Internal Policies and EU Institutions

Address by the President of the European Parliament, Jerzy Buzek, at the Humboldt University

Berlin -
Monday 22/03/2010
EP President Jerzy Buzek speaking at the Humboldt University
EP President Jerzy Buzek speaking at the Humboldt University

Ladies and Gentlemen,

The Humboldt University is a symbol of the changes that have taken place in Europe in recent decades. Along with half of our continent, it was for years cut off by the Iron Curtain. And like Central and Eastern Europe, it was peacefully liberated.  

Once again it has become a place where free ideas are born. Like the idea which Joschka Fischer initiated here almost ten years ago and which reached, via Laeken, all the way to Lisbon. It is thanks to that idea that today we have a new Treaty, a good Treaty.

Dear Friends,

Let us take a moment to consider where Europe is today, and where it is headed in the future. I also want to propose potential ways to improve EU governance, bring the EU closer to the citizens and strengthen its foreign policy. But before I move on to those three points, I would first like to make a few remarks on what we already know to be the direct results of the Lisbon Treaty.

The new Treaty provides a new institutional framework for EU governance.  It is too early to tell what final form it will take, but we can already draw some initial conclusions.

The Lisbon Treaty has created an entirely new European institution - the European Council, i.e. the summit meetings of the Union's heads of state and government. It has also redefined the competences of the European Parliament, the Council of Ministers and the European Commission, three institutions which already had a formal basis in the Treaty of Nice and earlier treaties.

As you can see, the famous institutional triangle has now become a quadrangle. This is not a geometric change, but an important political change. And some appear to be lost in this political geometry. It is clear that for some politicians, even high-ranking ones, the consequences of the Lisbon Treaty have come as a great surprise. The Member States have only now begun to realise what they agreed to by ratifying the Lisbon Treaty, and some of them are finding it hard to reconcile.

Once again in the history of European integration we stand at a crossroads between the community method and the intergovernmental method. We have been here before. The Treaty was intended to strengthen the Union, and strengthen the community method. But at this defining moment in its implementation, there are some who are scared by it and are attempting to weaken the European institutions. We cannot allow that to happen.

European citizens and politicians must be aware of one thing, and that is that weakening the Union does not strengthen the individual Member States. Quite the opposite. In today's globalised world, if the Member States are to be strong, the Union needs to be strong. Because globalisation weakens our individual states.

Fortunately, in Europe we have already achieved a critical mass. Our system is already one in which everything is interdependent. If one part of this complicated system were to break off, the entire system would suffer. Now is not the time to turn back, for there is nothing to be gained by returning to the politics of self-interested nationalism. The sooner the public and the politicians understand this, the sooner we can streamline our system on the basis of the Lisbon Treaty.

The Treaty talks explicitly about creating an ever closer Union among the peoples of Europe. Unfortunately, it could become a Union of leaders, not of citizens, because it is, after all, the heads of state and government who sit in the European Council. And it is possible that the centre of decision-making could shift towards that new institution. The European Council, by definition, is not a community body but an intergovernmental one. And therefore we have to ask about the political accountability of this institution, because any governmental structure must have a system of checks and balances.

The Lisbon Treaty introduces such a system for balancing powers between the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament. We have thus created a bicameral system for law-making at European level, similar to the one which operates in many Member States - here in Germany, for example, or in Austria.

The European Parliament has been given joint decision-making powers with the Council in almost all legislative matters. This places the two institutions on an equal footing. The 'codecision' procedure requires us to reach a consensus. Neither party is stronger than the other. This arrangement is good for EU citizens and good for democracy. The rotating Presidency of the Union, which represents the Council of Ministers, has the same legislative prerogatives as it had under the Treaty of Nice.

The question therefore arises about the place of this new institution - the European Council - in the EU's system of governance, because the European Commission continues to have executive powers. So how do we make use of the Lisbon Treaty to create an efficient system which is close to the citizens and effective in the international arena?

Three questions, therefore. On the first point, I would return to the institutional quadrangle. Although the Lisbon Treaty abolishes the so-called European Communities (except for Euratom) and replaces them with the European Union, the community method has not been consigned to history. On the contrary, it is now even more necessary than before.

