Speech by Romano Prodi
President of the European Commission
« The European Union and its citizens:a matter of Democracy »
Strasbourg, 4 September 2001
Eighteen months ago, standing before this House, I announced that one of the new Commission's strategic priorities would be to reflect on the state of the Union's institutions and to promote new forms of European governance.
I promised that the Commission would publish a White Paper in 2001, before the summer break. We have kept our promise, and I am particularly happy to be making the first official presentation of the White Paper before the European Parliament.
Not just for reasons of protocol, but because the central theme of the White Paper bringing Europe closer to its citizens is one of the primary concerns of both Parliament and the Commission.
As the elected representatives of Europe's citizens, you are by definition the legitimate link between the Union and its peoples. Your specific proposals in response to, and in addition to, the White Paper will therefore be of enormous help to us in drawing up a "road map" for the years ahead.
And I shall be delighted to begin discussing your proposals in detail at the next session of Parliament in Brussels, two weeks from now.
From the very start of my Presidency of the Commission I have stated my firm conviction that we need to rethink the way we do Europe. To devise an exemplary new relationship between Europe's citizens and its institutions. A relationship based on openness and accountability.
However, the Nice summit altered the political landscape in which we have to build this relationship.
The Intergovernmental Conference adopted the Nice Declaration on the Future of Europe. A lively debate on the EU's future and its ultimate purpose has already taken off.
Not only among political leaders: European citizens too are making their voices heard. They expect much of Europe. They want their citizenship of the Union to be meaningful, as we saw clearly from the debate about the Charter of Fundamental Rights.
And let me say, once again, that I very much hope the Charter will become an integral part of the Treaties.
The great debate Europe has at last begun is about how to achieve a more complete and thoroughgoing democracy. The kind of democracy our fellow-citizens want.
They are disenchanted with the present system. They are staying away from elections. Their faith in political parties is fading, as their perception of the ability of the political parties to convey the will of the people.
These are worrying signs, and they can be seen everywhere. The growing crisis of faith concerns not just the European institutions but all relations between the people and their representatives, at whatever level.
People in Europe see our democracies being radically transformed by globalisation and the rapid pace of social change, both of which are profoundly affecting daily life for everyone. They see it, and it worries them.
For many years, the European Union project was seen as our only hope and today it is still the only concrete, practical and democratic response to galloping globalisation. Our citizens rightly see that no individual European country can, on its own, withstand the powerful external forces that threaten to break up our societies. Our European model of democracy, based on competitiveness but also on solidarity and social justice, is the only one that can offer people the stability they are looking for.
But many events have cast doubt on our ability to deliver. The situation has not been improved by some of the opportunities we missed at Nice. It is therefore our duty, and a matter of urgency, to publicly rethink and rewrite our rules of governance.
When we speak of "governance" we are, in fact, discussing democracy. European democracy, how it works, why it doesn't work better and what its prospects are.
The Commission has therefore chosen to proceed in three stages.
At this first stage, the White Paper discusses how we can improve European governance without changing the founding treaties. We are convinced that much can be done simply by changing the way the institutions and the Member States work - applying the existing rules better and more consistently.
At the second stage, and very soon, the Commission will state its position on the "Laeken process".
At the third and final stage, the Commission will say what substantive amendments it believes should be made to the founding Treaties. In preparing its proposals, the Commission will take the fullest possible account of the opinions expressed in the debate triggered by this White Paper and, first and foremost, the criticisms and suggestions made by Parliament.
In drawing up its White Paper, the Commission took care to maintain a realistic and practical approach. We concentrated on two aspects of European governance.
First, the relationships between the citizens, organised civil society, central and local government and the European institutions.
Second, how the European institutions operate and co-operate.
Nor could we tell people, yet again, that the only way to solve the outstanding problems of European governance is to amend the treaties.
I, for one, do not believe this. It is over-simplistic. We believe we have to put our own house in order before discussing how to rebuild the city.
That is why the Commission chose to focus its White Paper on ways of improving the present system, making better use of the options already open to us under the present Treaties.
Many problems can be addressed by courageously applying the rules already agreed upon and giving up practices that have caused the European project to deviate from its original objectives.
What exactly have we done at this first stage?
The White Paper's analysis and proposals are based on five essential principles: openness, participation, accountability, effectiveness and coherence. These principles complement and reinforce the two fundamental principles enshrined in our treaties - subsidiarity and proportionality.
The changes proposed in the White Paper aim to improve the way the Community method works. They will do so in three ways:
Let me explain all this in greater detail.
First, we need to get the citizens more closely involved in defining EU policies.
This does not mean changing the institutional balance or asking unelected bodies to represent the people. That would be neither appropriate nor democratically legitimate. You know my views on this: Parliament this House is the place where the peoples of the Union are democratically represented.
But it does mean taking on a new challenge the citizens' growing call to make their voices heard through other channels; to express themselves more directly via local government and citizens' associations.
Our task must not be to oppose this expression of the people's voice and of the complex nature of our societies but rather to channel it, finding new and better ways of entering into a dialogue with local authorities and civil society.
The underlying problem is a lack of real communication. If we want to bring the European Union closer to its citizens to make "Brussels" less remote, less alien we must explain the Union's policies in clear and simple language and open them up to public discussion.
We must encourage the emergence of a "network Europe" where all levels of governance are involved in shaping, implementing and monitoring EU policies.
The White Paper proposes a systematic approach to creating this network. It will require better contacts with national, regional and local authorities, enabling them to shape as well as implement EU decisions while fully respecting the constitutional organisation of each Member State.
We must also ensure that civil society is fully consulted.
I do not, of course, believe that bodies such as NGOs can represent public opinion in the same way as the European Parliament, or in the way that employers' associations and trade unions represent the views of their members.
