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Verbatim report of proceedings
Wednesday, 6 September 2000 - Strasbourg OJ edition

9. Comments by Mr Verheugen concerning enlargement

  President. – The next item is the communication on Mr Verheugen’s statement on enlargement.

I welcome President Prodi to the Chamber and I thank him for being present.

I must warn you that President Prodi will have to leave us at 4.35 p.m. to travel to New York for the Millennium meeting. We are nevertheless grateful to him for having made the effort to take part in this debate and, without further ado, I shall give him the floor.


  Prodi, Commission. – (IT) Madam President, ladies and gentlemen, I wanted to make a personal statement before this house, together with Commissioner Verheugen, in order to clarify the political significance of the interview with him in the Süddeutsche Zeitung of 2 September and the political significance of a number of ensuing press statements. Mr Verheugen will shortly explain to you exactly what he said and why he said it.

For my part, I want to reaffirm solemnly before you, Members of Parliament, the full commitment of my Commission to the great task of enlargement. I have repeatedly stressed that enlargement is the Commission’s single most important task and that the Commission is committed to starting the process off along the right track.

There is a pressing need for this new page in the history of the Union to be completed, in accordance with the objectives set by the European Council and the Commission itself and frequently presented before this House. As you are well aware, this is a highly complex issue from a political point of view, and with your strong, unwavering support, the Commission is conducting the negotiation process transparently and objectively, with rigorous adherence to the conditions laid down in its mandate.

The democracies of the countries which are going to join the Union are making a huge effort, which we are in constant danger of underestimating. However, this effort must be matched on our side by considerable political generosity, expressed in many different ways. The Union’s first act of generosity, and I must stress that once again, must be to be ready to open its doors to new Members by January 2003. In order to put our house in order, therefore, the Union’s main concern must be to agree in Nice, at the end of the year, upon a high-quality institutional reform which will prevent our system from being watered down.

There is another side to the political generosity which it is our duty to display: we must all make every effort to win as many citizens as possible over to supporting the enlargement process. For my part, I fear that the public is not yet sufficiently convinced.

In seeking democratic support for this historic enterprise, we are certainly not attempting to delay the process but to reinforce it. It is clearly up to each individual Member State or candidate country to decide which ways and means to use to ensure support from its citizens. In particular, the national procedures for ratifying enlargement are purely national issues. It is certainly not the intention of the Commission or Commissioner Verheugen to interfere in this matter.

Nevertheless – and this is a different matter – we must all play our part in making clear to our citizens what is at stake. I have always found Parliament, before which I sit today, to be fully committed to doing just this: explaining to our fellow citizens, over and over again, that enlargement is not a threat but a historic opportunity in all respects, and, above all, a historic step towards establishing peace in our continent.

The loyal commitment of all the Commissioners to the Commission’s policies is a hallmark of my presidency, and, as this House is aware, I do not lack the means to enforce that if necessary.

In this particular case, I am entirely confident that Günter Verheugen fully supports the Commission’s policy, which this House has approved on many occasions. I therefore have every confidence in his ability to bring the enlargement negotiations to a swift, successful conclusion.



  Verheugen, Commission.(DE) Madam President, ladies and gentlemen, I am very grateful that we are having this debate, because it gives me the opportunity to offer a word of explanation – and therefore have the final word, as I see it – on the interview that unleashed this furore.

I made the point, in this interview – in a personal capacity and in a purely German context – that referenda can help to involve the public more closely in major European projects that change the constitutional nature of the State. I cited the Treaty of Maastricht as an example of this, and not enlargement. Finally, I also said that the German constitution makes no provision for this. No one regrets more than I do the fact that this statement was taken to mean that I was calling for a referendum on enlargement. I hereby declare that I did not raise such a demand, either for Germany or for any other country for that matter.


If you read the text with complete impartiality and do not rely on second-hand reports, you will come to no other conclusion.

But what was the real message? The message was this: ‘we want enlargement and we want it to be implemented as quickly as possible and as comprehensively as is necessary.’ A huge number of Members of this House know that for a year now, I have been trying, with a passion, to get a direct message across to the citizens of the candidate countries and the Member States, to the effect that we really do want these new Members.

What I am trying to do, is to breathe life into a process that could easily slip into pure practicalities. We want to secure peace and stability throughout Europe. We want to give young democracies the chance to participate, on equal terms, in Europe’s political and economic development. We want to boost Europe’s role in international competition. We have no alternative. Since the Prodi Commission took office, the outcome of the enlargement negotiations has been positive. The progress reports that the Commission is due to submit in the autumn will reveal that the candidate countries have made an enormous amount of progress and are approaching the stage when they will be ready for accession.

