movement across Europe would support the Treaty if it was a step backwards for social rights?

Ø     Whatever you decide to do on October 2nd, I, for one, will be relieved that the institutional debate will be over, for good or for ill. We have too much on our policy agenda to deal with today and we cannot afford to waste precious energies on moving the institutional furniture around again. The world is changing too fast. We have to find the best way to recover from the economic crisis, to reach a deal on how to fight climate change, to find the best ways to deal with rising levels of migration, and to play our part in resolving conflicts and crises on our borders. And we will only be able to achieve these things if we work together, as 27 countries with 450 million citizens, to make sure our voice is heard on the world stage, and that our decisions matter.

Ø     I believe that the new Treaty will help us to achieve this. The whole of Europe will be watching your decision on 2 October because it will affect all of us.

Ø     But it's a bit like moving house when the family gets bigger: of course nobody's going to die if the sale falls through, but you know that your life will be much easier to manage in a bigger house. The new Treaty is designed to ensure that in a Union of 27, we can work more effectively, more efficiently and more democratically to deal with the problems that can't be solved at national level.

Ø     Can I end with a quote from another Irishman, Jason O'Mahoney, who has written a wonderful Spoofer's guide to the Lisbon Treaty.

Ø     "I believe in the European way of solving problems. It is slow and boring but it works … We have a treaty as thick as a phone book because our views and opinions would fill a phone book. We talk and talk and talk in Europe, which, admittedly, can be a pain in the arse, but bear in mind: We used not to talk much at all. In 1870, 1914, and 1939 we hardly spoke a word to each other. How did that work out?"

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