Speech by Billy Kelleher MEP to Seanad Éireann 23rd February 2022

A Chathoirligh, a Sheanadóirí, agus a chairde go léir,

Is mór an onóir dom a bheith anseo mar Fheisire Eorpach. Bhíodh mé i mo bhall den teach seo idir 1993 agus 1997, agus chaitheas a lán am ag déiláil le píosaí éagsúla reachtaóichta sa Seanad mar Aire Stáit tar éis sin.

I rith na blianta, chreid mé i gconaí go raibh ard-chaigheadan díospóireachta sa Seanad. Tá ról tábhachtach agus riachtanach ag an tSeanaid go hairithe maidir leis an Aontas Eorpach. Mar sin, is rud iontach an deis dúinn mar Fheisirí Eorpaigh labhairt libh ar na saincheisteanna is mó faoi láthair.

Cathaoirleach, Senators, friends, it is truly great to be back in the Seanad after so long. I was a Senator for a period in the 90s, and spent a good of time in the Seanad, as a Minister of State, answering questions and dealing with government legislation.

I’ve always believed that there is a very high standard of debate in the Seanad, and that the Seanad, in particular, has a very important and necessary role with it comes to debating the European Union.

Membership of the European Union, a union of 450 million citizens from 27 different states, has transformed our country. 50 years ago, when we signed the treaty of accession, Ireland was a dramatically different country – economically poor and socially conservative. Despite various challenges over that time, Ireland has emerged as a global economic success story and an island of social progress.

The European Union has been a success. As I have said before, membership gave us the ability to achieve economic independence to add to the political independence achieved by the 26 counties in 1922.

However, our Union is not perfect. The European Union makes mistakes. It doesn’t get things right all of the time. Moreover, it’s absolutely essential that those mistakes and imperfections are called out publicly by those of us who support the European project.

Former Belgian Prime Minister, and my current colleague in the Parliament, Guy Verhofstadt said last year during the debate on how the Commission was managing the Covid 19 vaccine procurement process said it very well when he said „Pro-Europeans should be the first to be critical when things go wrong.”

What those of us in Ireland who are pro-European need to do is also not allow the debates about the future of the Union take place without our input. Irish Governments of different colours have been, if we are being honest, slower than others in pushing their priorities on a variety of issues. We were, prior to Brexit, lucky to have Britain leading the fight on many issues of concern to Ireland. We no longer have that luxury.

Speaking of Brexit. It is fair to say that a major change has taken place in the Parliament. Brexit, an issue that once dominated political discourse, now no longer commands the same level of interest. Of course, there are technical discussions happening, most recently on the issue of medicines for Northern Ireland, but the deep, meaningful, philosophical debates about Brexit is over.

The Euro-bubble has moved on to other more pressing issues. This is something that Ireland and our MEPs must keep an eye on because there are still issues around the Protocol that requires Ireland to be alert and ready to react.

As an MEP, I have seen first-hand the impact of attentive national governments on issues going through the European Parliament. The French Government, even before assuming the Presidency in January, were invested in finding out, well in advance, what was happening in Parliament, and then, crucially, seeking to influence the outcome.

Political Ireland has not caught up with the post-Lisbon reality of the Parliament being an equal, co-legislator with the Council. While of course we get great support from the Perm Rep on legislative files, there are many other files that, if not dealt with appropriately, may cause issues for Ireland down the road. We know from experience that opinions and own initiative reports from Parliament influence the Commission.

Ireland needs to have a conversation with itself on a couple of issues. One such issue is what exactly membership of the European Union really means to us. Long gone is the ideas that we are solely a trading, economic or customs bloc. We are now a union of values, of ideas and of principles.

A great example of this is the ongoing crisis on our eastern frontiers. The EU’s border with Russia, which now stretches for over 3000 km from Lapland in the far North to the Black Sea in the South, is under threat. and that border is also our border.

All of us in political life need to ask ourselves the following question: what should, would or could we do if Russian troops crossed that border?

What would we do if one of our fellow member states such as Poland, Finland, Latvia, Lithuania or Estonia, were invaded by Russia? These countries are our allies. While we don’t always agree with them on issues, especially Poland, they are part of the EU none the less. 

Before I get accused of war-mongering, let me say clearly I am not talking about sending members of the Defence Forces to fight against Russia.

However, at present, under my understanding of our Constitution, we would be prohibited from even sending basic medical supplies and supports to assist our allies’ citizens in a time of need, unless there was a United Nations Security Council resolution. As Russia would be the aggressor, it’s fair to assume that such a resolution may be a long time coming.

This is an issue that all of us need to grapple with. Every EU member state is our ally. That’s what being a member of the European Union means in the 21st century. We cannot continue to look at our Security and Defence based on the realities of decisions made decades back. The world has changed.

Security will be the buzzword in the EU for the coming decades. Energy security will be the one of the singled biggest challenges we face, aside from the existential crisis that is climate change, between now and the end of this century. Economies that can transition away from imported gas as quickly as possible will be the economies that prosper the most.

Even as we increase our renewable electricity supply, through offshore wind farms, there will be a need for a backup supply in case of lulls in generation. At present, natural gas is that back up. However, time is running out for natural as a transition fuel.

I believe passionately that, as a country, we must embrace the opportunity of biogas, generated from the anaerobic digestion of agricultural by-products, to supplement our energy mix.

We have an abundance of the necessary products, and the land space to transform agriculture and our country.

Senators, when the referendum to abolish the Seanad was in full swing eight years ago, it was often discussed that the Seanad should take the lead in scrutinising all EU legislation, and to give our membership of the Union the parliamentary and legislative scrutiny it deserves. More and more legislation is coming from the EU, and I think it’s very important that MEPs and Senators continue to engage regularly to support each other’s work.

Once again, thank you to Cathaoirleach, Senator Mark Daly for the invitation to address you all today, and I look forward to our Q&A session.

Go raibh maith agaibh go léir.

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