Ladies and gentlemen,
Thank you very much for inviting me to speak to you today.
The Institute of International and European Affairs plays an extremely important role in debating European democracy, so it is a pleasure to be talking to you.
Ladies and gentlemen,
One thing that sometimes gets lost in the debate around Brexit is the depth of support for the European Union in Ireland.
A recent RED C opinion poll found that over 80% of Irish adults believe Ireland should remain a member of the European Union.
This is no surprise to me: Coming from a small Member State myself, I know the enormous advantages that EU membership can bring.
Not least, it is like being in a family. Because when a family member has trouble, the whole clan is there to help.
That is why the EU has shown such strong solidarity with Ireland over the past few years, as it has faced up to the reality of Brexit.
This support has come in many ways, not least financially, as Ireland is by far the most affected Member State in the EU.
For example, the Council recently approved the €5 billion Brexit Adjustment Reserve. This will support the regions, sectors and communities hit hardest by Brexit. And Ireland will benefit the most from this fund, receiving over €1bn.
But it is not all about money.
Ever since the outcome of the Brexit referendum back in 2016, it has been clear to us that protecting peace and stability on the island of Ireland must be our number one priority. And that is exactly what it has become.
As you know, the EU has an unbreakable commitment to the people of Northern Ireland – and across the island of Ireland. We have spared no effort to ensure that the peace, stability and prosperity they have enjoyed over the last twenty plus years is preserved.
After all, the EU is a peace project itself.
That is why we are continuing to support the PEACE+ programme, together with the UK and the Irish governments, which amounts to around €1 billion.
But that’s not all: we are also working hard to overcome some of the difficulties that people and businesses in Northern Ireland are experiencing regarding the implementation of the Protocol.
Before I turn to details, let me highlight the underlying point which we sometimes lose sight of:
- The European Union’s overall objective is to establish a positive and stable relationship with the United Kingdom.
- Despite the recent difficulties, we remain partners with shared values, faced with the same global challenges, such as the climate emergency.
Our relationship is now based on two agreements: the Withdrawal Agreement and the Trade and Cooperation Agreement.
The UK government negotiated, agreed and signed both these Agreements, including the Protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland – the subject of today’s discussion. The UK Parliament ratified these Agreements.
Having exercised its sovereign right to enter into such international agreements, the UK government now carries the responsibility of respecting them.
This is all the more important given how difficult it was to reach agreement. It took countless hours of intense, line-by-line negotiations. But, eventually, we achieved what at times seemed impossible: Ensuring the UK’s orderly withdrawal from the EU; and establishing the foundations of a new, ambitious relationship between two strong partners.
Without any shadow of a doubt, reaching consensus on Northern Ireland was the most challenging part of those negotiations.
Together, though, we did find a solution – the Protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland. As you know well, it serves a number of purposes:
- It protects the Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement in all its parts;
- Respects the constitutional order of the United Kingdom;
- Avoids a hard border on the island of Ireland;
- And preserves the integrity of the EU’s Single Market;
- While ensuring that the UK as a whole leaves both the Single Market and the EU’s Customs Union – a key demand of Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
This solution was shaped, agreed and approved, together, by both sides. We therefore also share responsibility for making it work on the ground.
On the UK side, it agreed that EU rules on goods would remain applicable to Northern Ireland. In doing so, it accepted that this would mean checks on goods moving between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, acknowledging a role for the EU’s institutions. This is the only way to avoid a hard border between north and south.
On the EU side, we agreed that the UK would carry out those checks and controls on our behalf – an unprecedented gesture. No other jurisdiction in the world had done this before.
This solution required compromise. Everyone around the table understood what these compromises meant in practice.
And the implementation of this agreement will continue to require compromise from both sides.
Our overarching priority throughout this process has been the people of Northern Ireland – regardless of their identity or political outlook – and the protection of the peace process.
We also have a duty towards our consumers to ensure that they run no risk from products imported from a country with different health and safety standards.
