The European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) adopted in its February plenary session an opinion supporting the continuation of the European Peace and Reconciliation Programme (PEACE) in Northern Ireland after the UK's withdrawal from the EU. This continued support is considered as "crucial" given the sensitivity of the debate on the UK/Ireland border in the context of the Brexit negotiations.
The PEACE Programme was set up in 1995 as a direct result of the EU's desire to make a positive response to the paramilitary ceasefires of 1994. The programming period for 2014-2020, representing €229 million, provides for continued EU assistance to address the peace and reconciliation needs of the region through cross-community initiatives, particularly in the fields of shared education, children and young people, shared spaces and cross-border cooperation.
The opinion adopted by the EESC and drafted by Jane Morrice states that
the urgency of the situation created by the Brexit process and the eventual UK withdrawal requires an EU response to safeguard the peace process which matches the new needs of the region in the post-Brexit context. It recommends not only maintaining the PEACE programme, as proposed, but also extending its life-span, as conflict resolution will take time and requires longer-term commitment than current funding cycles.
Successes of the PEACE programme are numerous and, according to a European Parliament resolution adopted in 2018, it should be promoted as the EU model to achieve lasting peace in other parts of Europe and worldwide. Its continuation is therefore considered "vital" by the EESC to help ensure the region does not slip back into conflict and tensions are not worsened in the post-Brexit context. Welcoming the tremendous EU support for the NI Peace process, Jane Morrice, rapporteur of the EESC opinion, pointed out that the EU could include a commitment to increase the funding in the next round of the programme and to establish a European Peace and Reconciliation Centre in Northern Ireland, as proposed in previous reports issued by the EESC, the European Parliament and the European Commission.
Regarded as contributing to cross-community understanding in the lead up to the Good Friday Agreement, EU PEACE projects address peace-building, conflict resolution, shared understanding, trauma and legacy issues. The European Commission has proposed to continue the programme in the years to come, even after the UK's withdrawal from the EU. While agreeing to this proposal, the opinion adopted by the EESC includes some proposals to improve the implementation of the initiative from 2020, known as PEACE Plus.
The EESC says consideration should be given to greater focus on communication activities to ensure citizens are fully aware of the positive role of the EU. It suggests using the WhiteDove brand to symbolise PEACE funded projects, establishing a link with an opinion to be presented by Jane Morrice at the EESC plenary in March entitled "The WhiteDoveWay: Proposal for an EU-led global peace-building strategy" (the draft opinion can be consulted here). This opinion proposes the establishment of a European path of peace from Northern Ireland to Nicosia, in Cyprus, called the WhiteDoveWay, which would follow the path of the Irish pilgrim Columbanus linking with other routes such as the Western Front Way and through the Balkans to link the two divided islands on either side of Europe.