President of the European Commission
International Student Forum of the University of Ghent
Dames en heren,
ik zou u graag heel hartelijk willen bedanken voor de uitnodiging om hier vandaag aan de Universiteit van Gent te komen spreken over recente ontwikkelingen in Europa.
Als u het mij toestaat, schakel ik nu over naar het Engels.
I am very happy to be here for a number of reasons.
First of all because I enjoy meeting students. In my work as President of the European Commission I find myself explaining the challenges of Europe to a wide range of different audiences. But when I talk to Europe’s students I am particularly delighted to find that your generation has really “taken ownership” of Europe. Thanks to the Erasmus programme and the Bologna process, Europe has in a sense become the air that you breathe, and in Belgium perhaps more than anywhere else.
Secondly, you have asked me here to a university that is renowned for its course in European law, which has just introduced a brand new Master’s degree in European studies. Your university even bears the title of Jean Monnet European Centre of Excellence, in one of the founding States which, it must be said, has been deeply committed to European integration since day one. Belgium has always thrown itself into the European adventure with conviction and enthusiasm. It may be a “small country” in terms of size, but in European integration – I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – there is no such thing as a “small country”. As in families everywhere, all the members, however different, are equally important!
Or, of course, we could turn that on its head and say, with a twinkle in our eye, like Paul-Henri Spaak: "In Europe all countries are small. Some just haven’t noticed it yet"!
And lastly, I’m happy because I’m meeting you in Ghent, a Flemish city that has been profoundly European for hundreds of years. Ghent has been a major crossroads for European trade since the Middle Ages. As a legacy of that era of grandeur and wealth, it has retained a great economic dynamism, entrepreneurial spirit, and openness to the outside world. Ghent today is a city in the knowledge-based economy.
Ghent is also a crossroads for European history and culture – a heritage of outstanding monuments and institutions, Charles V, of course, Flemish painting and a number of masterpieces by the brothers Van Eyck, Nobel Prizes for peace, literature and medicine. It is a cultural and artistic melting pot of Europe-wide importance. I visited several times the SMAK, which is a very impressive museum.
More recently, Ghent seems to have carved out another niche for itself as a breeding ground for political leaders and fervent Europeans, such as Wilfried Martens, Willy de Clercq and Guy Verhofstadt!
Dynamism, innovation and openness: that is Ghent’s winning combination. It is also a winning combination for Belgium, which a recent study placed once again this year in the top flight of countries best equipped for globalisation. It is, ultimately, the combination we want to see for the Union to help it succeed in the 21st century.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
We are here today at a very important time for Europe. We have just recently presented a package of proposals on energy and climate of historic importance. I will come back to this in a moment. This comes only a few days after Malta and Cyprus joined the euro zone, Slovenia took up the Presidency of the Council of the EU, and the Schengen area was extended to nine “new” Member States. These three events are of enormous political significance because they are symbolic and political confirmation that the 2004 enlargement was an undoubted success.
There was also another important event, which was, of course, the signing in December of the Lisbon Treaty. That signing was the culmination of a protracted institutional debate (and I suspect that here in Belgium you have a fairly clear idea of what that means!). But above all it brings to an end two years of deadlock (and let me say I hope you will find a solution more quickly than that!). Europe was in a deadlock, admittedly, but like Belgium today it was able to find the will to bounce back, thanks to its pragmatism, which drives the search for the best possible compromise.
The signing of the Lisbon Treaty is a major step forward. It provides us with more democratic, effective and transparent institutions presenting a more united face to the outside world. But more than that, it also provides us with a new political impetus. Because in Lisbon it was Europe’s general interest and a determination to move forward that carried the day. As this illustrates, Europe is above all a construct of the will.
This excellent news is the product of the political formula we chose in 2005 as a way of taking Europe forward at a time when our institutional debate was deadlocked. This formula was the “Europe of real results” for its citizens, whereby we set out to create the conditions for our success in globalisation and provide our citizens with a practical demonstration of the added value of Europe. It is this that has enabled us to rebuild trust and overcome the deadlock. This is a successful formula for a Europe of continuity of action and preparation for the future.
For two years now, on an initiative from the European Commission, Europe has been preparing slowly but surely to face the challenges of the 21st century. The pieces of the puzzle are falling into place one by one. I believe that the time is ripe. I believe that the leaders and the citizens of Europe are ready. So now the time has come for dynamic consolidation!
The European Union must look more closely at the major questions of the future – climate change, energy, immigration, demography, education, innovation, research - against a background of economic reform.
Europe has decided to do so by going for the winning combination I mentioned just now: dynamism, innovation and openness.
In a global environment, greater dynamism means opening up our economies and modernising our social models, while at the same time, of course, preserving the special nature of our European principles of solidarity and social welfare.
