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By Mairead McGuinness MEP, Vice President of the European Parliament. Address to the 2016 AEJ Congress, Kilkenny.

The EU needs to be careful that Brexit does not become the tail that wags the dog and results in the EU 27 losing focus on the major challenges and opportunities facing it, Mairead McGuinness Fine Gael MEP and Vice-President of the European Parliament warned.

Speaking in Kilkenny at the conference of the Association of European Journalists, she said: “There is a real and present danger that the focus of EU leaders will be on the exit negotiations to the detriment of other ongoing and important work.

“While the Brexit negotiations are hugely important throwing up many complex issues which have to be addressed, they cannot distract from issues such as migration, security, growth and job creation,” McGuinness said.

“If we lose momentum in dealing with these issues on an EU-wide basis, the result will be diverging national solutions that ultimately undermine the very ideals of the EU.  We need to turn Brexit into an opportunity for the EU 27 to renew our commitment to the original ideals  which arose from the ashes of two world wars.

“As we in Ireland are mindful of the fragility of peace and the importance of nurturing the Peace Process on our island, it is important that the EU recalls its fundamental and most important core value – securing peace.”

“We also need to accept that dealing with crisis situations will be the rule and not the exception in a complex world where globalisation and technology bring people closer but also divide people further.

“And despite our economic concerns the EU is, by comparison with many parts of the world, a place of prosperity and one which is attractive to many seeking refuge, whether that is from war torn regions or poverty stricken places.

“Our duty is to stand by those who flee such horrors while also protecting our external borders and tackling the root causes of irregular migration and displaced people in Africa.”  She said the EU’s Emergency Trust Fund for stability aims to address these issues and deserves support.

One positive to emerge from the UK referendum is the spotlight it has shone on the interdependence of EU member states and the reality that membership is embedded in every single aspect of our lives, communities and economy. And that for a member state to try and extract itself from that deep relationship is extremely difficult.

“The exit process is legally challenging, as the UK has discovered, politically divisive and hugely disruptive,” she said.

Commenting on the implications of Brexit for Ireland, Ms McGuinness said we have a unique relationship with the UK, one that has improved significantly due to our shared membership of the EU.

“How will that relationship be maintained when regular contact between Ministers at the EU table will cease when the UK leaves the EU and when informal contacts also end because of Brexit,” she asked.

She said the European Parliament will play an important role in the negotiations. “We will have to vote on the withdrawal agreement and that means MEPs will watch very closely each step of the process.”

The UK Supreme Court will hear an appeal of the High Court decision in December. This could delay the start of the Brexit process, she said, pushing the talks into the next European Parliament election cycle of Summer 2019, further complicating the situation.

Ms McGuinness said there is a need for stronger links between the European Parliament and National parliaments.  “This is key to removing the perceived disconnect between the EU institutions and citizens. It is no longer acceptable for national parliamentarians to criticise the EU at every opportunity.

“The EU is too often used as the whipping boy for all national ills,” she said. “It’s time to fight back and refuse to allow the visionary work of the forefathers of the EU to be dismissed in a populist wave which can only leave us all worse off, more divided, less outward looking, defensive and less idealistic.”

Mairead McGuinness MEP addressing Congress in Kilkenny

Mairead McGuinness MEP addressing Congress in Kilkenny