Irish Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar has told MEPs that Europe is at a “decisive” moment in its history, facing the “rise of populism and anti-democratic forces.”
But he told a debate in plenary on Wednesday, ”I believe we have a renewed appetite to tackle this and all future challenges.”
He was taking part in the first debate the European parliament has organised with EU leaders on the future of the European Union, an initiative of the president of Parliament, Antonio Tajani.
Speaking in the plenary chamber Varadkar insisted he was committed to safeguarding the British/Irish Good Friday peace agreement and that there will be no hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland after the UK has left the EU.
On Brexit, Varadkar told deputies, “It is hard to imagine the Good Friday agreement without the EU and that is why we are so determined to protect it and why we also insist on no return to a hard border.”
He added, “Ireland is an example of how small countries benefit so much from EU membership. We respect the decision to leave the EU but the EU recognises the unique position of Ireland. The breakthrough achieved in the Brexit talks just before Christmas means I hope that a hard Brexit will be avoided. We have no wish to see any borders between the north and Ireland so will do all we can to avoid this.”
“As talks move to phase two we have to ensure there is no backsliding on this and the new relationship between the EU and UK is as deep and close as possible and one that also protects our Customs Union.”
He also spoke of his passion for the EU, adding, “I am part of a new generation of leaders born after our home countries joined the EU. But while I have always lived with the benefits of EU membership I have never taken them for granted.”
“I am part of a new generation of leaders born after our home countries joined the EU. But while I have always lived with the benefits of EU membership I have never taken them for granted” Irish Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar
He also welcomed the chance to kick off the first in a series of such debates, saying there was, a “mass of wisdom” in the parliament and that it was a “good venue for such a debate.”
Varadkar said one of the benefits of the EU was that it “allows small countries to have a seat at the table in council as opposed to no say at all and that is why we are better off in the EU.
“I care a lot about the UK, we have a shared history and culture. But I regret Brexit because so much will be lost, including the rights of our young to live and work in Europe – that is a real shame. British business could lose their access to the biggest market in the world. I am also conscious of the war veterans who fought on beaches of France for European values. They are much in my mind right now.”
“I respect the Brexit decision but will fight hard to ensure we have a close relationship between the EU and UK.”
He insisted, “But this is not about anyone taking all the benefits and none of the responsibilities. That cannot happen.”
Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker said the debate was “timely and fitting” and called for an end to the “artificial” barriers between the EU and its member states.
Centre-right EPP group leader in the European Parliament, Manfred Weber said, “The EU stands at a crossroad between hate and hope. We have to bring hope. The question is how we can protect this and other EU values? There are a lot of things to do so my message today is let’s get things done. It is either an ambitious Europe and not a Europe at all.”
Guy Verhoftsadt, the Liberal ALDE group leader and the European Parliament’s chief Brexit negotiator said, “The EU can learn a lot from Ireland – the Irish capacity to transform and reinvent itself. That is exactly what the EU needs, to reinvent, not destroy, itself. It can show the EU leadership as in the past to the reform of the EU, including on defence and migration and a budget that goes in parallel with this.”
“The people of Europe want a different Europe, able to give concrete answers to their problems" European Parliament President, Antonio Tajani.
“On Brexit, Europe will always be behind Ireland. In these talks, we are all Irish.”
Also taking part in the exchange was UKIP’s Nigel Farage who told Varadkar he was a Europhile partly because he had once worked in the EU.
But Varadkar was quick to correct the MEP, telling him, “I have to tell you Mr Farage that I never worked in the EU, only in Ireland and the United States.”
In a half empty chamber, Farage accused Varadkar of “putting your devotion to the EU project above interests” of his own people, including Irish farmers.
Farage told him, “You are part of a big attempt to frustrate and overturn Brexit. You do not want us to leave because you know that when we do then others will do too.”
“I do not want a second referendum but fear you are all working with Nick Clegg and Tony Blair to ensure we get the worst possible deal.”
Northern Irish DUP MEP Diane Dodds told Varadkar he had “rightly stressed there should be no hard border”, adding, “I agree but it is not in Ireland’s interests to see the North suffer. The union that matters most to the North is the union within the UK. 2018 will be a pivotal year for the relationships between the UK and EU and also between Northern Ireland and Ireland.”
Another Northern Irish MEP, James Nicholson, said “The key to Brexit is to get the Northern Irish executive back up and running again at Stormont.”
"You are part of a big attempt to frustrate and overturn Brexit. You do not want us to leave because you know that when we do then others will do too” UKIP MEP Nigel Farage.
On Europe’s future, Tajani said, “The people of Europe want a different Europe, able to give concrete answers to their problems. From the beginning of my term in office, exactly one year ago, I have stressed the importance of bringing Europe closer to its citizens, putting Parliament - the only directly elected institution - at the heart of the debate on their future.
“I would like to thank the Taoiseach and other leaders who have already expressed their willingness to speak in plenary for the valuable contribution that they will make to the debate. Parliament is the beating heart of European democracy and must be the protagonist of open dialogue between MEPs and EU leaders in order for us to continue our journey together, stronger than ever before.”
The heads of government of Croatia, Portugal, Luxembourg and Austria have confirmed their participation in the coming months in similar debates, while French president Emmanuel Macron is set to address MEPs during their mid-April plenary.