EP President's "Europe Speech" at the event by Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung, Stiftung Mercator and Stiftung Zukunft Berlin, November 9th
I am delighted to have been invited to speak to you today to share my hopes and set out my vision for the future of Europe, at this event originally scheduled to be held in Berlin, a city that symbolises renewal and European reunification.
The European Union, which has just celebrated the 70th anniversary of its founding, is going through the toughest crisis in its history. Europe is dealing with a pandemic which poses a severe threat to its prosperity. COVID-19 is a global challenge. While it is true, as Jean Monnet suggested, that Europe will be built by addressing the crises it faces, the challenge of COVID, more than any other, clearly makes common responses essential. It is no coincidence that as early as in March, after a few weeks of uncertainty, the Union took decisions which paved the way for more concerted action. These were historic decisions, and while in March it was still regarded as taboo to talk about European bonds, today we can celebrate the raising of the European flag on Wall Street to mark the issuing of bonds to finance the Sure facility.
This is not a repeat of the 2008 crisis. In fact, we have put firmly behind us the way of thinking and behaving which characterised the last decade.
This, after all, is the very raison d'être of the European Union: to make effective government action possible in our common space, by applying the principles underpinning our democratic system. No one of our nations would have been able to address this challenge alone. No one of them will be able to address similar challenges in the future, whether we are talking about the pandemic, security, immigration, environmental issues and the financial crises that could undermine our social model. United in solidarity must be our watchword, therefore.
Today we can celebrate the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall with a greater sense of confidence in the future. The collapse of that symbol of totalitarianism marked the triumph of our model, which has its political foundation in democracy and its moral and legal foundation in the defence of citizen’s rights and fundamental values. For a long time, we believed that these achievements were sufficient to keep us protected and safe from the reverberations of events further afield. We thought that what happened outside Europe would not destabilise us, would not force our hand in any way. The responses to the 2008 economic and financial crisis, however, have left us even more exposed, because the impact on the finances of many European countries, and hence on the living conditions of our citizens, has led us to focus on ourselves and to lose sight of what the European Union can do for us. Moreover, we have found ourselves marginalised on the international stage, unable to exert any meaningful influence. We have learned, to our cost, that the more we turn in on ourselves, the more powerful anti-European sentiment grows, the more nationalism and parochialism gain ground in our countries. The first to sense this were our citizens, who turned out in record numbers in the last European elections and gave pro-European forces a vote of confidence.
The start of this parliamentary term, one year ago, after elections which had brought home to us the dangers posed by the rise of sovereigntist self-interest, brought a change of approach on the part of Europe’s political families. We started to believe in ourselves and to think more ambitiously. We started once again to think about our role, and think how a proper understanding of the modern world could provide the key to addressing challenges at home and elsewhere.
They were months of hard, but fruitful, work. Together, we realised that we could no longer duck the question of what Europe can do to help save the planet. And, little by little, the environment became the paradigm for a new model of sustainability. Social and environmental sustainability. And by putting forward the proposal for a European Green Deal, presented in the European Parliament late last year, we were able to offer a vision and tackle the COVID crisis, by taking unprecedented measures and proposing common responses.
The pandemic has struck the most vulnerable in our societies, the elderly, the isolated, women, young people and people with disabilities, and has served only to exacerbate inequalities in Europe.
There has been a drastic widening of these inequalities not only within Member States, but also between Member States, revealing the potential for discord between a North and a South, and an East and a West, with sharply differing economic realities, expectations and sensibilities.
Europe, contrary to what many feared - or others hoped - was not caught unprepared. The challenge, of course, is daunting and will take years to address. Will we pull it off? Will we be able to protect our citizens? Will we manage not to squander our inheritance in the form of the values bequeathed to us by previous generations and make Europe an area of peace, well-being and solidarity?
Since March, we have done everything alone. For the first time since the initial stages of the Second World War, we have faced a global challenge without a common vision shared with our main ally, the United States of America. It had never happened before. Our common vision is what made our responses to crises effective. This is why we are happy that the American people have elected a president who speaks openly about re-establishing close ties with the European Union and has made repeated calls for a return to multilateralism.
The first phase of the European response to the pandemic is now coming to an end. Huge volumes of resources will be made available, state aid rules will be relaxed, the Stability and Growth Pact will be suspended. And we hope to have a Multiannual Financial Framework which is commensurate with the challenge facing us, matched by rules which better protect the rule of law.