Moreover, we have to ensure that the NGOs' internal organisation is based on democratic principles.
But the European Commission does want to draw on their energy and commitment, and our White Paper explores ways of doing so.
We are proposing minimum consultation standards to make it quite clear whom we have consulted, who has given us what advice and whether and how (if at all) we intend to act on it.
Parliament will thus be able to monitor both the quality and the impartiality of the consultation process, and this will help it take its own decisions in the course of the legislative process.
Let me come on to the second question about how we can make EU action more effective.
EU legislation is often criticised as too heavy-handed. It is also sometimes perceived as failing to keep pace with rapid technological progress and social change.
There is some truth in both these criticisms, and we must take account of it. Moreover, we can do so, since the existing treaties give us a wide range of instruments, enabling us to take appropriate and proportional action.
Now that the internal market is largely complete, there is much less need for new legislation in this area. The Union should concentrate on ensuring that its existing laws are properly and effectively implemented so that the internal market functions as smoothly as possible and without distorting competition.
What can the Commission do to ensure that European law is of the highest quality? Let me briefly mention five courses of action outlined in our White Paper.
First, we intend to take action to restore public confidence in our scientific advice and, more generally, in the way we consult experts.
Second, we need a new approach to law making a better way of assessing what type of legislation is needed.
Third, we need a clearer definition of the circumstances under which Community legislation should be complemented by other forms of action such as self-regulation or the open method of co-ordination.
Fourth, the Commission intends to concentrate its own efforts on those areas that really do require it to take political responsibility. Other regulatory work should be entrusted to EU agencies whose tasks and responsibilities we must later discuss in detail.
Fifth, we propose that the Commission should concentrate on its task of ensuring that Community law is properly applied in the Member States. The present shortcomings in this field are a matter of grave concern.
Much of the responsibility for the inefficiency and unpopularity of European legislation lies with the Member States. To remedy this, the White Paper recommends using regulations in many cases where they would be more appropriate than directives.
Clearly, however, the clarity of our primary legislation largely depends on the quality of the work done by the Council and, in the case of co-decision, by this House.
On the eve of enlargement, we must ensure that European law is of the highest quality and that it is properly and effectively applied.
The Commission has clearly set out in its White Paper the action we are going to take to set our own house in order. We hope this will prompt the other institutions and the Member States to do likewise, and without delay.
The third and final type of change proposed in our White Paper is aimed at clarifying the different roles and responsibilities of the European institutions so they can refocus on their essential political tasks.
Within the institutions, practices have developed that have distorted the original Community idea conceived by Europe's founding fathers. Practices not intended by the Treaty.
If correctly applied, the existing Treaty would clearly separate the roles of Parliament, the Council, the Commission, the Court of Justice and the other institutions.
In practice, however, Europe's citizens find themselves confused by types of action that blur this clear distinction of roles. People no longer understand who proposes, who decides, who monitors. Even less do they understand which institution is responsible for which action or whether responsibility lies with the Member States.
We need to rectify this situation swiftly and resolutely and to achieve this we do not, in the short term, need to amend the Treaty.
Refocusing on our essential political tasks, as recommended in the White Paper, means reformulating our EU policies and reorganising the way our three institutions the Council, Parliament and Commission operate and co-operate.
The most glaring example of how the system has been distorted is our committee procedure. The Council, which is supposed to be a legislative body, takes on an executive role while the Parliament also a legislative institution is excluded from this part of the procedure. The Commission which is supposed to be the executive has to negotiate details with the legislator, but the Council assumes none of the consequent political responsibility because, in reality, it is officials from the national authorities (i.e. the Member States directly) that take part in the expert meetings.
I propose that the Union's overall political priorities be expressed and discussed in solemn and regular policy debates such as the European Council meetings and the Commission President's annual State of the Union address to Parliament.
This brings me to the question of how we can improve the way the Commission, Council and Parliament work together.
The greatest obstacle to clear policymaking is the opaque way in which the Council of Ministers operates, and its increasing inability especially at meetings of the General Affairs Council to reconcile sectoral conflicts of interest before the European Council.
There is much that can and should be done to improve European governance in this respect. And it doesn't require any Treaty changes.
That and that alone is the purpose of our White Paper proposals.
This House too needs to refocus on its core tasks, concentrating on Parliament's decision-making role, on monitoring the implementation of policy and on its great budgetary responsibilities.
Respectfully but firmly, the White Paper suggests that the European Parliament should "depart from the present emphasis on detailed accounting" and move towards "more policy-oriented control based on political objectives".
As guardian of the Treaty it is my duty to point in this direction, but it is not for me to say how the change should be brought about. That is for you to decide.
Finally, changes must be made to the way in which the three institutions work together. The refocusing must be inter-institutional. We need to clarify who is responsible for what legislative and executive tasks.
We need, for example, a simple mechanism to enable the Council and European Parliament on an equal footing to monitor what the Commission is doing and thus ensure it is keeping to the principles and political guidelines adopted by the legislator.
The European Union has long since ceased to be a mere common market. It has become a political entity and the citizens of Europe know this. We shall all be reminded of it very strongly when Euro coins and notes are in our pockets in few weeks.
The people of Europe want this Union to be theirs.
That means building a climate of trust between the people and the institutions. A climate of trust between the Member States too.
Restoring the citizens' trust in Europe also means giving them a clear understanding of its objectives and of the powers of its different institutions.
The time has come to turn these ideals into reality. Our White Paper is just the start. Together, we have the chance to breathe new life into the European project. The chance to make Europe a model of mature and genuine democracy.
I appeal to you not to let this historic opportunity pass us by.