The Lisbon Strategy for Growth and Jobs is starting to bear fruit: 6.5 million jobs have been created in two years and 5 million more are expected by 2009. The unemployment rate is expected to fall below the 7% mark, its lowest level since the mid-80s. Productivity has increased. Public deficits have fallen sharply. Our single currency protects the European economy from external shocks.
The economic and social modernisation of the Union requires innovation. In other words our aim has been to provide a boost to all aspects of the knowledge economy – education, lifelong learning, and research.
We want to build on the positive start we made in 2007, and in the next cycle of the Lisbon Strategy we aim to encourage the Member States to invest much more extensively in human capital. The Commission is also proposing, for example, that work should begin in an area very close to my own heart, namely the creation of a “fifth freedom” of the Union – the free movement of knowledge – through the setting up of a genuine European research area to speed up innovation and open it up to the largest possible number of Europeans.
You can’t have dynamism and innovation without openness. The internal market is a mechanism for opening up the marketplace and stimulating European competitiveness. It also has the enormous advantage of providing citizens with a very practical demonstration of European added value. When the Union adopts a measure which creates access to commercial outlets in 27 countries, it is no mean feat! When it adopts a measure which benefits 500 million Europeans, it is no mean feat either! In fact it’s a considerable achievement. The reduction in roaming charges for mobile phones, which could benefit half-a-billion consumers, illustrates this very well.
To consolidate our efforts in a globalised economy there are also the new areas where the Commission has proposed introducing coordinated action at EU level. This brings me to the package of energy and climate measures which the Commission proposed last week. In terms of industry, technology and the environment these measures will take Europe into completely uncharted waters. Europe can choose to adopt the world's most comprehensive and ambitious project to tackle climate change.
It is also the most well-balanced. The underlying philosophy of the strategy strikes a balance between the economy and ecology, between competitiveness and protecting the climate. The European economy will have to adapt to environmental constraints, but by innovating it will be investing in the future, creating jobs and opening up increasingly valuable markets for itself.
Our proposal also strikes a balance between the targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 20% and increasing the share of renewable energy in overall consumption to 20%.
It is balanced in the way the burden is shared between the Member States, according to their own situation. And it balances the interests of the different stakeholders.
"What about the cost?" I hear some people ask. But compare the investment that will have to be made – about 0.5% of European GDP – with the long-term benefits - measured in terms of the cost of doing nothing, which would be between 5 and 20% of GDP - and I think the figures speak for themselves.
I am convinced that our fair and feasible proposal offers Europeans a project that can truly inspire and mobilise society over a period of 10 to 20 years. I am proud that the Commission has taken the political responsibility for achieving this.
In this proposal, as in all forward-looking projects the Commission makes full use of its right of initiative in the European interest. If the political will is there we will create the means and opportunities to respond to the challenges of the 21st century. I am confident of this.
But Europe's future in a globalised economy depends also on its rising to another challenge: it must enhance its political unity in order to assume its proper place in a world without hegemony where new world players are becoming increasingly powerful. Preparing for globalisation also means equipping oneself with the means to influence it. With its unique model of economic and political integration, but also its values, Europe is strongly placed to play a role in the new emerging world order.
Europe must unite to find constructive solutions to the common problems which far exceed national capabilities. I am thinking for example of the pressure which emerging Asian economies exert on world competitiveness, the pressure some oil and gas producers exert on world energy markets, the pressure exerted by the financial markets on the world economy, or the pressure exerted by fundamentalism and terrorism on world security. Can Europe lay itself open as a potential victim to all these types of potential pressure? Obviously not.
Instead, the EU must unite to face these pressures in a world of greater risks. Take the example of the financial markets. I was in London yesterday for a meeting of the European members of the G8. In the current turbulent times we wanted to look at the coordination measures that could be taken to increase financial stability in Europe. We have reasons to be confident. We have a large internal market which has been strongly stimulated by enlargement. The fundamentals of the European economy are sound. And we have the stabilising effect of the euro. The meeting in London is a good example of the political signal we want to send to our international partners about Europe acting cohesively.
When Europe takes the initiative it makes progress. When Europe leads the way the world follows. And when Europe makes proposals it thinks of solidarity: internally, between Member States, and externally with the developing countries in particular. The international debate on climate change, as we saw at the conference in Bali, is a perfect example of this.
Ladies and gentlemen,
Europe is acting. Europe is making progress. Europe is looking ahead. And one important dividend of this is a significant improvement in the political parameters. I believe that the European public is gradually getting the measure of globalisation. And people understand that Europe offers the only sensible way of adapting to it, while at the same time preserving their way of life and their values. In fact the EU's approval rating among European citizens is at its highest since 1994!
We must now consolidate this positive dynamic
I believe in the ambitious strategy of a powerful Europe. At this time of globalisation we need a strong Europe more than ever. By this I mean a united Europe – of large and small, central and peripheral, rich and poor Member States. We need a Europe of solidarity. A Europe that has the will to act. A Europe of leadership.
The European Commission will continue to work resolutely towards this goal, and I will personally devote all my energies to it.