The Commission is intending to propose new elements for the negotiating strategy in the autumn, which should make it possible to proceed even more rapidly with negotiations and to tackle the key issues that arise at the negotiating table.

I might point out that it will only be possible to make this kind of headway in close cooperation with the Member States and the European Parliament. I would expressly like to thank the European Parliament for its outstanding cooperation and for the unconditional support it has given me, so far at any rate. I also warmly commend the European Parliament and its Members for their positive role in the efforts being made to raise awareness of this historic project amongst the people of Europe. I have always advocated that we should obtain the broadest possible support amongst the public, and highlight, in a wide-ranging public debate, the major benefits that the accession of new Member States would bring.

We must convince people that enlargement will be politically and economically advantageous to both sides from the very outset. We need to have a wide-ranging , democratic debate on this historic project. These were the basic ideas I wanted to bring out in the interview.


The Commission has absolutely no intention – and it was most certainly the very last thing I intended – of introducing any new political conditions into the negotiating process or the decision-making process. The strategy has been laid down by the European Council. The Commission pursues this strategy with vigour.

And as President Prodi has already said, it makes perfect sense for the accession treaties to be ratified in the individual Member States in accordance with their respective legal systems. Three conclusions can be drawn from this, to my mind. Firstly, we must wage a broadly-based communication campaign in the Member States and the candidate countries. The Commission has already made the necessary preparations to this end. Secondly, we ought not to dismiss any fears or concerns people may have, rather we should talk openly to them and help them….


... to seize the new opportunities and rise to the new challenges. I am thinking, in particular, of the border regions. The Commission is working on a programme here too.

And thirdly, when it comes to issues beset with fears and emotions – and they are there in the enlargement process; take, for example, the issue of immigration – we must proceed with the greatest caution and keep a sense of perspective as far as we possibly can. But there are ways and means of solving these problems. And these must, and will be, decided on when the time is right, and in the appropriate manner.



  Poettering (PPE-DE).(DE) Madam President, ladies and gentlemen, I wish we did not have to have this debate today. It centres on a grave occurrence, a serious political error. I hope that in the light of what President Prodi and Commissioner Verheugen have just had to say, the record will have been put straight by the end of this debate.

It was not the President, but the Commission whom we asked for a statement. But I am extremely grateful to President Prodi for the fact that he deemed the occurrence so important as to address us in person today. Commissioner Verheugen, I have read your interview several times. Before I get to the real crux of the matter, I would like to draw your attention to the following sentence, which has left me totally bewildered and dismayed. I am being completely matter-of-fact when I say this, because I believe deeply in every word that I calmly utter here, and because it reflects my convictions.

Mr Verheugen said in the interview: “One of the almost tragic developments of the past few years has been that Parliament has found itself unanimous in only one respect, namely in opposing the Commission.” Mr Verheugen, what is your understanding of Parliament’s role? You would not be in office if we had not given you our blessing.


On behalf of my group, I would assert – and President Prodi is aware – that, in principle, we regard ourselves as the European Commission’s ally when it comes to safeguarding the Treaties, involving Mr Patten in external policy, and when we are having trouble getting secretariats. We are on the Commission’s side and would ask you to take note of this and not accuse us of opposing the Commission in principle, and only finding ourselves unanimous in one respect. I simply refuse to accept this.


I refuse to accept this because I want people to understand that the work we do is in support of the Commission. We have a joint task to get to grips with for Europe.

Turning now to the facts of the matter. You said that anyone reading your text with impartiality could reach no other conclusion. I believe – and in fact this is a pan-European debate – that even if you take an impartial view of this text, you simply cannot help reaching the conclusions we have introduced into the public debate. Mr Verheugen, I am grateful to you for, and highly appreciative of your statement to the effect that no new conditions should be created. In so doing you have made it clear, once and for all – as the President of the Commission said – that you are no longer advocating that a referendum of the kind you have in your country, should form the basis for enlargement of the European Union. After all, quite a few people have been left wondering if there is a strategy underlying Commissioner Verheugen’s comment. In fact only today, certain other individuals – and I would not wish to make a party political issue of this – amongst whom an important character from Germany, who is close to you politically, have called for a referendum on this issue. But I am pleased that the matter has been cleared up today.


Please do not get excited. I am delighted that we have been able to reach a consensus on this issue and discuss it, because the issue of enlargement concerns the future of the European continent in the twenty-first century. The Commission and Parliament must tread the same path if we are to approach the future with confidence.


