European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen has hailed improving relations with the UK, as she described the recent deal on post-Brexit trade as a “new beginning for old friends”.
The EU chief said she and Prime Minister Rishi Sunak had agreed to focus on the road ahead rather that dwell on the fall-out from Brexit,
Ms von der Leyen also highlighted Northern Ireland’s “unique” opportunity to attract investment under the Windsor Framework trading arrangements agreed by London and Brussels, with the region having unfettered access to sell into both the UK and EU markets.
“The Windsor Framework is a new beginning for old friends, it turns the page on years of division and dispute,” she said.
“It is an opportunity to set our sights on the future of our partnership and to focus on what brings us together.”
“The same wisdom and vision that the leaders of Northern Ireland have already shown over the past 25 years.”
Ms von der Leyen recalled that when she was in her 20s and heard about Northern Ireland in the news, it was a “story of conflict with bombs and violence in the streets”.
She said her children, now in their 20s, have “learned a completely different story – a story of reconciliation and hope, a story of economic and social progress”.
“For young Europeans, Northern Ireland is today a cool place. It’s a place of music, film sets and stunning landscapes,” she said.
“This brighter reality is only possible because of Good Friday 25 years ago. The leaders and the people of Northern Ireland decided to plant a seed in soil previously stained with blood and tears.
“And it is the seed of peace and possibility for new generations which has been growing defiantly ever since.”
Ms von der Leyen spoke about former DUP leader Ian Paisley and his journey from opposing the Good Friday Agreement to sharing power with Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness, a former IRA commander, less than 10 years later.
“The journey of Ian Paisley mirrors the journey of thousands of people on this island,” she said.
“History now calls on today’s leaders to embark on a similar path and to shape together the future of Northern Ireland.
“Ladies and gentlemen, the future of Northern Ireland belongs to its people. Only you can make the seed of the Good Friday/Belfast agreement continue to grow and to flourish. Only you can take the next step on the path of prosperity and possibility.”
Ms von der Leyen added: “I can reassure you that we, the European Union, will continue to do to our part and to accompany you on the path of peace and prosperity.
“Today, my grandchildren are toddlers, what Northern Ireland and the whole island of Ireland will look like when they are in their 20s depends on all of us.
“But the ultimate choice lies with you, the people of Northern Ireland to shape your history and that of the next generation.
“The gateway to a bright future is open, all you need to do is walk through it.”
President of the European Council Charles Michel also addressed the conference.
Mr Michel spoke of “our duty to keep the spirit of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement alive”.
He paid tribute to those behind the agreement as well as the people of Northern Ireland, saying that “without the will of the people the Good Friday Agreement would be just another paper”.
Mr Michel said the UK and the EU “need each other more than ever” to tackle the climate crisis and Russia’s war in Ukraine.
“The Belfast Agreement also represents the product and the high point of another era, an era when the values of liberal democracies were pre-eminent in the world,” he said.
He added: “In these troubling times, two great allies, like the United Kingdom and the European Union, we need each other more than ever, we stand today together. We stand together to tackle common challenges like climate change, we stand together to uphold human dignity and human rights.
“In this increasingly dangerous world, Northern Ireland and the Belfast/Good Friday agreement are a powerful symbol of what our shared values can achieve.
“Let’s continue to build on this unstoppable belief in the potential of peace. For more freedom, more prosperity, more democracy for the people of Northern Ireland, and for all people across the world.”