Speech by the President of Parliament Antonio Tajani delivered at the formal European Parliament ceremony in honour of Simone Veil
(Check against delivery)
President of the European Commission,
Dear fellow Members,
On behalf of the European Parliament and the peoples of Europe represented here, I pay homage today to Simone Veil, the first President of this directly elected Parliament: a Frenchwoman, a European, a minister, a member of the Académie Française, an inmate of Auschwitz, a leading figure of our time, a politician, a woman.
In the course of her extraordinary life, she was all of those things and many more.
The history of her life is the history of our continent, the history of a continent torn apart, lost, which experienced the worst atrocities of which humanity is capable, but which, like her, found the strength to rise up again, to rebuild itself and to be reborn.
Seventy years ago, everything was lost, for Simone and for Europe.
78651: that was the number which infamy etched into her skin when she was no more than 16 years old. That number, which she wanted to have engraved on her sword at the Académie Française as a warning to future generations, left its mark on more than just her arm.
It must forever remain etched into our collective consciousness and provide a constant reminder of the reasons why one day we decided, surrounded by the ashes of war, to make our destiny a shared one. We must never forget this. And we must recount this story time and again to the younger generations, whose collective memory of this human catastrophe may be fading, to the point that they take peace for granted.
Simone Veil was always aware of the fragile nature of our post-1945 peace. In her eyes, it was something exceptional. It was with the energy of a survivor who knows the price of peace that she fought innumerable battles, in France and at the European Parliament. Those battles secured new rights for everyone.
Simone Veil, like Helmut Kohl, belonged to the generation of great minds who came after that of the founding fathers of Europe. They took up the baton of European integration at a very difficult time and continued the work their predecessors had started. Simone Veil’s contribution was fundamental.
Her commitment to Europe led her to become the first President of the European Parliament elected by universal suffrage - further testimony to her unbreakable will.
I would like to express here our admiration and profound gratitude for the vital role she played as President of this Assembly.
In her inaugural speech, which she gave on 17 July 1979, she showed that she grasped the true nature of the responsibility on her shoulders.
This is what she said: ‘For this is the first time in history, a history in which we have so frequently been divided, pitted one against the other, bent on mutual destruction, that the people of Europe have together elected their delegates to a common assembly . Let there be no doubt, these elections form a milestone on the path of Europe, the most important since the signing of the Treaties’.
In a 23-minute speech, she set out, with exceptional clear-sightedness, a vision for the development of our Parliament over the next 40 years.
I urge you to read the speech, if you have not already done so, because it seems to me to be remarkably topical. You will find in it enthusiasm, hopes, expectations, the ambitions of a whole generation of men and women who sat on these benches before us and who we should all take as our inspiration.
In the wake of the first European elections, no-one knew what this newly elected assembly was to become; no-one, except Simone Veil. Today, no-one knows what this Parliament would have become without her.
If we are what we are, if this Parliament has been able to acquire new powers and become what it is today, it is above all because of her.
Aware of the historic task with which she had been entrusted, she accompanied the young Parliament as it took its first steps, pointed it in the right direction, and laid the foundations for its future development. Our debt towards this great woman remains as great as it ever was, therefore.
She saw Parliament, drawing on its legitimacy as an elected body, as having to play its democratic oversight role to the full - a role which, as she put it, ‘is the prime function of any elected Assembly’. It also had to exercise its new budgetary power, which she regarded as a core prerogative of a parliament, wisely and conscientiously.
She was convinced, in addition, that the new Parliament was duty-bound, at all times, to drive the European integration process forward.
She firmly believed that Parliament had to make full use of the limited powers invested in it at the time, but she also thought that that was not enough, that more had to be done. As she said in her speech, ‘Parliament must also be an organ of control of general policy within the Community. Let us not be deluded into believing that the strictly institutional limitations on its powers can prevent a Parliament such as ours from speaking out at all times, and in every field of Community action, with the political authority conferred on it by its election.’
What she sought, in other words, was a political Parliament.
Destiny dealt her a curious hand. Having faced death at 16, she will now forever be remembered by history, after a long and passionately lived life of tireless efforts to champion her ideas and values - ideas and values that we have taken as our own.
The hilt of her ceremonial sword as a member of the Académie Française is made up of two clasped hands - a symbol of reconciliation between peoples. Her exemplary life gave expression to that idea of reconciliation - reconciliation that demanded extraordinary courage and unconditional love.
Her life was proof that it is possible to resist the temptation to hate. Her life was, and will remain, a magnificent example to us all, and to generations to come, because she had the courage to continue to believe, against all odds, in the goodness of humanity.
Speaking for all of us, I pay tribute today to a great woman.
I should like to express my utmost admiration for her courage, her intelligence and her profound humanity.
I voice our gratitude for the love and passion she exhibited in all her endeavours.
I say today, loud and clear, that we are proud that she was the first President of this Parliament.
At her investiture as President in 1979, she stated:
‘Our Parliament will entirely fulfil the hopes which it has raised if, far from being the sounding-board for the internal divisions of Europe, it succeeds in articulating and bringing home to the Community the spirit of solidarity that is so necessary today.’
Thank you, Madam President, for those words, which are as relevant today as they were then, and thank you for everything you did for us and for those who will come after us.