Press release
 

Is Europe still at a crossroads?

Future of Europe/European integration - 31-05-2006 - 20:30
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Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt

MEPs debate future of Europe with Prime Minister Verhofstadt

The European Parliament continues to contribute to the debate on the future of the European Union. After a meeting on 8 and 9 May with members of national Parliaments, (a dialogue that will be revisited in December), MEPs began a series of discussions on 31 May with Heads of EU governments. The first meeting was with Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt, who recently laid out his ideas for the future of Europe in a book entitled "the United States of Europe".

 
Guy VERHOFSTADT argued that there was no choice to be made between widening and deepening the EU: "The Union must continue to grow.  This is the only guarantee for lasting peace and stability in Europe... At the same time, the Union must be deepened further, and European integration must continue unabated." 
 
Nor, he said, was there a choice between Europe as a free trade area and Europe as a political entity: "If Europe wants to continue to play a leading economic, political or military role in this new world order, then political union is the only alternative.  In short, the question is not whether the Union will evolve into a more federal, political entity, but rather when this will happen, or better yet, whether this will happen in time." He was doubtful about whether this "leap" would happen "in time". The "period of reflection" following the rejections of the constitution in referendums in France and the Netherlands had been a period of "deafening silence," he said.
 
Meanwhile, "Europe's economic growth is limping along, our political influence in the world is waning and our military strength is below par." 
 
Why had France and the Netherlands voted "no", he asked.  It was partly the result of many political leaders having long painted a negative picture of Europe, blaming the EU for all failures and taking credit for successes themselves.  But a more decisive reason was Europe's perceived failure to tackle issues of economic reform, unemployment and internal security.  "The European Union as it functions today, lacks the necessary power to provide clear and decisive answers... Until Europe embarks on the road towards a real federation where the unanimity rule is scrapped, or at least limited to the strict minimum, it will continue to be powerless to react rapidly and decisively to new challenges."
 
He said the lack of progress on the Lisbon strategy illustrated the failure of the intergovernmental approach. A "much more compelling, more Community-oriented approach" was needed: "a joint socioeconomic policy in which the Union sketches out the main lines of much-needed reforms that will allow us to cope with rising competition in new growth areas, while protecting the social model of which we in Europe are rightly proud." This was not, he said, a matter of unquestioning harmonisation, crudely ignoring the differences in traditions and customs of the Member States.  Rather it was a matter of convergence, with maximum and minimum levels of modernisation and social protection. 
 
While this was "highly desirable" for the EU as a whole, it was "vitally important" for the eurozone: "A common currency and a monetary Union are ultimately doomed to disappear if they are not supported by a common approach to social and economic challenges."  He called for the euro zone to be bolstered with joint preparations for the spring summit, frequent recommendations from the EU institutions, common macroeconomic starting points for national budgets, convergence criteria on social, fiscal and economic matters, regular meetings of labour, social affairs and science ministers and autonomous representation in international bodies.
 
On external affairs, he said that only a European defence approach could help the EU move towards a real common foreign policy.  The painful experience of European disunity over the Iraq war had shown him that "only when we develop common instruments, such as a European army and European diplomacy, will be forced to show our colours in international crises."  This was not a threat to NATO, he said, envisaging the Atlantic alliance becoming a sort of international security network of allies and partners, with a strong autonomous European pillar: "We cannot always ask America to come to our rescue when we are faced with a civil war on our own continent, as was the case in Bosnia and Kosovo."
 
What then were the institutional options ahead?  Mr Verhofstadt rejected the idea of picking and choosing among the Constitution's provisions or of rolling back the EU to a mere free trade area.  It was necessary to take the 15 "yes" votes into account as well as the two "no" votes on the Constitution, he said, calling for ratification to continue, which the Member States had in fact agreed in the 30th declaration annexed to the Treaty, which envisaged a debate in the European Council if four fifths of the EU, twenty countries had ratified, but one or more had been unable to do so.   At the same time he said there should be progress within the existing treaties to strengthen socioeconomic governance, at least for the eurozone. Such action would be open to all Member States once they adopted the euro, he said.
 
