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E. Kenny: Address to World Summit 2020

Address to World Summit 2020, Seoul, Korea, February 3-8, 2020


Dear ladies and gentlemen at the World Summit 2020: Thank you for the opportunity and for the hospitality.

I come from Ireland, a small country in the northwestern part of Europe, 5 million population, colonized by Britain for 700 years, lots of revolutions and lots of difficulties; because of emigration we have about 70 million people worldwide. I took the prime minister's office at a time of the worst recession in our history, when interest rates were 15 percent, we were approaching half a million unemployed, mass emigration, acquisition and collapse of banks because of fiscal irresponsibility.

That's all changed because the people accepted difficult decisions, we explained to them what needed to be done, and we're in a very different position now.

The question I have been asked here in Seoul is this: "Is the European Union a sustainable model of nations cooperating on a regional basis, and can it withstand the challenge of populist or self-interest nationalism?” That is the question I have been asked to address.

I believe in politics, and therefore my answer is that I do believe the European Union is a sustainable model, and I will now explain to you why. The European Union is far more than a regional organization of nations. It is quite unlike any other organization of states, because it is based on a far-reaching pooling of areas of national sovereignty among its member states with an over-arching bureaucratic and judicial system to implement that.

Of course, the EU faces challenges from populism and [self-] interested nationalism. Its creation was itself a response in each of those founders to total war and unchecked populism and nationalism that Europe gave rise to in the last century. You see the chain of events—from the 19th-century competition among the European imperial powers, the rise of militarism and the arms race in the late 19th century, the disaster of World War I, a well-meaning but inadequate effort to regulate competing nationalist instincts to the League of Nations, the horrors of the Nazi tyranny, before and during World War II, when 100 million people were slaughtered, along with a growing threat of Soviet communism—that left Europe in a truly shattered state.

I mention that to underpin and underline the unique nature of the European Union, because it was a response to total war, and it was from the outset, and still remains, a peace process and has been built on a system in which sovereignty in many areas was pooled, in which nationalism was controlled, and in which political, bureaucratic and judicial institutions like the European Commission and the European Court of Justice were developed, with overarching powers over member states in well-defined areas like, for example, trade. The best example was the European Coal and Steel Community, founded back in 1951. That was created to end national sovereignty over coal and steel, which were the sinews of war, and the aim was to make war unthinkable again in Europe, in particular between Germany and France. There has been no war on European [EU] soil since that was created. 

Member states of the European Union cede sovereignty in defined areas, such as trade, and they are then subject to European law and the legal oversight of the European Court of Justice. We in Ireland fully understand this, fully understood this, and we changed our written constitution to give effect to that. Our British friends across the water, who do not have a written constitution, were never really comfortable with this, and one of the consequences of that has been a decision about Brexit.

So, based on the overarching and national sovereignty issue, the European Union has been a force for democracy, social transformation, and economic development, and membership has radically transformed our country for the better, and membership since 1973 was the most important step that we have taken as an independent state.

Let me say this to you. If you visited Ireland in the 1950s, you'd have found a country that was backward, introverted, protectionist, dominated by one church, with a very poor agricultural system, with mass emigration and no economic activity worthwhile. Our membership of the European Union transformed our country to being one that is outward-looking, competitive, export-oriented, with a very flexible education system that gives all the young people, irrespective of their color or creed, an opportunity to make their way in life and do the best they can.

The world, ladies and gentlemen, is changing before our very eyes, and as Asia becomes a global leader in many areas, as Africa itself sets out on a path of ambitious development, the relative weight and economic importance of Europe will decline in the years ahead. But the EU still remains the largest single market in the world, by many standards the wealthiest collection of countries in the world, the most outward-looking group in the world, and with a strong commitment to multilateralism, internationalism and the rules-based global order, based on the United Nations and the World Trade Organization.

This is not an accident, because membership in the European Union is a complex process, it’s a demanding process: There are high standards on rule of law and respect for human rights, and sanctions when countries don’t measure up. Article 2 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, for instance, says: “The Union is founded on the values of respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities. These values are common to the member states in a society where pluralism, non-discrimination, tolerance, justice, solidarity and equality between men and women prevail as a fundamental article of the European Union.”