We must now join forces and urge the national governments to make a success of Nice. We must do this together, in a spirit of good will and cooperation. What matters most – to that extent, I sympathise with some of your comments, which we fully agree with – is to win public support for the enlargement of the European Union, so that we take the people in our countries with us. As Members of the European Parliament, we are committed to this on an ongoing basis. After all, it was the people of Europe that brought about the change in, and downfall, of Communism. The reunification of Germany would not have been possible without Solidarnosc in Poland.


Let us now – and I call upon the Commission and the assembled delegates to rise to this challenge – tread the path of Europe together. Parliament is agreed that we must tread this path together. Mr Verheugen, I would urge you to take this to heart. In principle, we are on the Commission’s side when it comes to the future development of Europe, the unity of our continent, and enlargement, because the people of Central Europe want to be part of the community of values that is the European Union. It is our political and moral duty to do everything we can to make enlargement a reality as soon as we possibly can. It is in the interests of the security, peace, and freedom of our European continent.

(Loud applause)


  Hänsch (PSE).(DE) Madam President, President of the Commission, Mr Verheugen, you said just now that your comments in the interview were made in a German context, but it is far from being an internal German issue. And even though Mr Poettering has just spoken, and now I am taking the floor, do not think that this is an all-German debate.

The comments you made, Mr Verheugen, provoked amazement, irritation and also anger amongst the Socialist Group.


This is not about the worth or lack of worth of referenda in terms of democracy, or involving the people in the decisions of the European Union. Nor do I intend, as speaker for my group, to go into the internal German debate on such referenda and similar issues. Naturally, each Member State will decide on the accession of new States according to its own constitutional law, and the same applies to Germany. But precisely because the German constitution makes no provision for a referendum of this kind, your comments were interpreted as a call for a referendum to be introduced, and as such, as an attempt to postpone the eastward enlargement of the European Union. I know this was far from being your intention, Commissioner, but that is the impression people got and it must be dispelled!


The Socialist Group wants the European Union to honour the commitment it has entered into with regard to Eastern Europe. We want the negotiations to be resolved speedily and diligently. We reject any attempt to put new obstacles in the way of accession. But the same applies to comments made by certain members of your group, Mr Poettering; for example with regard to the PPE’s attitude towards accession to the Economic and Monetary Union.


My group, the socialist group, welcomes the fact that President Prodi and Commissioner Verheugen have made the necessary clarifications here today, and we are grateful to you for this. You have clarified matters to our satisfaction.

Now, of course, we could say: "Romano" locuto, causa finita.


But of course things are not that simple, because the fundamental problem, Commissioner Verheugen, is one we all face: i.e. the Commission, MEPs, national governments, and the parties in our Member States. The fundamental problem is how we go about informing EU citizens about the accession of East European States, how we convince them and win their support for these accessions. That is the key objective. However, we are all to be found wanting in this respect. The only way to achieve this aim is to impress on the people that the size of the task is commensurate with the size of the opportunity presented to us all in Europe. That is the message we must drive home. To this end, you, President Prodi, and you Commissioner, and all of us, must stop getting bogged down in bureaucratic detail and doubts. Let us give our work the epoch-making status it deserves!

The political generation of the fifties – Adenauer, Monnet, Schuman and so on –, had the courage and vision to resolve the centuries’ old conflict between Germany and France in a European Community, and to make a start on unifying the people of Europe.

Our generation of politicians, ladies and gentlemen, yours and mine, now has the opportunity, for the first time in a thousand years, to bring all the people of Europe together in one Community, based on free will, peace and democracy. We must not allow anyone to wreck this opportunity, nor must we waste it.



  Cox (ELDR). – Madam President, today offers an important corrective opportunity and an important step forward in this debate. I am extremely pleased to see the President of the Commission here and I hope that Mr Prodi, as President of the Commission, will assert his presidential leadership on a regular basis in that way on strategic issues such as enlargement. I therefore especially welcome his statement today.

I accept Commissioner Verheugen's explanation that he was speaking in a German context and in a personal capacity. However, as the Commissioner responsible for enlargement, he does not now have the luxury of speaking in a personal capacity. The fundamental problem when we give mixed messages or perhaps poorly expressed or ill-judged messages is that we risk conveying the wrong message. From the way in which this interview was received and commented upon that has clearly happened here.

On the matter of a referendum I accept his explanation. However the underlying thesis is correct. We do need to take the public with us and if that was his point it is a valid one.

