Vice-President of the European Commission, EU Justice Commissioner
Europe at the crossroads: an opportunity for optimism
European Policy Centre - Debate on the "State of the Union"
Brussels, 16 June 2011
Your Excellency Mr. Van Rompuy,
Ladies and gentlemen,
I would like to thank the European Policy Centre for inviting me here to talk about strategic choices for Europe.
This is a timely discussion as some paint a rather bleak and exaggerated, picture of the current State of our Union. Some even claim that and, I quote from the EPC paper - "the exit of a country from the euro zone, the end of the euro and even a disintegration of the EU" have suddenly become thinkable scenarios. It makes me think of U.S. President Harry Truman when he said that "a pessimist is one who makes difficulties of his opportunities and an optimist is one who makes opportunities of his difficulties". I am convinced that we can make an opportunity of our difficulties.
That is why I read with interest the EPC report and the thought-provoking strategic options it proposes for way ahead. I would like to share with you some of the thoughts that I had when reading it.
First, we need to look at the European Union with a bit of perspective. The history of the European Union is a history of repeatedly being at the "crossroads". It is a history during which Europeans constantly have been able to rise to the occasion and face challenges. And no one can deny that it has been a remarkable success story, and one that every European should be proud of.
We are indeed at a critical moment in Europe or again at a "crossroads": and some cast doubts on our collective achievements. We should remember that the rights and benefits Europeans enjoy today were not simply handed out to them. They had to be fought for. Sixty years ago, some Europeans started to turn a dream into reality. The European Union was built step-by-step, layer upon layer, with the hard work of many who won, through peaceful negotiation and responsible action, the freedoms, the benefits and the rights that 500 million Europeans enjoy today.
So let us not forget that much of what we take for granted today: the free movement, the freedom of expression, the single market, our common currency and the rule of law was only made possible thanks to the hard and responsible work of generations of men and women who patiently built the Europe of today. All of us have a great responsibility towards this achievement.
That is why we should never and we will never accept attempts to roll back the EU Treaties, be it our common currency, the Schengen agreement, or the free movement of goods and services. That is why we should not give in to the prophets of doom and gloom and their politics of fear and ideas of disintegration.
European integration, whether economic, social or political, is too great an achievement to be sacrificed to short-term party-political or narrow minded considerations or other non-European interests.
Secondly, let us take a quick look at the reality of the biggest economy of the world: ranking first in terms of GDP (over 12 trillion euro – compared with a figure of 10 trillion euro of the GDP in the US) and a single market of 500 million consumers. The recent figures of the spring forecast show that the economic recovery in Europe is on its way, with front runners such as Germany, and with many European nations following this trend. GDP growth is expected to grow by 1,5% in the euro area and around 1,75% in the EU this year. In 2012 the European economies are expected to grow by around 2%.
What we all need to do now, is strengthen these trends of growth to ensure that they translate into jobs and better living conditions for our citizens. We need such objective calls to continue fiscal consolidation and achieve a determined implementation of structural reforms while helping more specifically those of our members which are outside the general trend.
Europe is the solution, not the problem. This is the message and the raison d'être of the European Semester. I hear everywhere calls for an economic government. Well, we have set it up. Because we are interdependent also our national economic and financial decisions must be interdependent. After all we are not islands!
That is why the European Semester foresees common economic priorities, a prior monitoring of all national budget proposals. Can you imagine if a few years ago we would have asked to control national policy measures and their financing structures? It would have been a unanimous "never, never, ever"! Today, we do it. It is this European Commission that put this economic governance in place. It is this European Commission which assesses it and monitors the commitments made in terms of sound budgets, structural reforms and growth-enhancing measures.
Simply put, we are putting Europe's economic house in order.
This should therefore not be the time for self-flagellation or negativism. It should be the time for strong determination and self-confidence. If we are all responsible – responsible in our words, responsible in our action – Europe has a good chance to get out of the crisis stronger than it was before.
Just look for a moment to the other side of the Atlantic: The budget deficit in the United States was in May 2011 of over 14 trillion dollars and 98% of the annual US GDP. The United States is on an "unsustainable fiscal" path. And it seems that Americans do not show an enthusiasm to change this path. It is not me who says it. It is the US General Accountability Office. Add to this record unemployment figures, a large trade deficit and a rising current account deficit (up to 5.8% of GDP).
And yet, no one calls in question the single market of the United States or the viability of the dollar.
We should take this as an example for us Europeans. Let us be a bit more self-confident and show more resolve to tackle the challenges.
And this effort should include national governments and national politicians. Let us not ignore that the European Union is much more than the institutions in Brussels. The national governments and the national parliaments also play a role in making Europe stronger for European citizens.
We will not fail. We will make Europe stronger because only a united Europe can offer its citizens a harbour for their hopes and values, for freedom and solidarity.
As the European Central Bank President Trichet said recently in Aachen – "each generation needs to affirm its commitment to Europe". We have therefore to be mindful of our citizens' interests and concerns and design solutions to ensure that citizens understand why European unity is more important than ever in the present globalised world. All this cannot be achieved if we fight one another.
All this cannot be achieved if we put the interest of some groups above the common interest. We will stand alone or act together.
The projects we have on the table and in particular our growth strategy for the decade will allow us to deliver high levels of employment, productivity and social cohesion.
Europe 2020 and its different tools (or the flagships – such as digital agenda, innovation union, resource efficient Europe and an agenda for a Europe of the citizens) is very much aligned with the pistes de reflection presented by the EPC in its report.
I very much agree with the premise of the report that "the time to act is now." The world is indeed turning faster today and we cannot afford a decade of stagnation. That is why I am telling you: you can certainly count on the Commission to continue to be at the heart of the process, to lead the debate and come up with good and solid proposals.