Address by the President of the European Parliament Martin Schulz to the Hellenic Parliament

Speeches
Athens -
28-02-2012
Internal Policies and EU Institutions

Ladies and gentlemen,

Dear friends,

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak to you today as President of the European Parliament, and as a German MEP.

It has been painful for me to watch as a country which was once so passionately pro-European turns its back on the European Union in disappointment and anger. I have been profoundly shocked by the images of people giving vent to their despair by burning EU flags on the streets of Athens. The fact that the European flag – which should be a symbol of unity and peace, democracy and solidarity – has for some now become a symbol of economic and political subjugation and national self-interest should leave us in no doubt as to the desperate nature of the situation, here and throughout Europe.

It has been painful for me to watch as the crisis gradually poisons a friendship between Greeks and Germans which has lasted for decades. Admittedly, our relationship has never been an easy one. The life story of your President, Mr Papoulias, illustrates this only too clearly: as a 14 year-old, he joined the Greek army of liberation in his home province of Epirus in order to fight the German occupying forces. Nazi Germany had invaded Greece and wrought havoc in the country. Later, in the 1960s, Mr Papoulias went to Germany to study law, and the resistance fighter became a friend of Germany. Your President thus stands for an entire generation who forgave the Germans for their atrocities and held out their hand in reconciliation to people who had once been their occupiers. I myself have many friends here in Greece. It is my heartfelt wish, therefore, that the wounds left by the harsh words which have been spoken should be given the chance to heal and that, rather than being characterised by arrogance, sweeping generalisations and disparagement, our relationship should once again be based on respect, dialogue and cooperation. My wish is that we in Europe should be partners, not adversaries.

Sometimes I feel it is the tone in which remarks are made, rather than the remarks themselves, which gives offence. After all, harsh criticism and condescending advice notwithstanding, my home country of Germany is living up to its duty of solidarity by guaranteeing the financial support for Greece with half of its annual budget.

Only yesterday, the German Bundestag approved the second aid package for Greece. However, aid must never be provided in a manner which serves to humiliate the recipients.

You perhaps see all this as an exclusively Greco-German problem. Regrettably, it is much more than that. Crisis management which has often merely exacerbated the problems it was supposed to solve and political leaders who have consistently passed the buck back and forth have sown the seeds of discord, resentment and chauvinism in Europe. In his recent speech to the European Parliament the Italian Prime Minister, Mario Monti, warned that stereotypes, prejudice and even feelings of enmity are once again coming to the fore in many parts of Europe. I would urge everyone not to repeat old mistakes and not to revert to old ways of thinking which have only ever spelt disaster for the peoples of Europe.

Dear colleagues,

I have come to Athens today to acknowledge your work as the representatives of the Greek people. We are only too aware of the heavy burden you have borne, of the fateful decisions you have been required to take in recent days and months. As a fellow parliamentarian, I understand how difficult it is for politicians to take decisions whose implications go well beyond electoral timescales, in the knowledge that those decisions may even cost them re-election. Your situation is similar to that of other parliamentarians in other European countries; parliamentarians on whose decision to approve the new aid package their own reputations, and the health of their countries' finances, will rest for decades; parliamentarians in crisis-wracked countries, who, like you, are being forced to take painful and yet unavoidable decisions. Setting aside these considerations, you have shown a sense of responsibility towards the people of this country and acted patriotically.

I also have every understanding for the people now protesting in the streets. People who work hard; pensioners who are being forced to accept one cut after another in their standard of living; young people who feel that they have been robbed of their futures. Greece is trapped in a deep recession, and something must finally be done to give its people fresh hope.

I have no understanding, however, for people who fail to pay their taxes and who move their money out of the country, rather than fulfilling their patriotic duty towards their fellow citizens. I appeal to the wealthy people of Greece to give back a little of what this country has given them. Without a cohesive society, without a political culture based on the primacy of the common good, Greece will be in no position to overcome the crisis and take advantage of Europe's offer of solidarity.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Please allow me to put forward a number of personal views which I hold very strongly:

Greece must remain in the euro – this is in the best interests of Greece, and in the best interests of Europe. We are all in the same boat – only together can we ride out the current storm. After all, Europe is our shared future.

We must do everything we can to prevent the collapse of the euro. When it comes to saving the euro, the issues at stake are not what the coins and banknotes in our pockets look like, not whether we need to change money when we take our holidays in a neighbouring country. No, the issue at stake is whether, as a consequence of the collapse of the euro, we are prepared to stand idly by as Europe suffers a dramatic loss of economic and political influence. We must grasp the fact that only as a united continent can we hold our own in the face of international economic competition; as a divided continent, however, we will condemn ourselves to a steady decline into insignificance.

Saving the euro also means making the European integration process, the most fascinating political project of our time, viable in the long term.

Saving the euro also means safeguarding the European idea. The idea that conflicts should be solved by means of dialogue and consensus, that we should prize solidarity, democracy and human rights above the right to wield political power over others, that we should put the common good before individual interests. In short, the idea that we should be prepared to subordinate national and partisan interests to the well-being of society as a whole.

A policy based solely on austerity spells economic disaster. Budgetary prudence is certainly essential in order to curb state indebtedness. Debt reduction is also a matter of intergenerational justice – we do not want to bequeath a mountain of debt to our children.

At the moment, however, there is too much focus on financial penalties and austerity packages. As a result, there is a risk that economic growth will be stifled in many European countries. How are countries whose economies are at a standstill, which are facing a recession, supposed to pay off their debts? Greece has already paid a high price. It cannot go on paying.

