The EU at 70 - still going strong? - Video & text of The Inaugural John Hume ‘European Spirit of Peace’ Lecture


May 12, 2021 10:39

David O’Sullivan

EU flags at the European Commission Berlaymont building

I am deeply honoured to have been invited by the John and Pat Hume Foundation to deliver this address in honour of John’s remarkable legacy, in the service of peace and reconciliation.

I mainly knew John during time we shared in Strasbourg.

But I first heard of him many years before when I was still at school. My father was working in military intelligence (not the oxymoron it is sometimes thought to be!) and, at an early stage in the growing unrest in Northern Ireland, he spent some time in Derry talking to local leaders trying to understand what was going on. When he came home, he told me how deeply impressed he had been by a young man called John Hume who, he explained, was active in the Credit Union. A few months later, we were watching the RTE news and John was being interviewed. “That’s the fellow I told you about,” my father said. “Mark my words, if ever we live to see a united Ireland, that man will be the first Prime Minister!”

It was not to be, but John’s influence and impact was perhaps even greater than if he had held high political office.

John had a great passion about European integration as he explained in his landmark speech accepting the Nobel Prize.

This year marks the 70th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Paris, establishing the Coal and Steel Community, the first great step on the road that has led to the creation of the European Union as we have it today.

It has always been the procession of Echternach, three steps forward and two, or sometimes even two and half, steps back, but the movement has always been forward. Few could have imagined in 1951 what we would have achieved 70 years later.

Whenever I spoke about Europe in the United States, where the EU was often seen as a mere trading bloc, I usually started by saying that the EU had three fundamental objectives: peace, freedom, and prosperity.

As John always recognized, the key driving force behind the creation of what we know today as the European Union was a desire for peace and reconciliation in Europe. After two World Wars (started from European Civil Wars) and the Holocaust, wise people in Europe decided that we needed a new business model for the continent, one which used reconciliation and the building of visible interdependence as a means of preventing future war. Thanks to this, we have gone nearly 70 years since the end of the Second World War without major power conflict on the continent of Europe. You must go back a very long way to find a comparable period of peace. Of course, many factors contributed to this. The Cold War. NATO. The relatively benign American hegemony. But, without doubt, the single most important factor was the weaving of a tissue of interdependence which started with the creation of the European Coal and Steel Community and which has progressively evolved into the European Union of today.

The European Union was conceived on the basis of freedom, democracy, human rights and the rule of law. This was partially enshrined in the founding treaties but reinforced by the European Convention on Human Rights which has since been integrated into EU law. Membership of the European Community as it was then known became a beacon for countries emerging from totalitarianism. First, Greece after the dictatorship of the Colonels in 1981. Then Spain and Portugal after Franco and Salazar in 1986 and finally - and probably Europe's greatest achievement - the reunification of the continent through the admission of the ten former satellite states of the Soviet Union in 2004.

I do not believe that the European Union can claim credit for the collapse of the Berlin Wall, but I do believe that the European Union and the process of enlargement which drove the newly emerged countries of central Europe towards a system of democracy and the rule of law played a major role in ensuring that the collapse of the Soviet Union resulted not in chaos and conflict but rather the peaceful transition from totalitarian systems to liberal democracies.

Finally, notwithstanding the ups and downs of the economic cycle - including the ravages of the Great Recession of 2008 - the reality is that all the countries which have joined the European Union are much better off than would otherwise have been the case (including, by the way, the United Kingdom!). All countries benefited from a huge increase in their overall prosperity. The creation of the single market in 1992 has been one of Europe's greatest achievements driving greater competitiveness from the enormous economies of scale and creating an economic area comparable to that of the world's most important economic powers such as China and the United Sates. Today the European Union ranks as one of the world's three most important economies. The introduction of the Euro – now shared by 19 out of our 27 Member States - has further consolidated an integrated market and is now the world’s second reserve currency.

These achievements were made possible by an extremely innovative approach to imagining this new Europe. The founding fathers designed an institutional set up which is truly unique in international relations. The European Union has developed supranational institutions which are not replicated in any other international organization. There is the Council of Ministers which brings all the member states around the same table. There is the European Parliament, which is the only directly elected, multi-national parliamentary assembly in the world. Finally, and most importantly, there is the European Commission, the truly unique element of the European integration process. The Commission is a body which simultaneously has the monopoly of the power to propose legislation and the responsibility for the implementation and supervision of that legislation.  It is an executive but not a government. The founding fathers created a decompression chamber designed to drive forward the process of integration by identifying the truly European interest in any proposal. The Commission has its failings and its flaws, but it remains central to the possibility of progress in European integration.