The intergovernmental road is an old and bumpy path fraught with difficulties. Only by taking the community road can Europe press ahead quickly enough so as not to lag behind the global powers. Europe's long-term development vision should therefore prevail in the European Council over short-term political benefits pursued with an eye on the next elections. That is what we should expect. The future of the community method - and, thereby, of the Union itself - hinges on the sense of responsibility shown by the leaders sitting within the European Council.

That method is based on cooperation between the European Parliament and the European Commission. I therefore believe that the time has come for us to consider 'parliamentarising' the Commission. Because the legislation that originates in the Commission accounts for close to 65% of the law of the Member States.

We do not need to change the Treaty in order to do this. We simply need to persuade the EU Member States to start including their nominees for Commissioner posts on the lists of candidates for European elections. They could be placed at the top of those lists.

Accordingly, future Commissioners would first run for election to the European Parliament. This would give Commissioners a democratic mandate, because they will have been elected by universal suffrage. This would be of more than symbolic value, because it would give the Commission a firm democratic footing and would strengthen it as an institution. It would also ensure better cooperation with the European Council and restore balance between Commission and Council in the institutional setup. It would bring the Commission closer to Parliament, since, after all, Parliament elects all of the members of the Commission. As a result, these two EU institutions - the European Commission and the European Parliament - would take on extraordinary importance.

This would bring us closer to the goal of a genuine European demos.

And this brings me to my second point, which is the need to involve the citizens, because in the EU's new system of governance that will be all the more important.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

In European elections, voting currently takes place along national party lines, with different parties standing in each Member State. But in Parliament we have groups of European parties. The citizens do not see a clear link between them. I agree with Joschka Fischer when he said, 10 years ago in this very university, that people are interested in European affairs but don't know who, in this Europe, represents them.

We should encourage national parties to stand as European parties. After all, the CDU can use the European People's Party logo in its campaign. Just as the SPD can use the logo of the European Socialists and Democrats and the FDP the logo of the European Liberals. This would not require any changes to the law; merely a change in attitude, in our understanding of what it means to be European.

A little more than 20 years ago, here in what was then East Berlin, the people remembered that they belonged to a single nation. 'Wir sind ein Volk', they chanted on the streets, motivated by the idea of reunifying Germany. Today we must change attitudes so that people will want to call out: Wir sind das Volk Europas ('We are the people of Europe'). We need to strengthen people's European identity, generate a new feeling of belonging, because we must continue to be motivated by the idea of a unified Europe, an idea that requires a continuous collective effort; because Europe is us.

Brussels is not some distant country. It already directly affects our citizens; we talk about it all the time. It is as much a part of our reality as Berlin. European politics translates into European legislation, and that already directly affects our citizens.

In order to bring the citizens closer to Europe we need not only to create good laws but also to ensure that they are implemented. Today, in the economic sphere for example, that is not always the case. We have recently had a prime example of this, and one which provides further reason for strengthening the European Commission, because it is the Commission which is the guardian of our laws, the guardian of the community method.

So we need to involve people at the European level. The two-thirds of legislation that originates in the European institutions is reason enough.

Moreover, without a European demos there can be no European solidarity.

Let us take Greece as an example. Do German taxpayers feel any sense of solidarity with Greece in the present situation? Because, as members of the European community, we should expect them to. You share the same currency, and when Greece is targeted by speculators German taxpayers soon feel the knock-on effects. Problems in one of the eurozone countries affect not just the entire eurozone, but the entire EU. I hope that at some time in the future we will analyse the crisis in Greece and learn the lessons that are to be learned. Because the situation in Greece raises an issue that it is high time that we addressed, which is that, since under the EU system everything is interdependent, we need to run that system in as cohesive a manner as possible. And we need to make greater efforts than we have in the past to ensure that the individual EU Member States behave in a responsible manner. There can be no solidarity unless each and every member of our community plays its part.

The next important question is: how do we get people involved? We need their involvement in order to have democratic control of our EU system. The Lisbon Treaty gives us new means of contact and influence at the European level. It is now possible, with the signatures of a million people, or 0.2% of the EU population, for citizens to ask the Commission directly to take action.