"I am suggesting we quickly develop a new strategy along two lines. The first involves moving forward with ratification and fully fleshing out and applying declaration 30; the second involves making a new and significant leap forward in European unification, without requiring any amendments to the treaties. This two-track strategy is the only way to benefit from the current period of uncertainty, which would drag on for years, and the only way not to waste time. After all, time is the last thing we can allow ourselves to waste."
 
 
Political group leaders
 
Hans-Gert POETTERING (EPP-ED, DE) said the Treaty of Nice could not be the basis for leading an EU of 500 million people towards a good future.  This had been recognised by the EPP congress in 2001, which had called for a new, constitutional treaty. "Perhaps that was too ambitious a term for many people, we need to consider that reasonably," he said.  What was now needed was for governments to start presenting Europe to their citizens in a realistic way, covering the good as well as the bad: the enlargement of 2004 and the successful introduction of the euro were two examples of the former.
 
He spoke of a poll in the Netherlands showing that most people wanted "more Europe" to tackle issues such as internal security, immigration and asylum.  To get this, he said, "we need to find a way for the principles of the constitution to become a political and then a legal reality."
 
He welcomed Mr Verhofstadt's call for ratification of the Treaty to continue and called on Poland to follow the example of Estonia in this regard.  He said he had a deep belief in subsidiarity, with the local level doing what it does best, but also the EU dealing with matters for which nation states had grown too small.
 
Speaking for the Socialist Group, Martin SCHULZ (PES, DE) said Mr Verhofstadt had made a courageous speech, especially in criticising the European Council.  The crisis of Europe was a crisis for all the Heads of State or Government, he said, except for Juncker and Verhofstadt: they were the only ones continuing to act as they had promised to do.  Mr Schulz supported the idea of continuing the ratification process: "Why should we not reach the figure of 20 out of 25 countries? This was agreed by the Heads of State and Government.  We should not give up on the constitution; it is madness to say we should concentrate on other things instead."  Why had people voted "no" when they wanted more Europe? The answer, he said, lay in the morose domestic political atmosphere in some countries.  He praised Jean-Claude JUNCKER for putting his political future on the line in the referendum in Luxembourg, helping to secure the "yes" vote in that country. 
 
"We have seen leaders with the courage of their convictions to commit military forces despite great opposition.  If only they showed the same determination in defending Europe," he said.
 
For the ALDE group, Graham WATSON (ALDE, UK) called Mr Verhofstadt's speech a tour-de-force.  He said there was little evidence of real change in the EU, with 82 per cent of citizens surveyed saying they felt the EU was not communicating well with them.  But the same survey shows they trust the EU institutions often more than their own governments.  "That is a mandate for the EU to deliver reforms to meet the challenges of energy security, climate change, migration and organised crime."  Until Member State governments explained to their people what they do together in Brussels and until the EU has the funding and legal powers to make the difference, the result would be stalemate, based on the unanimity rule, he said. 
 
The ratification of the Constitution in Estonia showed the Treaty was far from dead, he said.  "We have the people of Europe behind us as they recognise that population growth, migration, climate change and crime cannot be dealt with on the basis of nation states founded on the 18th century model of tribal power."
 
Monica FRASSONI (Greens/EFA, IT) thanked the Belgian Prime Minister for his noble effort to shed some light on the crisis of the future of Europe. She agreed with many of his views, for example on the institutions and the Lisbon strategy, but the Greens believe that Europe has to show it works to be loved. Europe cannot be democratic and peaceful if it is supposed to look for guidance to the United States, China or India. Nor can it have a growth that is based on a waste of resources. The Greens say there is a need for a Constitution but not with more markets, more liberalisation and more weapons.
 
Francis WURTZ (GUE/NGL, FR) did not agree with many of the points raised. He said the main problem is that there is such a large gap between the Europeans and Europe. He stated that the main aim of Europeans is a comparable standard of living. He said that the social and political ideas needed to be changed in order for the European Dream to continue.
 
Nigel FARAGE (IND/DEM, UK) expressed his disbelief that the Belgian Prime Minster believed he had the right to tell other Heads of State what to do while he does not benefit from an approval rating in his own country. He added that the Prime Minister's speech incorporated the basis of national interest and democracy, by disregarding the failures of the constitution. He concluded, "What part of no don't you get?"
 