As to Member States leaving the Commission to do the dirty work, I hope that does not refer to the work of enlargement. I am sure that implication was not intended.


If, Commissioner, you meant that some statesmen in our governments like to go on central European tours and announce that enlargement is on its way but then leave the details to the Commission, you should say so plainly and we will back you up when you confront the Council with this.


I would ask the Commissioner in fairness to withdraw his remarks on the European Parliament finding itself unanimous in only one respect, namely in opposing the Commission. That cannot be substantiated. The Commissioner's relationship with our Parliament and its committees has always been constructive and positive and it should remain so. Such a slur on our interinstitutional relationship must not be allowed to stand.



  Hautala (Verts/ALE). – (FI) Madam President, I would like to thank the President of the Commission and Commissioner Verheugen for having consented to this discussion with us. This is an excellent opportunity for us to embark on a serious and honest debate on the issue of enlargement, and we can also consider together how we can include our citizens in the discussion. Nothing is more important than this.

I can understand how the Commission might be rather irritated by the way the Council sometimes approaches the issue of enlargement. The Council has been incapable of proposing a concrete enlargement plan and in this it really has to rally its forces. Neither is it of any benefit if state leaders travel to applicant countries and make hollow promises that membership is just around the corner. This is not serious enlargement work. Obviously, public confidence can be restored, but it will mean that first the entire negotiations process must be made more open. Furthermore, national parliaments must be involved in these discussions, and we now have a good opportunity to say that we too in the European Parliament debate this matter regularly.

And then we have the idea that we might organise referenda on the results of enlargement. It is certainly not quite the right time to contemplate this, as we will really have to have the courage to tell people that eight years have passed already since the present applicant countries were invited to join the European Union. Eight years have passed, but hopefully we will be bold enough to tell the people that this process is now far advanced and is irreversible. A referendum in itself is an absolutely splendid way of involving the people in making decisions. I would like to thank Commissioner Verheugen for having had the courage to utter the word. Even in Germany they should, in my opinion, consider dismissing historical fears that referenda might be generally dangerous.

Now let us just consider this Charter of Fundamental Rights. At present, a Charter of Fundamental Rights is being drafted, but does it contain one single genuine right of involvement on the part of the ordinary citizen? Why have we not started to discuss pan-European referenda or, for example, the right of citizens’ initiative, which, for example, they have automatically in Switzerland? I can understand why the Swiss do not wish to join the Union before such fundamental rights are also guaranteed to them as citizens joining the European Union. This is a task we can embark on together, so that we can really establish a People’s Europe. It is also the best way to dispel idle fears, because people have to enlighten themselves, they have to talk, and they have to acquire knowledge and information. In other words, people’s direct rights are vitally necessary in general, but in this case I do not think we can start to vote on enlargement now.


  Brie (GUE/NGL).(DE) Madam President, opinion differs in my group as to the proposed enlargement of the European Union. Personally, I see it as an historic necessity and opportunity, which must not be put at risk either by rashness, undemocratic procedures, and bureaucratic or national small-mindedness, or politicians‘ lack of consideration for the social dimension.

Commissioner, I do not doubt your personal commitment to enlargement. Yet if you tell us, as you have done today, that we simply misinterpreted the interview, and I then read, in tomorrow‘s edition of die Zeit, your own comments to the effect that the interview was your annual flop, then I am bound to wonder what is going on here!


I would urge you once again to clarify the situation for us. In July, you dropped some very vague hints about the difficulties. Despite being asked to do so, you were not prepared to be more specific at the time. You are absolutely right to say that the people must be involved in the decision-making processes. But that means of course, that the democratically elected representatives should be given these opportunities too. I believe we must see an end to the excessively secretive brand of diplomacy employed by the Council and the Commission towards Parliament.

There is a second problem. I emphatically support your view that national governments must not overwhelm the people with existential decisions, as happened – I would agree with you on this point – in the case of the euro. But a German referendum must never be allowed to determine the weal and woe of enlargement. That would be insensitive and unacceptable to my mind. Aside from that, you will receive our unswerving support if you are serious about democratic participation. However, I also recall that you yourself dismissed out of hand the idea of having a referendum on the Treaty of Maastricht, in Germany at the time.

Thirdly – and this is the most important point – if we are to win the people’s support for enlargement and accession then their hopes and fears must be taken very seriously. As I see it, there is more to this than launching a PR campaign costing EUR 150 million; it means highlighting the democratic, social and employment dimensions of enlargement. There has been precious little sign of this so far, either in the debate on a Charter of Fundamental Rights, in EU reform undertakings, or in the accession negotiations.

