At the heart of Europe for another 1400 years
For all its oft-publicised flaws, there is something enormously redemptive about the European Union in session.
Indeed, as I watched the General Affairs Council of Europe in action in Brussels on Wednesday — 28 states at one table, a legion of translators in booths overlooking the room, a Slovakian in the chair and a Romanian Commissioner holding court — I was reminded of the body’s core mission: to replace war war with jaw jaw.
As Finance Minister, I was able during an ‘in camera’ luncheon to address Ministers for Europe from the 27 states which will soon start negotiations with the British Government.
And I found my audience sympathetic to the need to ensure the North of Ireland is treated as a special case when those negotiations start. Not only because we share a land border with the Irish state but also because the 27 states accept that the crowning achievement of the EU has been the Irish peace process.
I told the Ministers for Europe that I was enormously proud of the new citizens who have contributed mightily to the growth of our nation in recent years — the Poles, Lithuanians, Romanians and Estonians to name just four nationalities — and my resolve to ensure that no one is ordered out of their new home as a result of Brexit. Whatever solution lies ahead for Britain, the special case for the North must include access to the single market and freedom of movement of labour.
I recounted how we have been Europeans for a long time — for 1400 years and more since St Columbanus in 591 set out from Bangor to bring Christianity to Europe. And I left my new friends in no doubt but that we intend to remain at the heart of Europe for at least another 1400 years.