Brian CROWLEY (UEN, IE) believed that some points raised deserved some more analysis. He said that people, his constituents, want more Europe but that there is a limit to what extent Europe should be involved. Red line issues are better dealt with in their own countries. He added that Europe was self-created and is a successful model. Finally he said that the main problem with the constitution is that it is not a constitution, and should therefore not have been called a constitution.
 
Frank VANHECKE (NA, BE) said that the Belgian Prime Minister was a good illustration of everything that is wrong in Europe. He said that politicians are not willing to listen to their people and that the constitution had not been ratified in Belgium either. He raised the issue of Turkey and said that there is a lack of confidence in Europe as the political leaders are not willing to set frontiers for Europe. He questioned why the citizens will not be allowed a referendum on Turkey joining the European Union?
 
 
PM Verhofstadt responds to group leaders
 
In his response to the group leaders, Mr VERHOFSTADT pointed to a difference between what people said outside and in Parliament. He said he believed "Europe must stick to its destiny and follow the course of history. We may feel it is too quick or slow, but history has shown what happens when we are divided, just looking at our own interests: Europe in crisis, with a permanent civil war." He said it was pure selfishness to refuse the Balkans the stability, peace and prosperity the EU enjoyed.  The issue of Turkey was just a pretext, he said, to say no to the Balkans as a whole. He insisted that he said consistently the same things in the European Council as in Parliament.  The declaration (regarding ratification) should be respected.  It was not a matter of ignoring the people of France and the Netherlands, which is why he had proposed a second track towards concrete political matters, above all socio-economic governance, without which monetary union was "absurd" in the long run. "Europe can offer good response to globalisation that is message we haven't got across to our peoples yet."
 
 
British and Irish speakers
 
Andrew DUFF (ALDE, UK) said that the European Council should address the crisis now and not wait until four-fifths of the EU Member States had ratified the Constitution.  The next European Council should set the end of 2007 as the date for a new Inter-Governmental Conference whose aim should be to improve the Treaty.  Parts 1 and 2 of the Constitution, he said, should be ring-fenced.  As for part 3, there should be a strengthening of economic governance, a reform of the European social model, further measures to combat climate change, development of a common energy policy, a threshold set for accession, and finally a revision of the financial system to provide a fairer EU budget.
 
James  ALLISTER (NI, UK) said that Prime Minister Verhofstadt's speech had only served to boost his euro-scepticism.  Dropping the title "Constitution", he said, was a stunt.  After the "no" votes in France and the Netherlands, the EU had served a "gagging order" on the sceptical countries.  "It's easy to win the game if you lock up the opposition".  Ever closer union was unachievable.
 
Timothy KIRKHOPE (EPP-ED, UK) said he could not accept the Prime Minister's generous offer of solidarity on the European Constitution.  Europe needs debate.  Mr Kirkhope expressed his surprise that the EU Foreign Ministers had not declared the Constitution "dead".  "The EU needed to embark on a reforming agenda and put growth and the forefront of its priorities".
 
Richard CORBETT (PES, UK) said there were two types of pessimism the EU at the moment: First, there was the pessimism of the euro-enthusiasts who feared that the EU was in perpetual crisis and was reduced simply to a free-trade area.  Second, there was the fears and pessimism of the anti-Europeans who feared that the EU had become a federal super-state.  Neither perception was accurate, he said.  The EU had a solid set of achievements with some shortcomings.  The Constitution aimed to address these shortcomings and provided some useful but not radical solutions.  The right path now was to try to save the Constitution with France on board.
 
 
PM Verhofstadt final response to the debate
 
In his closing remarks a the end of the debate, Mr Verhofstadt noted that the four fifths criterion which ended up in 'declaration 30' had been envisaged by some as the number of countries needed to proceed without those who had not ratified, but in the end the unanimity rule had prevailed.  Still, there had been a desire to find a way out of a situation such as all Member States but the UK had ratified.  In fact it was France and the Netherlands which had voted "no".   He still wanted to organise a debate on the basis of the four fifths rule, so ratification should continue. However, this debate could take years - and in the meantime "it would be a serious error not to do something right away... we should go forward with greater socioeconomic governance within the eurozone... otherwise years will slip by and we will see public support eroded further."
 
REF.: 20060530IPR08572