Commissioner, please use your considerable and acknowledged ability to help make eastward enlargement a project for joint security and social solidarity, and one that can be jointly decided on and shaped by the people of Europe. Then you will have us all on your side.


  Muscardini (UEN).(IT) Madam President, President Prodi said ‘Public opinion is not sufficiently convinced’ and other Members have said the same thing. The truth of the matter, which is serious, appears to be that the public is not sufficiently convinced because Europe is too concerned with specific issues concerning the individual States and is not doing enough to combat the major problems such as unemployment, migration, human rights, the renegotiation of the world's financial system, the financial bubble, relations with the United States and Europe’s capacity to build a healthy economy and exert its own influence in the world.

We have to realise that the European citizens are afraid. Therefore, if we want enlargement to work to the ultimate benefit of present and future Member citizens, we will have to start involving the citizens in political and institutional processes, not unconditionally as you said in your speech, President Prodi, for there is one condition and that is that enlargement becomes a genuine benefit both for those citizens who are currently Members of our European Union and for those who, we hope, will join us as soon as possible.


  Dell'Alba (TDI).(IT) Mr President, Commissioner, the Italian Radicals are certainly not going to criticise anyone for proposing to organise a referendum on an extremely important issue. It was, of course, a mistake, which has caused problems for the Commission and for all of us as the European Union, in the face of the legitimate hopes of the peoples of Eastern Europe who, after 50 years of Communist dictatorship, which we did nothing to combat, now, I believe, have the right to be part of the European Union.

I would now like the Members to carry out an examination of conscience, and I would ask both the Commission and Parliament what is going to happen at the Biarritz and Nice Summits, whose agendas contain such major issues about which absolutely nothing is being done. No progress is being made on the matters of the institutional reforms; most importantly, nothing is being done to make good the commitment we have made in past years to extend enlargement to the countries of southern Europe – I refer to the Delors I and II packages. Then we want to achieve enlargement without spending a penny more than our current budget, which is already less than sufficient for the 15. These are major issues and your interview, Commissioner, caused some consternation. I hope that these statements will set us off along the right road again, but the real problems remain unsolved: what reforms and what financial means are we going to use to bring enlargement to Eastern Europe with genuine success?


  Van Orden (PPE-DE). – Madam President, I had understood that Mr Verheugen was going to give a full explanation of the interview that he gave to the Süddeutsche Zeitung. One important point he made was that he felt that, in his opinion, there should have been a referendum in Germany on the introduction of the euro. Well, it is not too late. Does he still think that German public opinion should be tested on the euro and what does he think the result would be?


  Verheugen, Commission. (DE) Madam President, first of all, I would like to answer a number of specific questions that have been put to me. I will firstly answer the questions put to me by Mr Poettering and Mr Cox, whom I would like to thank for their fair-minded contributions to the debate. I am very pleased to note that you have formed a different impression of the relationship between Parliament and the Commission, to the one I very briefly described. I must confess that I have also found this to be absolutely true in my own experience. I have been asked to withdraw this evaluation. I am only too pleased to do so…..


…. because this debate has shown that I was obviously mistaken, and I have no difficulty whatsoever in admitting this!

I would like to address Mr Cox again. You picked up on a particular German word that I used, and for which the English translation is ‘dirty work’. I would just like to explain that in the part of Germany I come from, this word implies nothing more than painful and hard work. I did not mean anything else by it.…..

(Heckling from the Chamber)

…. and the interpretation you gave it certainly comes very close indeed to what I really think.

There is no need for us to have yet more discussions on the decision-making process regarding the introduction of the euro to Germany. At the time, I was chairman of the special committee of the German Bundestag, which prepared for the ratification of the euro in Germany. This process was concluded as early as the end of 1993. There are no further decisions to be made on the subject, the matter is closed. People said at the time that the public had not been sufficiently involved. Any one of my German colleagues would testify to that, and that is what I brought out again in the interview.

Incidentally, to sum up, I would like to point out that as I see it, this debate has revealed, firstly, that there is a very large and broad consensus of opinion between the Commission and Parliament on the key question as to how necessary, important and irreversible enlargement is, and, secondly, that we are also very much in tune as to the need to work together to secure the people’s support for this momentous project.



  President. – Thank you, Commissioner Verheugen. If there are no further interventions, this debate is closed and we shall continue the debate on human cloning. I wish to thank Commissioner Verheugen once more and to welcome back Commissioner Busquin.



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