Address by the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Mr. Brian Cowen T.D., to the 4th Asia Europe Young Leaders Symposium
I know that you have come to Ennis today to see at first hand the operation of the Information Age town project. I am sure that Michael Byrne and his team from the Information Age project will have given you a first hand account of this exciting development. I should add that Ennis is a town which manages successfully to combine the cutting edge of Information Age technology with an awareness of the rich history which distinguishes its unique contribution to Ireland's political development over the centuries . This town is associated with many of Ireland's greatest political leaders - Daniel O Connell who secured Catholic Emancipation. Charles Stewart Parnell and Eamon De Valera who served as the TD, or member of Parliament, for Clare for 42 years. There are others - artists, historians, baladeers - associated with the long historical legacy of this exciting vibrant town.
It is a personal pleasure for me, as a Government Minister who has the honour to represent a parliamentary constituency outside of Dublin, to welcome you, delegates to this important international conference, to the mid West of Ireland. The key objective of the annual Young Leaders symposia is to bring together young Asian and European future leaders from both regions to exchange views on issues of concern to both regions.
Europe and Asia historically form two power centres of world civilisation. Trade between Europe and Asia has been taking place in one form or another since at least Roman times. Silk and spices dominated this trade which linked both regions with the aid of monsoon winds as well as a chain of Central Asian intermediaries.
In the late 13th century Marco Polo's "Description of the World" replaced the myths which until then had clouded the European vision of Asia with factual observations on a superior Asian civilisation, China's Middle Kingdom. A new era began in the 15th century when Vasco da Gama stepped ashore on the west coast of India opening a sea route from Europe to Asia. A few more centuries were to pass before the notion of a predestined European expansion into Asia took shape in Europe's capital cities but the early voyages of the seafarers had given birth to the notion of a vast Asian continent ripe for European colonisation.
European trade with Asia led inevitably and sadly to European colonisation and dominance through overwhelming military power. Ireland is uniquely placed to understand and empathise with the Asian historical experience in the face of European expansion into the region. For centuries the relationship between Europe and Asia was one of colonisation, exploitation and inequality.
It is only in recent times that equality has been restored to the relationship. Just three or four decades ago any European discussion of Asia would have centred on the extreme poverty of hundreds of millions living on the equivalent of less than one US dollar a day, on the threat of over population and the images of political instability. The European perspective on Asia would have been constrained by cultural blindness and large reservoirs of ignorance.
Today former colonies have won their independence. Asia has reaped the benefits of sustained and remarkable economic growth. The region has become a pivotal force in an increasingly integrated global economy. The European perspective on Asia has changed utterly. The image now is of thriving prosperous export oriented economies, political self confidence and dramatic improvements in living standards and quality of life.
In the 1950's Lester Pearson, a former distinguished Prime Minister of Canada, with prophetic wisdom, warned that humanity was moving " into an age when different civilisations will have to learn to live side by side in peaceful interchange, learning from each other, studying each other's history and ideals, art and culture, mutually enriching each other's lives. The alternative, in this overcrowded little world, is misunderstanding, tension, clash and catastrophe".
It is not an overstatement to suggest that all our futures, indeed the future of peace and civilisation, is critically dependent on understanding among the political, spiritual and intellectual leaders of the worlds major civilisations.
There are two ways of looking at this. On the one hand Europe and Asia can be driven closer together by little more than economic self interest forged in a global world where interdependence is a sine qua non of economic survival. On the other hand we can strive for something larger, something nobler - a quality of cooperation and understanding which reflects our common humanity and which brings the people of our two regions together in a way which removes those deep seated cultural misunderstandings which divided us in the past.
The course we take is of our own choosing. But of one thing we can be certain an international order based on cooperation, understanding and trust is the surest safeguard against conflict, instability and the tensions which led to those conflicts which marked human history in the 20th century.
For these reasons your presence here this evening in Ennis is an important symbolic reminder in microcosm of the world which we must seek to build in the 21st century. A world in which debate, dialogue, people to people interchange between Europe and Asia is not something left solely to Governments but is part and parcel of essential civilised discourse between citizens of our two regions. In the world of the Knowledge Society the problems and challenges we face are common ones; the solutions we seek will have validity for all, whether we live in Shanghai, Tokyo, Ennis, Dublin or Limerick. We can seek to meet the challenges alone or we can share the task.
Global developments in the 21st century will be depend to a very significant degree on developments in Asia. This applies to basic international problems such as peace and security, the global climate, human rights, economic and social development and the stability of the world economy. It also applies to our common interest in combatting the illegal drugs trade and to other common challenges in an endeavour to achieve sustainable global development. All these issues are of profound importance to each and everyone of us wherever we live.
Without the fullest cooperation and participation of Asia we Europeans cannot alone hope to meet the challenges or exploit the opportunities. Only if we join forces can we make the world, for our children, and our children's children, a safer better place in which to live.
In is in this context that the Irish Government decided to host the 4th Asia Europe Young Leaders Symposium. For Ireland, a small open European economy, hosting this conference represented a clear practical signal of our commitment to forging deeper and closer links with Asia. Until recently Europe regarded Asia from a perspective characterised by a history of colonialism and dependence, a perspective no longer compatible with today's realities, with Asian countries own views of themselves and their role in the world of the 21st century.
Ultimately, Ladies and Gentlemen, it is a question of how we perceive the world and how imaginative we are prepared to be. Europe needs to be able to see the countries of Asia, their histories, their cultures, in a new light. To see Asia in a fresh imaginative way unconstrained by past misconceptions and present misunderstandings. The challenge is to see Asia as it is today with its rich variety of countries and peoples, to appreciate the power of the changes taking place, to understand what has been accomplished, to look with greater understanding and empathy at the problems and, above all, to recognise and value the huge potential of the future. Being with you this evening, young leaders whose ideas and actions will shape the future, I feel a sense of renewed confidence, of enthusiasm and of hope.