The European Union has also created a unique supra-national legal order in which European law remains the ultimate arbiter of what is right and wrong. This system is unique not least because it relies on the acceptance by member states of something for which there is ultimately no coercive means of enforcement – the supremacy of European law over national law.

This progress towards European integration has been achieved, contrary to many popular representations, by fully respecting the sovereignty and the national identity of the individual member states. Anyone who travels around Europe, clearly sees that, while you do not have to show your passport or go through customs at the different frontiers you are passing, you are moving from one nation state to another. You hear it in the language. You see it in the in the buildings and in the food in the restaurants. Member States of the European Union retain a remarkable degree of sovereignty over the issues which are of greatest importance to their citizens whether this be education, health care systems, systems of government or cultural identity. None are undermined or diminished by membership of a common European system. A common sense of belonging to Europe overlays, and does not replace, our national and even regional identities. I am not less of an Irishman for being European.

This has meant the emergence of an entirely new and unprecedented supra-national order never seen in human history. It is not a nation state. It is not even a multinational federation. It is a hybrid creation which President Delors once qualified as an ‘unidentified political object’. This often leads to criticism because there is no easy comparison with the traditional features of our nation states. But it is precisely this hybrid arrangement which I believe the founding fathers, as they emerged from the ashes of the Second World War, sought to achieve - a structure in which national identity would be preserved but which would progressively build a complex interweaving of common interests to ensure that those national interests would never again lead to destructive conflict. We have truly made the notion of war on this continent unthinkable.

It was this vision which I believe so inspired John in his ambition for what might be possible on the island of Ireland. An Ireland where we were not condemned to live in perpetual conflict between different national identities but rather one where we could allow each person to take full pride in those identities in a context of mutual respect and, above all, a political system with guardrails against our differences spilling over into violent conflict.

Today, the European Union stands out as the most remarkable achievement of conflict resolution that the world has ever seen. We should never forget this. We should be proud to be a part of such an achievement.

However, no structure - no matter how successful or how solidly built - can rest upon its past achievements. The key question facing us today is how the European Union will go forward in an increasingly complex world. And I say this as we move towards the world in which identity politics and an increasingly transactional view of international relations seems to be growing dangerously. The EU stands out as a post-Westphalian structure in a Hobbesian world!

Against this backdrop, the von der Leyen Commission has set itself an extremely ambitious agenda across three main platforms.

The first, and by far the most important, is that of achieving carbon neutrality by 2050 with an interim goal to reduce carbon emissions by 55% by 2030. The enormous significance of the new Green Deal for Europe cannot be overstated. It represents nothing less than a major economic and social revolution with huge consequences for all levels of society.

The second agenda item is achieving the digital transition in the coming decade.

The third objective is that of creating a more geopolitical Europe capable of playing a meaningful role in our rapidly changing global environment.

The most immediate challenge facing the European Union is of course the pandemic and its consequences. The pandemic is first and foremost, of course, a public health crisis. Many are critical of the way the Union has responded and, of course, those criticisms do have some justification. On the other hand, it should not be forgotten that public health was never a responsibility of the European Union but rather a measure entirely within the responsibility of the member states.  The Covid crisis has demonstrated that, in practice, it is extremely difficult for countries to manage this kind of situation without close cooperation with their neighbors. The EU found itself increasingly thrust into the forefront in trying to find solutions. The vaccine rollout is a good example. It was never going to make sense to imagine 27 EU member states competing in a marketplace for vaccines. However, agreeing on how to organize joint procurement and then delivering vaccines in the quantities required was always going to be a big ask for an organization with no previous experience of such a task. The early stages of the process were rocky, and it cannot be denied that the rollout was late to start due to shortfalls in the supply of vaccines and inadequate delivery logistics at the level of member states. Clearly mistakes were made, and lessons must be learnt for the future. In the end, however, the system is now up and running and there can be a reasonable expectation that the gap between achieving the target of vaccinating 70% of the adult population vaccination in the EU and, say, in the UK or the US, will be a matter of weeks.

More complex will be the economic recovery. The Union had a great success last year in agreeing the Multiannual Financial Framework and the Recovery Fund, together totaling €1.8tn and, for the first time ever, allowing the EU to borrow on behalf of its Member States. It will be vital to make best use of this money in helping countries emerge from the lock down and to overcome the many real economic problems which are going to result.

Regarding the digital transition, there are many challenges ahead. We are facing a major industrial revolution with the arrival of the internet of things, 5 and 6G, artificial intelligence and facial recognition. We know that we must embrace the new technologies or run the risk of being left behind in the global race, while we are also aware of the many difficult ethical and social choices which this brave new world presents. There are also new vulnerabilities through cyberwarfare whether from state or non-state actors.