In short, we have understood that if one country were to collapse or get into difficulties, the consequences for all the others would be serious. Common debt has become synonymous with solidarity among states, a fact acknowledged first by our citizens and then by our institutions. Of course, many misgivings still have to be overcome, and many misunderstandings corrected.
The European integration process, which has always been slow and very bureaucratic, has speeded up sharply. If the responses we offer to the difficulties faced by citizens and businesses are seen as expedient, we will know that we are on the right track.
Europe has therefore reacted well to an emergency, but let us not overlook the circumstances which brought us to this point and which stem from an intergovernmental method of decision-making that can never banish the temptation to put national interests ahead of the Community interest. It is an eternal truth: as Jacques Delors said, ‘lack of solidarity is a mortal danger for Europe’.
Faced with the current dramatic events, we must rediscover what Pope Francis calls the ‘path of fraternity’, which doubtless inspired and motivated the Founding Fathers of modern Europe when they came to understand that a divided Europe would be totally powerless to confront the challenges of the future.
But we have already shown that we can have a common vision and make history. This is why we are admired and envied and why, for many in the world, we are an example. An example of freedom, of democracy, of respect for fundamental values, of non-discrimination.
The moment of truth has now come: we have taken many decisions, approved funding, made provision for urgent action and charted a political course for the coming years.
A second phase is now starting, one that involves the provision of practical, even material, assistance to our citizens.
The pandemic has brought poverty to large sections of the population, including in countries that seemed to be safe from this scourge.
This is why we need targeted, planned measures. This is why we in the European Parliament attach great importance to the European programmes for the next seven years.
The Recovery Plan is an emergency measure to get the European economy back on track, but multiannual programmes are the fuel which keeps the machine running - and it needs all the fuel it can get.
If this crisis has taught us one thing, it is that the time has come to start thinking about how to strengthen the mechanisms of European democracy, to make them more effective and responsive and give ourselves the wherewithal to respond to the crises that will come after COVID.
We need more European governance and we need to work together to bring that about.
We need a debate about a different Europe, and if we accept that we are living in a world characterised by ever faster changes requiring ever more frequent adjustments, and if we accept that Europe is the right level of governance at which to address global challenges, we can no longer afford not to have institutions which are in a position to offer our citizens answers. The European Union needs to adapt to a changing world.
For several years Parliament has been calling for a revision of the Treaty to remedy the shortcomings of the instruments Europe can draw on in addressing the challenges facing us.
The Conference on the Future of Europe will certainly be an opportunity to sketch out, together with EU citizens, together with civil society, our project for a functioning European democracy. The conference is our main priority for this parliamentary term.
Here I would like to express my confidence that the German Council Presidency will secure an agreement between the Member States, and with Parliament and the Commission, on the presidency of the conference.
The conference should draw lessons from the crisis and give the Union the capacity to adapt its decision-making tools, so that it can work more effectively and with the right backing. It will also be an opportunity to rediscover the soul of the European project.
That is why I am convinced that the conference must start work as soon as possible.
If the renewal of the European project is to be properly ambitious, a genuine, strong democratic mandate is needed as a prerequisite for its legitimacy and success.
For my part, with the support of all the political groups in Parliament, I refused to allow democracy to be defeated by the pandemic. That is why we have constantly adapted our working methods to enable the European Parliament to function, legislate, debate and vote. Using remote procedures, we have made it possible for Parliament to function and kept the European Union working. All our institutions need to learn from the pandemic and adapt in order to respond to the challenges we face. The future will not allow us to rely on the old, hallowed methods.
We have understood the importance of the internet, its power and its reach. It is the internet that has made it possible to bring citizens together over the past few months, made it possible for students to study, for businesses to work online, and for the public to participate in democratic life.
That is why I am now pushing for internet access to be recognised as a new human right. Lack of access to the internet is one of the main causes of marginalisation. Its proper, regulated use can reduce divides and distances, in particular in remote areas.
We now have no choice but to regard the internet not as a convenience, but as an instrument of democracy.
We are not at war, because, as Albert Camus says in La Peste, war is a stupid thing. This is life. Our life.
This call to address the difficulties of the present is the very basis of our faith in the European project. Like any project, we need a new humanism, because we want to take the decisions that will shape our future, and not leave that task to others. We are Europeans, we come from far away and we have freely decided to walk together.