Internal Policies and EU Institutions

Buzek's speech on 'The EU's Responsibility Towards its Citizens and the World' at the University of Helsinki

Helsinki -
Tuesday 22/11/2011

Dear Professors,

Dear Distinguished Guests,

Dear Students,

It is a pleasure to be able to address you today, and it is great to be back in Finland. I will never forget my trip to Lahti ten years ago, to watch the world championship in ski-jumping. Excited we were shaking in the minus 29 degree cold. Despite the weather, it was worth it. On that day, Adam MaƂysz became the first Pole to win a ski-jumping world championship. But I have to admit that I am much more comfortable standing here in the warmth of the Porthania building.

Dear Friends,

I was asked to talk to you today about the EU’s responsibility towards its citizens and the world. Let me start with the first part of this statement: the EU’s responsibility towards its citizens.

The EU, and in particular the European Parliament, has a responsibility to provide a voice for 500 million citizens. We have now operated under the Lisbon Treaty for almost two years.

This new Treaty has given national parliaments and ordinary citizens an even stronger voice in the decision-making process. Today every citizen is a stakeholder.

Take the European Citizens’ Initiative as one example. It establishes a direct link between citizens and European institutions. It helps us address your specific concerns. One of these concerns is the current economic and financial crisis.

Dear Students,

We are witnessing unemployment levels in some countries – especially among the young – which are the highest since the 1930s. What we are seeing is a crisis of sovereign and private debt. A crisis caused, to a large extent, by poor economic governance.

Many of you here today are too young to remember Finland’s severe banking and social crisis in the early 1990s, triggered in part by the collapse of the Soviet Union. Those were tough times for Finland and the crisis left its mark on society. But you came out stronger, through hard work, a sense of duty, and a lot of sisu – that quintessentially Finnish quality. There are valuable lessons here for Europe. Now is the time for the EU to draw on its reserves of sisu!

Dear Friends,

Europe’s crisis is not just a financial one. It is also a crisis of trust. Many of our citizens feel that the EU is not working. Or at least not working effectively. They think that the EU is part of the problem and not part of the solution. It is our responsibility as politicians to better explain the implications of our current crisis.

As politicians we are failing our citizens by not making the case for European integration. We need to show how we are making the EU more efficient, more capable of solving problems in order to safeguard the future.

We also have to be honest with ourselves. To paraphrase Finland's late President Paasikivi, a graduate of this university: “acknowledging the truth is the beginning of wisdom.” I believe this too. I believe in social dialogue and honest public debate. We must face the facts. We cannot shy away from reality.

In these tough times, when our leaders have to make hard decisions which affect all our citizens, it is our responsibility to rise to the challenge and not fall into easy populism. This to me is what sisu is all about. To have the courage to do the right thing and not the easy one. Finland must not fall victim to euro-scepticism and isolationist tendencies.

Pushing ahead with structural reform and pro-growth measures which are sometimes unpopular is as important as the short term concerns of our citizens. I know that politically this can be very difficult. Each country has to find the right mix of fiscal prudence and investment for growth. However, it is vital that European leaders introduce all necessary reforms and see efforts at European level as complementary.

But we must also ensure that solidarity continues to be the principle of the EU. A principle which is only a slogan if it does not come with responsibility. We have to show solidarity to member states not only when things are going well, but also when they go badly. By not explaining the added value of European integration, we are letting easy slogans lead the political debate.

This also applies to our common currency. The Euro is an anchor of the single market from which we all benefit. It has enhanced Finland’s standing in the world. It has added to your prosperity. To me there is no doubt, the Euro is worth making sacrifices for. We must defend it not for its symbolic value but for pragmatic reasons.

It has underpinned Finland’s success as a world class exporter. More than 40 percent of your GDP is generated by exports and 55 percent of that is sold on the EU internal market. Finland as a relatively small and very open economy has a fundamental economic interest in restoring the trust and credibility of the European economy - even if this means tough decisions and sacrifices.

Yes, this is a huge challenge. The EU is facing an unprecedented situation. What the EU is trying to do is more like the nordic combined competitions than Adam Malysz jump in Lahti. We cannot focus just on the immediate measures, the big jump. We also have a long stretch of cross country skiing to do.

To be really responsible to our citizens, we have to undertake structural reform and invest in the long term engines of growth. This is the focus of our Multiannual Financial Framework and the EU 2020 programme. But this is a team event where everyone has to pull their weight. The euro, and our internal market, are the tools to make this a success. But solidarity is the glue that keeps our team together.

Dear Students,

Let me now come to the second part of my brief: the EU’s responsibility to the world.

We are leading the debate around the world in many issues - first on climate change. This is why it is so important that the EU has a unified and clear position in Durban next month.

Second, because we speak with one voice through the Commission on international trade and in development issues, we are not just payers, but also players on the world stage, for instance at the WTO. We have given privileged access to our markets to developing countries, insisted on tying development money to the application of the rule of law, and bringing up standards across the developing world.

Third, we have started to play a more active role in security and defence issues. The EU has currently military and civilian missions in Afghanistan, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Congo, Georgia, Iraq, Kosovo, Libya. And even off the coast of Somalia fighting pirates. Our role is not to make peace but rather to keep it.

But above all, the EU has a responsibility to protect democracy. This year the tides of history moved. The events of the Arab Spring were a wake-up call. The turmoil in our neighbourhood has moved the EU into becoming more active, more ambitious and more cohesive in upholding the values on which it was built.

The protestors on the streets of Cairo, Tunis and Tripoli showed us how important it is for the EU to maintain what your Minister Stubb calls a “dignified foreign policy.” The voice of the people demanding democratic change is loud and clear. We cannot – and must not – remain indifferent to these calls.

Together, we need to help our Southern and Eastern neighbours in their fight for human dignity, freedom and democracy. For the EU, stability is essential. But a democratic neighbourhood is as important as a stable neighbourhood.

Autocrats fell in North Africa, as in Eastern Europe, because people lost their fear. But lasting justice is only possible if democratic structures and values are able to take root. It is the EU’s responsibility, our duty, to stand firmly on the side of people who seek to establish these structures. Otherwise these countries risk going down the road of Iraq or Somalia.

The European Parliament uses its legislative and budgetary powers to set the guidelines on how EU money, especially in development and aid, is used. We will insist that money goes towards helping civil society and democratic forces. The EU is also considering establishing a "European Endowment for Democracy" to spend money in a more flexible and efficient way in countries in transition. 

After the revolutions in North Africa, but also in the East, it is clear that our new neighbourhood policy has to be more dynamic and more flexible. At the same time it has to be more open. Not only to trade, but also to people.

We have to help with visa facilitation. We should invest in more scholarships for students. We should support NGOs, civil society organisations and the independent media. This will not happen overnight. It is a project we have started and, I hope, your generation will finish.

So what is the EU’s responsibility to the world? I would say this - we have to work at creating ever increasing circles of peace, prosperity and partnership. First in our neighbourhood and gradually extending them outwards to reach other regions. We do not want to impose or export democracy and our values. But we must support the legitimate aspirations of those that seek it and defend universal values and human rights. This is what we can offer, a model of how to live and work together in a multicultural world. To achieve this, we will need you, the next generation but we will also need a good dose of sisu. Thank you.