I quote this because it is the engine of what the EU is about. It does indeed face challenges and difficulties. I come back again to its creation: Nazis were demagogues and populists, but Nazis and other demagogue groupings did seize power in national elections in parliament.

The founding fathers of the European Union, who were largely Federalists and who distrusted popular sovereignty, sought to fragment that power by empowering technocratic and overarching institutions and building in the judicial constraints I mentioned earlier. We have seen in recent years the risks that arise from this.

There have been complaints from populist groups within the European Union, and member states therein, that decisions are being taken remotely in Brussels by people who are not elected. And there is the assumption that there is a secretive way of building a European super-state here, which is utterly false. It is very critical, therefore, to have the internal balances of the EU correct, and that the machinery is brought close to the people, that it is explained to the people, and that they understand what that is about.

That’s why, as prime minister of Ireland over two governments, we sought very, very deliberately to explain to people the strategy of government, how the steps we were taking would encourage a stronger economy and therefore greater opportunity and prosperity for all.

When you sit around the European Council table, the European Council comprises the prime ministers of the different countries. It was 28, now 27. You sit in that room on your own! There are no PR advisors; there are no special political advisors. You are there with your fellow prime ministers, whether they represent 400,000 people or 80 million people, and you argue your case bluntly, decisively, openly, and there is nobody else to make the decisions but you yourself in the context of the overall European Union collective response. It is a very good way of politicians talking to politicians about problems in countries that affect the politicians.

And that frankness is something that can be applied in many ways, and I have seen it myself applied to the difficulties with migration, the collapse of banks, the financial crisis and so many other issues that affect the European Union in many areas. So, in that sense, it is very important that there be the capacity to explain these things. Therefore we have to ensure, firstly, that we don’t take the European Union and its achievements for granted; secondly, that the national governments or member states engage fully with the institutions set up in Brussels to deal with the administration of how the European Union is run; and thirdly, that the populations have explained to them very clearly what the strategy is.

With respect to Great Britain in the recent referendum on leaving the European Union, nobody seemed to fully understand what a vote for “yes” meant or what a vote for “no” meant. Yes, OK, you give them a referendum, but you have a duty to explain it.

Fourthly, we have to ensure that there is collective work to make the European Union a continuing success.

Fifthly, I believe that the European Union, given its reach and its contacts, can be a friend of sustainable development, a partner in solving global crises like water or climate change or national disasters, migration, food sustainability and so on, and that it can be at the front of international aid and support for multilateralism and be seen to be a strong supporter of the UN, which requires reform, and the World Trade Organization, and that we as leaders must never forget the lessons of the past. In fact, every child in Europe should be brought down to Flanders Fields to see the site of where a million men were wiped out at the Somme and other locations during World War I.

This morning I listened to Bishop [Munib] Younan, who made a very articulate point, a very true point, when he said: “We want to be peacemakers, not peace talkers.” I come from a country where we had a phony war for 30 years, waged by the Provisional IRA and other paramilitary groups, in which 3,000 people were killed, assassinated, blown up or disappeared. Some of that was done in the name of religion between Catholic and Protestant. It wasn’t about religion; it was organized crime and criminality.

President Bill Clinton sent a special envoy to Ireland for five years, discussing the possibilities for peace. Everybody assisted: the churches, religious faiths, people involved in any kind of religion, members of governments from Britain, from Ireland, from Europe and the United States, and after five years a treaty was signed, which has since held a fragile peace together on the streets of Belfast and between Northern Ireland and the Republic.

Yes, in order to become a peacemaker, you have to be a peace talker, but when you talk peace, you’d better have a clear strategy, and be prepared to give and take in the general interests of who we are. And finally, let me quote President John F. Kennedy, who said, “We all inhabit the same planet, we all breathe the same air, and we are all mortal.” Seoul is an example, here in Korea, of what can actually happen. This country was homogeneous for 1,500 years; it was divided in the middle of the night, without consultation. It will take a lot of consultation to put it together again.

And, please God, the young people of North and South Korea eventually will understand what it is to feel Korean, and to be Korean, and if this World Summit 2020 leads in any way to a small step in that direction, then it will be worthwhile. Thank you.



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