Speech to the National Council of the Slovak Republic
President Pavol Paška,
Vice-President Jana Laššáková,
Vice-President Renáta Zmajkovičová,
Vice-President Ján Figel,
Vice-President Erika Jurinová,
Ladies and gentlemen,
I am delighted to be in Slovakia today.
Here in the homeland of Peter Sagan, whose sprints to victory in the Tour de France gave me so much excitement and pleasure.
But, above all, here with you, in the National Council of the Slovak Republic, given that the first body bearing that name was established 164 years ago, in September 1848.
In Europe, we can look back on a long and noble tradition of parliamentary democracy. This House is part of that tradition.
At times such as these, at times of crisis, which call for swift action and are therefore always times when the executive comes to the forefront, it is all the more important to remember our proud parliamentary history. Pressure of events – the immediate responses which crisis management requires – is leaving parliaments, both national parliaments and the European Parliament, ever more marginalised. Parliaments are coming to be seen as an annoying waste of time, or even as factors for instability, and the representatives of the people are being excluded from decision-making processes. In effect, democracy is being undermined, and this is a development which I find deeply worrying.
Ladies and gentlemen,
These are turbulent times in Europe. Europe has lurched from a financial crisis, which had its origins on the US property market, caused State indebtedness to skyrocket and plunged some economies into recession, into a social crisis: poverty and unemployment are rising, and trust in political institutions is diminishing.
As we dash breathlessly from one crisis summit to the next, as thoughts turn frantically from one bailout mechanism to the next, we too rarely take the time to stop and consider why we are doing all this.
The European integration process has given us the longest period of peace and prosperity in the history of our continent.
The European Union has made the artificial division of our continent by the Iron Curtain a thing of the past.
Our community of States and peoples is the basis for ever more harmonious coexistence. The EU is the response to our conflict-filled past AND the best means of shaping our future in a globalised world.
This is because the EU is founded on an acknowledgement of the fact that if we in Europe want – and I am not exaggerating here – to survive, we must learn to live together and act together.
The EU is founded on an acknowledgement of the fact that our interests can no longer be separated from those of our neighbours.
I do not need to explain to you, as citizens of a country which generates 85% of its GDP by means of exports, how many economic benefits a joint currency brings; I do not need to explain to you what disastrous consequences recessions in other countries can have for an economy dependent on exports. I do not need to explain to you how little we can predict about the chain of events which would be triggered by a country leaving the eurozone.
Because you know that Europe is a community with a common destiny. This is even more true of the countries which have joined the single currency: We are a community with a common destiny and a shared responsibility for one another. We are a community based on solidarity.
The people of this country have shown themselves to be good Europeans. For the Slovak people, showing solidarity with people in other countries who are facing dire problems has come at a huge cost.
I know what sacrifices you had to make, what privations you suffered, in order to join the eurozone in 2009, and I should like to say just how much I admire the fact that today, although your country is suffering the effects of the economic crisis, you are prepared to stand by others in need and, in so doing, demonstrate solidarity. For that, you deserve our respect.
Slovakia has been in receipt of European solidarity in the past, and will again in the future. Now you have shown the same solidarity towards others – this is the true spirit of Europe!
Ladies and gentlemen,
You have earned my respect in another way, because I know just how difficult it is to take and defend such decisions. In my own constituency, in Aachen, people come to me and explain how they have lost their jobs as a result of the crisis, how they can no longer afford to pay their mortgage. These people, my voters, then ask me a question: Why are you spending all this money on bailout funds?
My answer is a simple one:
Because we in Europe are a community based on solidarity, we take responsibility for one another and we deal with problems together. Because we in Europe are in the same boat, and we will only survive the current storm if we stick together.
After all, in today's interdependent world we can no longer take refuge behind the supposedly safe walls of the nation state. Indeed, any country which chose to go it alone today would be overwhelmed by the forces unleashed by the global financial markets. The loans and guarantees we have granted are not acts of charity towards neighbours in distress, but essential measures to maintain the stability of the Union as a whole, in the interests of each of its members. In Europe the rule is everybody loses, or everybody wins.
When we put this rule into practice in European politics, we call it the Community method. This means resolving conflict through dialogue and consensus. Ensuring that solidarity and democracy take precedence over the rights of the more powerful. Reconciling the interests of the smaller and larger States, of North and South, of East and West; putting the welfare of everyone above the vested interests of the few. The Community method also means that the stronger help the weaker to become stronger.
In order to be able to do this, the EU needs a proper budget, and in some Member States, opposition to this is growing. Loud calls for cuts in the EU budget may be popular, but they are irresponsible. Because the EU budget is not money for Brussels. The EU budget is money for the people of Europe. The EU budget is the most powerful means of boosting the economy that we have available to us, one we need more than ever, at a time of crisis, to create growth and jobs.