Our dialogue with churches and civil society organisations has been formalised. But even more important, we have brought the national parliaments into the legislative process. They are now able to scrutinise European laws and check whether they violate the subsidiarity principle. They can also use a 'yellow card', which in practice brings the legislative procedure to a halt. The national parliaments are taking over joint responsibility for EU law, thereby becoming involved in the community method. This is something completely new.

Yet these are just the instruments. They will be useful when both politicians and citizens learn to use them. It is our responsibility as politicians to learn how to do that.

We should remember that the Community was intended to be a great intellectual and moral undertaking. Changing the name from 'European Community' to 'European Union' did not indicate a change in the system of values. We are still a European community. We must convince the citizens that they are full members of a community called Europe.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

And so to the third and final point of my address. I would like to say a few words about the European Union's new role in the world.

We have a new instrument - the European External Action Service. At the moment the Member States have certain misgivings about it, which I believe to be entirely unwarranted. Here, too, there is an element of national self-interest which is unhelpful for the Union as a whole. Europe is stronger in its dealings with other powers when it speaks with a single, unified voice. Europe's strengths and weaknesses are clear for all to see in the trade negotiations in the WTO, our position at the Copenhagen climate summit or aid to Haiti.

An EU diplomatic service represents an opportunity, not a threat. Drawing on the experience of all the EU's Member States, it has the chance to become a highly effective instrument for promoting European interests and values.

It is obvious that our ambassadors - nearly 140 of them worldwide - must be selected on the basis of a geographical balance. That is something that must not, under any circumstances, be overlooked if we want all countries, all nations to have a common sense of ownership of, and responsibility for, this service.

The world in the 21st century will need new leadership. Clearly the 'West' is unable to resolve the new global problems by itself. We have to work together, but not only among ourselves. We also need to work externally in order to change the way in which the world is governed.

However, we have to start with tried and tested partners. I believe that the European-American partnership is the first stage on the road to achieving that goal. Our cooperation and interdependence make us stronger on both sides of the Atlantic.

In order to face up to challenges such as those posed by Iran and North Korea, energy supply, climate change or the economic crisis, we also need to work together with Russia, China, India and Brazil. We need to cooperate if we want to fulfil the expectations of our citizens in a global world.

For as Konrad Adenauer said: 'We all live under the same sky, but we don't all have the same horizon'.

I believe that Europe should see an opportunity in this new global governance. We can promote our values, which are not yet universal. We have a particular responsibility to defend democracy and human rights, especially in relations with our direct external partners.

Europe can continue to export stability, the European state model, and promote respect for rights and freedoms. But if we are not strong, we will quickly become a small European bridgehead flooded by powerful waves coming from less democratic value systems. We can promote the European social model, which puts the individual in first place, or build walls that cut us off from systems that put the good of the powers that be before the good of the individual. We must be strong internally because it is only through our internal strength and unity that we can make possible the effective external action that is important for our citizens and for the whole world. We have shown that we can lead the way when it comes to climate change and tackling the financial crisis. We have shown, too, that our model of diplomacy and cooperation works - and works excellently within our Europe - and that diplomacy and economic cooperation are better than military intervention, although that too is successfully undertaken by the EU where necessary.

I strongly believe that our model of pooled sovereignty and political and economic solidarity can serve as a global model. But for that to succeed we need partners who, together with us, will defend our interests and our values. Only then will we achieve in the international arena the goals that unite all the free nations of the world.

That is exactly why we need governance on a global level.

Dear Friends,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

To conclude: despite what many might hope, the adoption of the Lisbon Treaty does not mark the end of the European road. We are at a turning point for the European Union.

The Lisbon Treaty has opened up new opportunities for European integration. It has changed the Union internally and given us the means to exert influence externally. It has provided us with new opportunities to serve our citizens. But not everything can be written down in treaties. The spaces between the lines of the Treaty's articles must be filled with a will to act and a will on the part of countries, institutions and citizens to cooperate. That is the lesson of the crisis, which has meant there can be no resting on our laurels following the entry into force of the Lisbon Treaty. We need to strengthen Europe both politically and economically. This is something that we in the EU must do by ourselves!

Europe must show solidarity first and foremost with itself because - perhaps a little romantically speaking - we belong to one community, a community of values. And also because - very pragmatically speaking - we are aware of our joint interests.