The third objective of the Commission is the role of Europe in the world. This is arguably our most important challenge but also our most difficult.

The tectonic plates of the global order are shifting. The multilateral system of which the EU was an organic part is under unprecedented strain. The United States under Donald Trump proved itself an unreliable and even hostile partner. The arrival of Biden is a welcome return to the US of old, but we know that Trump 2.0 cannot be excluded in the future. We face a rising China, a revanchist Russia, and a dangerously unstable neighborhood from Eastern Europe to the Middle East. Africa is continent full of potential but also instability and risks.

We still lack a sufficiently common understanding of how to tackle these challenges. We are potentially a global actor. We are the largest trading bloc in the world. We are at the centre of the largest free trade network the world has ever seen. We are the largest donor of development and humanitarian aid.  We are a leader in the fight against climate change. Collectively, we have the second largest defence budget in the world. But we know that our differences, over Russia, over China, over the neighbourhood, hold us back from leveraging those assets into real influence. Do we have the will and the capacity to change that? We have created a common diplomatic service and a common Foreign Minister (even if we refuse to call the role by that name). But do we really want to act together, or do we prefer the luxury of our national positions, even if they have little impact in the real world? I honestly do not know the answer to that question. But it is one which will haunt us in the years to come.

I could not speak to this audience in the memory of John Hume without mentioning Brexit!

Brexit was always going to be very bad news for Ireland both North and South.

For the Republic, despite the many tensions in the relationship, the UK has always been a very important EU partner. The similarities of the legal and administrative systems meant that we were often on the same page regarding EU rules. Ireland shared the UK’s generally free market economic approach (except for the CAP!). The Common Travel Area linked the Republic to the UK and made impossible the joining of Schengen.

Economically speaking, while exports to the United Kingdom as a percentage of overall exports have been steadily declining in recent years and currently stand at around 11%, a disproportionate amount of indigenous Irish industry is heavily dependent upon the UK market, while around 60 to 70% of Irish exports transit through the UK. The Trade and Cooperation Agreement between the UK and the EU agreed in the dying days of last year has removed the threat of tariffs for these industries but has done little to address the inevitable non-tariff barriers which will arise due to the UK's departure from the Single Market.

For Northern Ireland, however, Brexit presented a particularly toxic set of problems.

While it is not explicitly spelled out in the Good Friday Agreement (though there are passing references), the entire basis of the agreement is predicated on the assumption of joint membership of the European Union by Ireland and the United Kingdom.

The departure of the UK from the EU ran a clear risk on upsetting that delicate balance.

The Irish government and some UK politicians (such as Tony Blair and John Major) saw this threat coming even during the referendum campaign. Their repeated warnings were dismissed as another part of ‘project fear’. Even more bizarrely, the DUP threw itself fully behind Brexit, seemingly oblivious to the real risks that this could pose not just to the GFA but even the Union itself.

The debate about ‘what to do about N. Ireland’ hinged around the issue that Brexit – other than in its softest variant - meant that there would have to be a new form of border somewhere. There were only three possible choices:  a border on the island of Ireland between North and South, a border between Northern Ireland and Great Britain or a border between the island of Ireland as a whole and the rest of the EU. The third option, which would have implied that the Republic of Ireland was forced to leave the single market on foot of a UK decision, was never going to happen. There was general agreement both within Northern Ireland and between the governments of Ireland and the United Kingdom that reinstating some form of border infrastructure on the island of Ireland was likely to prove highly destabilizing to the fragile peace process established by the Good Friday Agreement. This essentially left only one practicable option which was to install such border checks as were made necessary by the new situation at the ports and airports of Northern Ireland where such infrastructure already existed and where it will generally be less visible and intrusive, unless of course the UK opted for a ‘soft’ Brexit, which it ruled out from an early stage.

This was how we ended with the N. Ireland Protocol.

We must admit that the Protocol is a peculiar animal. N. Ireland continues to be a part of the EU Single Market and Customs Union, while simultaneously remaining part of the UK internal market. Many of us trade specialists were genuinely perplexed by how this was going to work. There is no precedent in international trade law for such a situation. Despite Mr. Johnson’s disingenuous protestations to the contrary, the basic premise of the Protocol requires customs checks on NI/GB trade in both directions. The nature and intensity of these checks is a matter detail and was largely left to the Joint Committee to thrash out. But there is no hiding the fact that, even in a small way, N. Ireland has become a ‘semi-detached’ part of the UK.

It is not surprising that Unionists find this unsettling. On the other hand, we did not get here by accident. All the other options were exhausted. This remained as the only one on which agreement could be reached.