Ever since the crisis began, the European Parliament has been consistent in its advocacy of solidarity and a balanced mix of measures: yes to debt reduction, but yes also to growth initiatives. As representatives of the peoples of Europe, we are convinced that budgetary consolidation must not imperil social justice. It cannot be fair that the weakest members of society should be required to bear the largest share of the burden of economic recovery. As a result of the financial and economic crisis, levels of poverty and unemployment are already very high. Now, governments are being required to make ever greater savings and the situation is getting worse every day. This is unacceptable! Europe is not a community based on austerity – Europe is a community based on solidarity!

Now, just over a week after the vital new aid package was agreed, Greece finally needs growth initiatives in order to get its economy moving, create jobs, strengthen demand and make the work of reducing its mountain of debt a little easier. After all they have been through, the people of Greece, and the business community in Greece, need new hope.

Allow me to sketch out a few practical measures. The resources available in the European Cohesion Fund must be used as quickly as possible to finance projects, for example road‑building projects, which will create jobs. Small and medium-sized firms must be offered easier access to funding. The development of a properly functioning public administration which serves the people must be speeded up. European money is already available for such measures. All we have to do is use it in the right way. As soon as people see that Greece is throwing off its bureaucratic shackles, private investment will pick up once again. This also applies to investment in renewable energies – solar energy in particular, of course, in your sunny country. One example is the ambitious Helios project, which, in keeping with the EU-2020 strategy, would produce sustainable energy and create green jobs. Now would be the time to introduce European project bonds to fund growth initiatives.

A project which I myself strongly believe in is the development of the Union for the Mediterranean. What dramatic changes we have seen since the beginning of the Arab Spring one year ago! North Africa is setting out on a journey into a new future. Southern Europe is its natural partner. Our aim must now be to revitalise the Union for the Mediterranean, to make it a source of hope for young people on both shores of the Mediterranean. Greece has a vital role to play in that process, in particular because it stands at the gateway to other dynamic regions on the Union's eastern and south-eastern borders. Greece must exploit its strategic position and, for example, take advantage of the opportunities offered by its ports to play a key role in trade.

What we are talking about here are wise investments in our shared future. It is worth putting our hands in our pockets to fund them.

Ladies and gentlemen,

There is a lot of talk at the moment about a 'euro crisis'. But that talk is misplaced: our common currency is stable and is maintaining its value against other currencies. We should also bear in mind that together the 27 EU Member States have a lower overall level of debt than the United States of America. And yet, unlike us, that country is not the subject of constant attacks by speculators. There is no doubt that unregulated financial markets are part of the problem. In recent months the euro has repeatedly come under pressure from speculators willing to bet on the collapse of the eurozone by attacking what they regard as its weakest link. In order to prevent such speculation in the future, we need strong regulation and comprehensive monitoring of the financial markets. The European Parliament has played a pioneering role in the area of the regulation of short selling and OTC derivatives. We need a financial transaction tax at long last. It is a simple matter of justice that the people who caused the crisis should contribute to the cost of resolving it.

No, Europe is not facing a currency crisis, it is facing a crisis of management and confidence. If we are to overcome this crisis, we must grasp the fact that Europe cannot be governed on the basis of deals struck between Heads of State. Instead, Europe needs closer coordination of its economic, budgetary and social policies under the Community method. At national level as well, Europe needs credible crisis managers whose approach is not governed by the need to secure a good result at the next elections or to defend the established rights of individual interest groups, but instead by the need to give priority to helping their country, and with it every member of society, back on to its feet.

A genuine fiscal and economic union must have a stronger parliamentary dimension. We have now secured an arrangement whereby the Troika must at least give an account of its work to the European Parliament. We want decisions which affect every aspect of the daily lives of EU citizens to be taken in a more transparent way. A Europe which takes decisions behind closed doors will destroy public trust in democracy. Only if people can understand who has taken which decisions, and where and when, and only if those decisions are then explained by the people who took them, can the lost trust in politics and politicians be won back. The European Parliament must be the forum in which the future direction of the European Union is discussed.

The time has now come to look forward once again. Following the decisions taken in recent days, all the cards are on the table. You have made pledges and now, quite rightly, the onus is on you to honour them. I appeal to you to continue the reform programme. I appeal to every one of you to put aside all thoughts of the forthcoming elections and give a personal undertaking that the new government, like its predecessor, will continue along the path of reform.

Pledges have been made to you, and now, quite rightly, you expect those pledges to be honoured. Any departure from the agreed course would merely unsettle people further and make the citizens of Greece doubt the value of the sacrifices they have made thus far, and make people in the other Member States doubt the value of the solidarity they have shown. The Greek people need a sense of optimism, a genuine feeling that better times are ahead, to give them the strength to survive this difficult period in their history. Words are no longer enough. We must now take bold steps to shape our shared future.

Dear friends,

Your great and proud nation survived Nazi occupation and the atrocities that came with it. Your great and proud nation survived a terrible civil war. In 1974, your great and proud nation threw off a military dictatorship and set in train the process of the democratisation of southern Europe. Your country has made a major contribution to European democracy, not only in ancient times but in the 20th century as well. For that reason, Europe owes you a debt of gratitude. And for that reason, Europeans must continue to believe in the European future of your country.

For further information:

europarl.president.press@europarl.europa.eu

  • Armin Machmer
    Spokesperson
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