While the negotiations were difficult, their outcome now presents a real opportunity for Northern Ireland – and the island of Ireland. This was one of my key messages when I was in Northern Ireland recently.
The exchanges I had during my visit only strengthened my conviction of the enormous benefits on offer to Northern Ireland. In particular, its unparalleled access to two of the world’s largest markets with more than 500 million consumers can be a powerful magnet for foreign investment, translated into jobs and growth.
As one of the business leaders I met in Northern Ireland put it, you can have jam on both sides on your bread. That’s certainly one way to enjoy the fruits of your labour!
Northern Ireland can trade freely with the EU without having to pay for this unique access to our Single Market.
I know that the business community in Northern Ireland – and across the island of Ireland – is keen to take advantage of this opportunity. I am sure that border communities are equally as positive about its potential.
That’s why I have raised the idea of investment conferences to install confidence in the business community in Northern Ireland and to pave the way for further opportunity.
We are already seeing a significant number of investment enquiries, especially from the United States, Canada and the EU.
But if we are to turn this opportunity into reality, the Protocol must be properly implemented.
Over the past months, my colleagues in the EU and I have made every effort to respond to outstanding problems with creative and solid new solutions.
But the spirit of compromise needs to be a mutual one, as our responsibility is also a shared one.
The Protocol is not the problem. On the contrary, it is the only solution we have. Failing to apply it will not make problems disappear, but simply take away the tools to solve them.
Simply opposing the Protocol, without providing real solutions, won’t make the problems go away either.
Rather, we are seeking solutions that work for all, including those opposed to the Protocol.
The EU has already tabled and adopted several practical solutions to overcome the difficulties felt on the ground.
Most recently, on 30 June, the Commission put forward a package of measures, including our commitment to change our own rules to ensure the long-term supply of medicines from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.
But I also need to be honest: while we will continue looking for solutions to minimise the effects of Brexit on everyday lives, we will never be able to remove them entirely. Such are the consequences of Brexit and the choices made by the UK Government.
The key question now, of course, is where we go from here.
As you know, the UK published their Command Paper on 21 July. And we have been engaging intensively with our UK partners ever since.
I believe that our focus should be on those issues that matter most to the people of Northern Ireland and their everyday life.
In Belfast, I listened to stakeholders emphasise the need to facilitate East-West trade. That means long-term solutions in the food and plant safety (or SPS) area. I heard businesses ask for further trade facilitation in the area of customs. And I also heard a lot about the need for Northern Irish political institutions and other stakeholders to be properly heard.
One issue of vital importance to me, echoed throughout my visit, is finding a solution for the continued supply of medicines to Northern Ireland, including generics. This way, medicines provided under the NHS, for example, can continue to move into Northern Ireland without any hindrance. This is a complicated area and we are double- and triple-checking with the UK authorities, as well as the pharmaceutical companies themselves, to ensure that our approach is watertight.
I remain convinced that our focus must remain on these areas. We cannot afford to think short-term, either: We need long-lasting solutions to provide predictability, stability and certainty in Northern Ireland.
For this effort to be successful, however, it must be done together with our UK partners. Joint engagement for shared solutions.
But let me also be clear about what we will not do: We will not renegotiate the Protocol, as the UK is requesting. And we will not accept solutions which would effectively mean cutting Northern Ireland off from the EU’s Single Market and related opportunities.
Finally, allow me to touch on Article 16.
A lot has been said by UK politicians about the possibility of the UK triggering Article 16.
I do not think that this has been helpful. It distracts us from working together to find solutions. And it would not help us find solutions any quicker.
After all, it has taken us five long years to get where we are today. So it is clear that there are no quick, easy-fix solutions to what is an extremely complex situation.
I want to close by underlining the positive.
I believe that we can find practical solutions to help ensure that the Protocol works well on the ground, across Northern Ireland and Ireland, in urban and rural areas alike.
And if the Protocol is functioning well in Northern Ireland, it will be to the benefit of all, on both sides of the Irish Sea and across the Channel.
Thank you for your attention. Now I am looking forward to what I am sure will be a lively discussion.