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‘It was a clever move from the Taoiseach to be the first EU leader to address the future of Europe debate’ – Opinion piece from Brian Hayes MEP following An Taoiseach’s address to the European Parliament

Last Wednesday An Taoiseach spoke to the European Parliament in Strasbourg. It was a great opportunity for Leo Varadkar to personally thank the Parliament for their solidarity so far in the Brexit negotiations.

At all stages, the European Parliament has delivered on key Irish demands. The resolutions it has passed have given explicit support to Ireland’s red lines and have backed the negotiation stance of Michael Barnier and his Task Force. There is no a Member of the European Parliament who does not understand the significance of the “no return to a hard border” mantra.

And given the seminal role of the European Parliament in the entire Brexit process – it has the final say on Brexit in March of next year  – it was a clever move from the Taoiseach to be the first EU leader to address the future of Europe debate and take questions from MEPs.

So Wednesday was a chance to say thank you, but also a chance to put Ireland centre stage in the future of Europe debate. What type of EU will we have post Brexit? In 10 years from now what are the changes that will mark out Europe and how can Ireland help shape that future?

I know I am bias but he was outstanding and made all of the Fine Gael MEPs and our staff so proud to be Irish. In the question and answer session he was fluent and personal. Reaching out to MEPs who asked questions and being his normal frank self in the replies. The entire Parliament was impressed.

After the financial crises, Brexit and the migration crisis, Europe needs a new direction. The rise of the populist left and right, despite the victory of the centre in Germany, France and the Netherlands last year, is a reminder that business as usual won’t get the EU to a better place. Add in the lurch to the right in Poland and Hungary – both Member States that want to remain in the EU but who are perpetuity Euro sceptic, also provides headaches for the centre ground in trying to chart a way forward.

Fundamental questions remain. What is our place now in the EU as Britain leaves? As a wealthy country that has done well from EU membership over forty years what can we offer next? Will the EU end up in two speeds with the core Eurozone countries forced to integrate further from those on the outside? What are the implications for the EU on the international stage, especially in the area of climate and defence, with an increasing isolationist USA?

These are all enormous questions that are debated constantly in Brussels and Strasbourg. Colleagues are interested in hearing our views and that is why it was so important to have the Taoiseach with us and setting out his views on those really big questions.

And of course rarely at home do politicians or the media debate Europe and it’s future as we gorge out on a diet of local news. Rarely is Europe part of an election debate, something that is not common in other countries. Rarely is Europe debated within political parties – our own party included.

Ireland cannot and should not decide to sit out this debate – something that has happened too often in the past and to our disadvantage. We need to become active in the future of Europe debate and work with other countries in taking up positions that the public wants to see advanced. Full marks to Minister Helen McEntee for the national dialogue she is launching as Europe Minister – everyone should get behind that process.

But to get the EU really working – from tapping into the potential of a fully integrated single market to realising new investment opportunities, requires more Europe and more integration. Leo’s speech, coming from one of the youngest leaders in the European Council and also from someone who genuinely feels at home in the EU, was important in setting the scene for Ireland as this debate unfolds.

Not only can Ireland ill afford to sit out this debate – we also cannot afford to be constantly finding reasons to say no to proposals or pretending that the EU Commission is some kind of bogeyman, constantly out to get us. Whether we like it or not we have the reputation of being one of the Doctor No’s of Europe. Winning friends and influencing people requires us to set out in a positive way the direction we believe that Europe needs to travel. Simply listing on a frequent basis what we are against will not cut it in the future.

Rather than seeing the EU as something of a cash cow, which it no longer is to Ireland as we are now net contributors, we need to start asking ourselves what can we bring to Europe. How can our influence, especially as a bridge to the United States, help Europe to stay competitive and open for business. Ireland’s success story since the 1970s can be replicated in other small Eastern European Member States.

As part of the future of Europe debate we also need to be open as to the changes that may follow the outcome to the debate, likely to be decided in the Romanian Presidency in the first half of next year. Open to possible changes on EU security and defence, on migration, being prepared to review existing opt outs we have in place or paying more for a reformed EU budget. We can do more which then gives us more credibility in demanding that our red lines are kept.

Leo Varadkar’s recent speech to the Fine Gael Ard Fheis in Cavan described Europe as “our common European home”. I think Europe is fundamental to what he is. He is a post nationalist. Very similar to an emerging crop of younger centralist leaders in Europe. For his generation, Europe helps to define who and what they are. That generation must now set out a new vision for Europe and crucially bring people with them. Last Wednesday the Taoiseach won friends and supporters for Ireland and in the process made our voice in this debate crucial.

Brian Hayes MEPFine Gael MEP for Dublin

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