The problems of operating the Protocol are many. I am sure that there is scope for greater flexibility and pragmatism in fine-tuning the procedures. Common sense will be needed in abundance. On the other hand, there will be limits as to how far the EU side can go without provoking a backlash from member states genuinely worried about creating a vulnerable back door to the Single Market via Ireland.  Above all, the UK government needs to take far greater ownership of what it is has committed itself to in international law.

We always feared that Brexit had the capacity to poison the situation in N. Ireland. We have not been disappointed.

Given the difficulties and sensitivities associated with the operation of Protocol, I am among those who consider that raising the issue of possible reunification and, especially, the prospect of an early border poll, is deeply unhelpful at this point. Reunification is a legitimate objective but somehow conflating the constitutional issue with the practical aspects of the Protocol can only serve further to destabilize many in the Unionist community

Regarding Ireland-UK relations more generally, Brexit has set us back many years. I well remember the historic visit of the Queen in 2011. I could never have imagined that, in my lifetime, I would see the Queen of England applauded on the streets of Dublin and Cork. I genuinely thought that we had laid the ghosts of our difficult past finally to rest. Brexit has re-opened some of those old wounds. We will all need to work very hard to heal them over again.

Relations between the UK and the EU look set to remain fraught for many years to come. The TCA has left many issues unresolved. There is likely to be a semi-permanent state of negotiation on a myriad of issues into the future. We have just solved the issue of data flows, but the fix is only temporary. The issue of financial services will be very contentious. The tendency of the UK government still to portray all discussions ‘doughty Britain’ battles ‘hostile Brussels’ will not help. It looks as though Brexit, far from settling Britain’s EU question, has simply transformed the context from one of an often-isolated UK within the EU to that of an even more isolated UK outside.

So where does all this leave us?

The last 70 years of European integration have truly produced something quite remarkable and something quite unique and unprecedented. The EU is a sprightly 70-year-old!

The Union has defied its critics and pulled through some very difficult crises in recent years. The great recession and the Greek Euro crisis. The refugee and migration crisis. Brexit and the rise of populism more generally. The EU has proven itself extremely resilient.

However, there are as always, many challenges ahead.

It is far from certain that the institutions and structures which have served us so well in the last 70 years will continue to be fit for purpose in the new world in which we increasingly find ourselves.

Internally, we have issues with member states such as Hungary and Poland who are drifting away from the principles and values we stand for: democracy, human rights, freedom of expression, the rule of law. We have unfinished business in the reform of eurozone.

Externally, we have a new world threatened by climate change, facing an industrial and technological revolution of unprecedented proportions and a high level of geopolitical instability as the multilateral institutions are increasingly threatened by the return of great power politics.

For Europe to assert itself in this world will necessarily require us to work more closely together. No single European country can ever hope to be a real influence in a world dominated increasingly by large superpowers. In such a situation, closer European integration really is the only option. But we will always encounter the challenge that the benefits of collective action come with the risk that people will feel that decisions are being taken too remotely and without adequate consideration of their local interests. There is no perfect solution to this dilemma, but I hope that the Conference on the Future of Europe which begins its work this week will help us engage in a meaningful dialogue with people across Europe as to how we strike this crucial balance between the need for Europe to be able to act on important occasions as a single force with the equally important need for decisions to be taken as closely as possible to the people most affected.

My personal conviction in favour of a more integrated Europe came, not from the College of Europe, or even from my early days in the Commission, but rather from my time in Japan in the early 80s. The Japanese saw us as a continent with a great past but ill-equipped for the future. Delors and the Single Market reversed that perception. I remain convinced that, for us Europeans, the coming decade will be a race between closer integration and the risk of growing irrelevance in a world which is shaped by others, and not by us.

I'm sorry that John is not here to tell us how he would like to see this dilemma resolved.

Sadly, we no longer have access to his wisdom.

I am sure that he would remind us of where we have come from as the inspiration for where we need to go.

In his acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize, which he shared with David Trimble, he said:

“The peoples of Europe then created institutions which respected their diversity – a Council of Ministers, the European Commission and the European Parliament – but allowed them to work together in their common and substantial economic interest. They spilt their sweat and not their blood and by doing so broke down the barriers of distrust of centuries and the new Europe has evolved and is still evolving, based on agreement and respect for difference.”

John also said:

“We are much closer together in the world today than we ever were in the past. Given that it is a much smaller world, we are in a stronger position to shape that world…. Let us create a world in which there is no longer any war or any conflict.’

Perhaps our greatest question in Europe today is no longer how we avoid fighting with each other but rather how we come together to shape that better world, one based on acceptance of our differences, celebration of our diversity and assertion of our values, at home and abroad.

Not simple but, viewed from whence we came, definitely doable!