Here in Slovakia, projects funded with EU money aim to create 14 500 new jobs – in the transport sector, in small and medium-sized firms and in local communities. The goal is to give young a people a job and a sense that they have a future once again. Projects of this kind will simply cease to exist if the EU budget is slashed. That is why in the negotiations with the Heads of Government the European Parliament is fighting for a proper budget! For the people of Europe!
In particular in the light of the growing levels of unemployment in Europe, we need investment in growth and jobs. We need it because the situation on the labour market is disastrous for many young people in Europe in general and in this country in particular: the youth unemployment rate in Slovakia is 35%!
Youth unemployment on this scale threatens to destroy the social fabric of a society. It leads to frustration and anger, resignation and alienation. It undermines the legitimacy of our democratic institutions. People are clearly coming to doubt a system in which the lucky few pocket the profits and society as a whole has to stump up for the losses. A system which gives the impression that faceless ratings agencies in New York are more powerful than democratically elected institutions.
The onus is on us, as representatives of the people, to win back this lost trust, by not putting all our eggs in the savings and austerity basket. Let us be clear about this: Yes, we need to reduce debts. In this respect, your country is setting an example.
This is also a question of intergenerational justice – our sole legacy to our children must not be a mountain of debt. But budgetary consolidation must go hand in hand with efforts to stimulate growth, so that our children have jobs to look forward to once again, so that they have, quite simply, a future. Europe needs a change of course, otherwise the coming years in Europe will be ones of despair: our continent will bear a lost generation, our children will pay for the crisis with the loss of their life chances.
Above all, however, we must put a stop to all talk of democracy bowing to the will of the markets. We need markets which bow to the will of democracy!
Granted, under the pressure of events created by the crisis swift action is needed. Whilst this may be acceptable on a one-off basis, the crisis must not be used as a pretext for creating parliament-free zones in Europe. We, national MPs and MEPs, must be resolute in warding off any developments of that kind.
Let us take the example of the European Semester and look at what it means in practice. One of the positive side-effects of the crisis has been our growing realisation that all of us in Europe are in the same boat. If a country fails to put its budgetary house in order, then the adverse effects are felt in other countries as well. We in Europe have learnt this lesson.
For that reason, the European Semester per se is a good thing: its purpose is to monitor compliance with the principle of budgetary discipline, in accordance with the Stability and Growth Pact, the way macroeconomic imbalances are developing and the implementation of the EU 2020 Strategy. It is a worthwhile initiative, which brings us one step closer to the system of European economic governance which our common currency so urgently needs.
But what does the European Semester mean in practice?
First of all, the Finance Minister of a given country sends his or her draft budget not to the national parliament concerned, but to the Commission in Brussels. That draft budget is then analysed by the Commission, but initially only by senior officials, not by the Commissioners themselves, and on the basis of criteria which the Commission officials have laid down in the EU's Annual Growth Report or the broad economic policy guidelines – but which have never been submitted to a parliament for approval.
To be perfectly honest, I have no idea how the Heads of Government could agree to the introduction of a system under which a draft budget is submitted to the Commission before the parliament of the country concerned has even taken a look at it.
In other words, the right which has been the very raison d'être of parliaments down the centuries – the right to adopt a budget – is being curtailed. As representatives of the people, we cannot accept this.
In response, we, as the European representatives of the people, intend to exploit to the full our institutional powers as the body responsible for scrutinising the Commission and as co-legislator.
If we are to fill the democratic void in the area of economic policy coordination, however, what we need above all is close cooperation with the national parliaments.
We therefore intend to strengthen economic dialogue and introduce a 'parliamentary week' during which national and European parliamentarians would together take a close look at the Annual Growth Report and the guidelines for national budgets. In this way, the national parliaments will be able to make their contribution to the European Parliament's work of scrutinising the Commission and exert an influence on policy-making at European level.
I have made closer cooperation between the national parliaments and the European Parliament one of the priorities of my term of office.
Because only together can we safeguard European democracy.
Because only together can we protect the interests of ordinary Europeans.
Because only together can we hold the European and national executives to account for their decisions.
You would do your part here in this House by scrutinising the actions of your national government, and we would do our part in Brussels by continuing to fight for the Community method and an economic government scrutinised by the European Parliament.
The alternative to the Community method is the Union method, which means quite simply that the Heads of Government meeting in the Council take decisions without parliamentary scrutiny: the stronger nations tell the smaller nations what to do.
Ladies and gentlemen,
In the daily struggle to keep parliamentary democracy alive we are partners, not rivals.
Close cooperation with the national parliaments is important to me for another reason as well, because I know that we, as the representatives of the people, whether in the European or the national parliaments, make the interests of our fellow citizens the focus of our work. The people of Slovakia and the other countries of Europe need us now.
They need us to fight for growth and jobs.
They need us to create a future for our children.
I want my children to live in a peaceful and united Europe founded on democracy and solidarity. We all want to fight for that together.
Thank you for your attention.