Speech at the opening of the 2020 European Strategy and Policy Analysis System (ESPAS) Annual Conference "Thinking about the future", 18 November
It gives me great pleasure to open this very timely event focusing on building a more resilient Europe in an uncertain world. In this sense, the report of the European Commission of September 2020 is very important, it illustrates the reasons why strategic foresight should be used in the EU policy making process and introduces a comprehensive idea of EU resilience. I am very happy to see this, after years in which only growth has been talked about, we are also considering social, green and digital factors: we want a more equitable and climate neutral world, and greater control and sovereignty in the digital realm.
We have lived through extraordinary events this year, which have certainly put our resilience to the test in many ways as the Covid pandemic invaded and upturned our lives, homes and offices from one day to the next. We have had to find very creative solutions to ensure that democracy did not stop functioning, as we could not afford that luxury. Our citizens and our businesses, legitimately so, expect us to rise to the challenge and address their very real concerns. This deadly virus created uncertainty and a fear for survival and our societies responded in different ways. So even in times of crisis, or perhaps especially in times of crisis, democracy cannot grind to a halt. So how did we as a Parliament respond?
Firstly, we amended our rules in order to ensure that we could remain operational whilst at the same time seeking to safeguard the health and safety of Members and staff. This involved introducing new procedures in rapid time and in particular remote voting procedures, which was hugely challenging but absolutely vital to enable us to continue voting, legislating and scrutinising the decisions that were being taken, many of which will have a significant impact in years to come. Parliaments around the world were looking to us as a model on how to do this. In order not to let resources go to waste, we thought about the most vulnerable categories within our populations who were disproportionately affected by the crisis: we welcomed homeless women in our premises and served meals to those in need.
Secondly, on the substance, we had to rapidly respond to the crisis with answers and policies that previously would have been taboo - rethinking how we previously did things from an economic, political and democratic point of view. We had to take major long-term decisions and yet our answers had to be immediate. This however led to us fundamentally reimagining what the EU is all about and what its future direction should be. It therefore became a transformative moment enabling us to imagine a more sustainable model of development with environmental and social justice at its core.
We have had very lively debates within the Parliament and amongst institutions on these topics, but that is the essence of democracy and as a result, this enabled us to reach a broad consensus around the most appropriate solutions. This deliberative process is in part what gave birth to the recovery fund where previously unthinkable resources were earmarked to deal with the health and economic consequences of the pandemic in the short - but also the medium -term. In doing so, we will ensure that we accelerate the green and digital transformation which predated the crisis but which now takes on a much greater urgency.
In parallel, we were negotiating the next Multiannual FF - which takes us to 2028 so not quite 2030 but not far off! - under challenging circumstances. I was delighted that after many months of often quite tough and intense negotiations we managed to reach a deal last week for a historic package that includes novel elements such as the rule of law and own resources. This will enable us to be more autonomous and forward-looking.
The Parliament for its part prioritised key flagship programmes, including both the health and research budgets, especially given how important these are in being able to tackle future pandemics. Our goal was to look ahead and make Europe future proof. We decided to make a virtue out of necessity and not leave it to the next generation to have to take up these challenges. What was uppermost in our mind was to make the EU stronger, more resilient and better equipped to deal with future crises, which no doubt we will be faced with.
It is no exaggeration to describe this deal as groundbreaking - unprecedented amounts of bonds will be launched in the market. We are writing history and paving the way for future generations to have more resources to invest in health and vaccines, cross-border student exchanges, research, digital and climate. For years the issue of new own resources was an impossible dream, now it has become a reality. Europe is facing up to its present and its future and ensuring that nobody is left behind. The fact that these own resources will be financed to a large extent by polluting industries underlines our commitment to building a Greener Europe. The budget is a true expression of the EU standing firmly together to address collectively the issues facing our citizens.
We have opened a new chapter in European integration. Support from the EU budget cannot be unconditional and goes hand in hand with respect for the EU’s values. Europe is much more than just economics and what lies behind the budget are the fundamental principles of the EU on justice, freedom and the rule of law which have endured and proved their worth. They act as a bulwark against abuses of power and will stand us to good stead in the future. They show that we are listening to the concerns of our citizens.
We are witnessing a seismic shift with much greater collective solidarity which is a milestone, and we are shoring up resources to tackle the current and future challenges. It will help the EU to become more resilient, sustainable, gender balanced and inclusive. For this we need to change our way of policy-making and rely more on r foresight and strategic thinking and I would like to congratulate the Commission Vice President Maroš Šefčovič for making important steps in this direction. We have, as Parliament, always supported this approach and I am sure that we will continue and even reinforce our collaboration in building a common vision for the EU.
We also need to look beyond the EU, as we are only as strong as our ability to help the weakest and not just those within our borders. We should not forget our responsibilities to the wider world as Europe thrives when we live in a more peaceful and prosperous world. We need to become a stronger global player. The only way to do so is through promoting the rules based order, dialogue, cooperation, multilateralism, and fundamental freedoms.
I welcome therefore the increase in money allocated to development as the EU needs to show global leadership in this area. Moreover, this global pandemic underscored how vital international cooperation is in anticipating and tackling twenty first century challenges which are complex and interconnected - including demographics, the rise of authoritarianism, connectivity and migration. The EU needs to be more assertive in this regard in order to grow, lead and assume our responsibilities.
As we have seen, the world is uncertain and it doesn’t wait patiently for us at the door. That said, we have the power and the possibility to shape our future. The choices of the past have nothing inevitable about them and it is up to us to decide to pursue a better path, a more inclusive and sustainable one. Engaging in foresight and analysing global trends within our institutions, is not an academic exercise but rather an imperative in order to better equip ourselves. As President Abraham Lincoln said, the best way to predict the future is to create it.
But the reform of the EU doesn’t stop here and we must not fall into the trap of complacency. If anything the momentum of this year has shown us what is possible when there is a willingness to take bold decisions for future generations. I think we can draw many lessons from the events of this year which can serve to better cope with future challenges and risks - be they pandemics, financial storms, climate emergency, digital exclusion, security threats etc. We need solid and robust foundations, underpinned by our values, in order to be able to weather whatever storm comes our way whilst at the same time doing what we can to be forward thinking and to protect the lives of our citizens. And we also need to look to the longer term in order to anticipate the threats and be prepared for the opportunities.
This brings me therefore to the conference on the future of Europe, which represents a much-needed opportunity to design, together with EU citizens and civil society, our future project for a functioning democracy. We must be prepared to challenge the usual way of doing things and question the methods of the past in order to ensure that the Union has the capacity to work more effectively in the future and with the right tools. And we need to be strategic and visionary in our thinking and look beyond our immediate concerns. But we have no time to lose and that is why I am convinced that there has never been a better time to start preparing for the future.