Belfast, 10 September 2021
“Check against delivery”
Thank you Professor Hayward.
Dear Honorary Consul General,
Dear members of the faculty,
Ladies and gentlemen.
It is an honour and a pleasure to be here today – not least as it is my first visit to Northern Ireland. Having previously been limited to virtual means of communication, it is certainly a nice change.
As author Terry Pratchett said: “The best research you can do is talk to people.” For that, you cannot beat a face-to-face conversation.
Given that Queen’s University Belfast can trace its roots back more than two centuries, I can only imagine how many such exchanges – academic and otherwise – have taken place here over the years, and the results subsequently produced in research across all disciplines.
Today I would like to discuss Northern Ireland in the context of Brexit and its relations with the European Union, while providing some insight into where we stand, and our position going forward. But this is not a lecture, and I am also here to listen carefully and engage with you.
To that end, allow me to acknowledge the important contributions of the other panellists to the debate in Northern Ireland.
As Vice-President of the European Commission, foresight is part of my portfolio – by making full use of our knowledge capabilities, it helps inform our decisions and steer our strategic choices.
Research in turn can enable us to establish truths, and therefore hold to account those who serve the public.
This is true for the larger, cross-cutting trends affecting our societies, notably rapid digitalisation and changing climate.
And it is true for Northern Ireland, where Brexit continues to prove challenging for many. Objective research – coupled with cool political heads – can play an important role over the coming months and years.
The EU has an unshakeable commitment to the people of Northern Ireland 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.
We will therefore continue to support the PEACE+ programme, together with the UK and the Irish government, to the tune of around 1 billion euros.
This money will go to projects across Northern Ireland, aimed at reconciling communities and contributing to peace, such as the Peace bridge project and Skainos in East Belfast.
I look forward to hearing about the latest PEACE+ actions and plans later this morning.
This financial support will be all the more important as we recover from the COVID-19 pandemic.
I am here today in my role as the EU’s co-chair of the EU-UK Partnership Council and Joint Committee – the bodies that oversee our new relations with the United Kingdom.
Let me underline that the European Union’s overall objective is to establish a positive and stable relationship with the United Kingdom, based on the two agreements.
We remain partners with shared values, as we seek to tackle side-by-side the numerous global challenges – not least the climate emergency, as we saw once again this summer, or the threats to our common security, as we see in Afghanistan.
After five years in which clarity and stability have often been lacking, the Agreements give us a solid basis on which to cooperate.
In all my meetings yesterday, I heard a clear call for this clarity, stability and predictability.
If we are to chart a course forward, like any good researcher, we should start by establishing how we arrived where we are today.
So let’s look at this objectively.
- The UK voted to leave the European Union.
- The UK government decided that this meant leaving the Single Market and the Customs Union.
- By triggering Article 50 on 29 March 2017, it chose the moment it wanted to leave the EU.
- It decided not to extend the transition period.
- And it also decided the type of future relationship it wanted, by excluding a more advanced, closer relationship similar to the European Economic Area.
The UK government negotiated, agreed and signed the Protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland. Its Parliament ratified it. The exercise of sovereign right to enter into international agreements goes hand in hand with the responsibility to respect them once they are concluded.
These are the facts.
Whilst fully respecting the democratic decision of UK voters to leave the EU, a vast majority of us in the EU very much regretted it – after so many decades of close cooperation and partnership. I know that a majority of people here in Northern Ireland shared this view.
But we turned the page and embarked on building a new shared future.
After countless hours of intense, line-by-line negotiations, we finally managed to achieve 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. However, we were united on the need to find a solution that worked for the benefit of all people of Northern Ireland.
Together, we indeed found such a solution – the Protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland. 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 – and therefore, we 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, accepting 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.
Let’s not forget that our overarching priority has always been the people of Northern Ireland and the protection of the peace process.
While the negotiations were difficult, their outcome now presents a real opportunity for Northern Ireland.
And all the exchanges here have only strengthened my conviction that enormous benefit can be extracted from its unparalleled access to two of the world’s largest markets with more than 500 million consumers – a powerful magnet for foreign investment, translated into jobs and growth.
One of the business leaders put it well yesterday – this way you have jam on both sides on the bread.
And Northern Ireland can trade freely with the EU and not pay for this unique access to our single market.
The business community here is keen to take advantage of this opportunity.
Northern Ireland’s place in the Common Travel Area, dual market access, some of the best universities in Europe, advanced telecoms infrastructure, a pro-business environment, competitive operating costs and proximity to major markets make Northern Ireland a unique and attractive place to invest.
I am looking forward to the upcoming investment conferences to install confidence in the business community in Northern Ireland and pave the way for further opportunity.
As I discovered first-hand yesterday, we already see a significant number of investment enquiries from the United States, Canada and the EU.
But if we are to turn this opportunity into reality, the Protocol must be properly implemented.
I agree with my interlocutors from yesterday that the EU and the UK, with Northern Irish stakeholders included, must work together to provide predictability and stability on the island of Ireland. This would ensure that the solutions work well on the ground.
Over the past months, my colleagues in the EU and I have been going through our rules with a fine tooth comb to respond to outstanding problems with creative and solid new solutions.
We have spared no effort in doing so and we continue to work tirelessly, 24/7. But the spirit of compromise needs to be a mutual one, as our responsibility is also a shared one.
I will not mince my words. 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.
I am, of course, acutely aware of how some in Northern Ireland feel about the Protocol, in particular in the Unionist community.
That is why my team and I have been actively engaging with political representatives, stakeholders, civil society and people in Northern Ireland from all communities since the beginning.
And that is also one of the reasons I have come to Northern Ireland this week.
We are seeking solutions that work for all, including those opposed to the Protocol. Because no matter what your outlook is, we are all in this for the long-run.
I know it is possible for us to work together, if rhetoric on both sides is dialled down.
The EU has already tabled and adopted several practical solutions to overcome the difficulties felt on the ground regarding the implementation of the Protocol.
Most recently, on 30 June, the Commission put forward a package of measures, including changing our own rules to ensure the long-term supply of medicines from Great Britain to Northern Ireland. This would allow, for instance, for the continued availability of medicines in Northern Ireland – something I know is of particular importance to all of us.
For my part, I will do whatever it takes to ensure that Northern Ireland has access to all the medicine it needs.
But I also need to be honest: while we will continue looking for solutions to minimise the effects of Brexit on your everyday lives, we will never be able to remove them entirely – such are the consequences of Brexit and of the choices of the UK Government.
So what should happen next?
As you know, the UK published their command paper on 21 July. And we have been engaging constructively with our UK partners on what can be done to limit the impact of the Protocol on everyday life in Northern Ireland, while maintaining its access to the EU’s Single Market.
The EU and the UK must continue these discussions in order to reach an understanding.
I believe that our focus should be on those issues that matter the most to the people of Northern Ireland, and not on requests, such as removing the role of the European Court of Justice.
Doing this would effectively mean cutting Northern Ireland off the EU’s Single Market and related opportunities.
Let me end on a personal note.
I will be leaving Northern Ireland encouraged that we can find practical solutions to help ensure that the Protocol works well on the ground, translating into jobs and growth.
But don’t be mistaken: While I have been speaking a lot about economics and trade, the Protocol extends well beyond that. It is also about upholding our shared values, human rights and equality.
Let us throw our weight behind these efforts, too.
I have no doubt that you – the young generation, the future leaders of Northern Ireland – feel passionate about both, your opportunities and our values.
You can count on my support, as I hope to be back soon.
Because this may be my first visit to Northern Ireland but certainly not my last one.
Thank you for your attention. Now I am looking forward to what I am sure will be a lively discussion.