Maroš ŠEFČOVIČ Vice-President of the European Commission Responsible for Interinstitutional Relations and Administration 'More Europe – what does it mean, and why do we need it?' Seminar at Nuffield College Oxford, 25 May 2012
European Commission - SPEECH/12/387 25/05/2012
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Vice-President of the European Commission Responsible for Interinstitutional Relations and Administration
'More Europe – what does it mean, and why do we need it?'
Seminar at Nuffield College
Oxford, 25 May 2012
Ladies and Gentlemen
Let me start with a few words of thanks. It is always a pleasure to visit the UK and in particular to be invited to such a prestigious seat of learning as Oxford University. I can always be sure that the debate and discussion will be of the highest quality, and I always look forward to such opportunities with relish. As I am sure you can understand, it is rarely easy to come to Britain to defend and support the European project, but it is important that we continue to do so, to engage with the people of Britain – in particular the young people of Britain – to put our side of the story, to try to show why we believe Britain is good for Europe and Europe good for Britain. So many thanks for giving me this opportunity to be here today to do just that!
The topic I want to discuss today is one that, I suspect, would leave many a tabloid headline writer blue in the face: more Europe. I'm well aware, of course, that the general sentiment in large parts of the UK (or the UK media at least) is that you don't need Europe at all, let alone more of it, and that the sooner you are free to go your own way without those pesky Continentals telling you what to do all the time the better it will be for the country as a whole!
What I want to do is to set out a different vision: a Europe that has a clear direction; a Europe that brings clear benefits to all 500m EU citizens; a Europe that is democratic and legitimate; a Europe that matters.
So what do I mean by 'more Europe'? In Brussels, it’s an expression that is often used, and mis-used, and which seems to mean different things to different people. 'More Europe' is often indeed seen as synonymous with a 'power grab' by Brussels, attempts by so-called 'unelected Eurocrats' to take more power and responsibility for themselves and thus to undermine national sovereignty. It won't come as any surprise to you to hear that this is not how I define 'more Europe'!
For me, 'more Europe' is a positive thing, something not only to be aspired to but also something that I believe is absolutely necessary for the EU to face up to the major challenges of the 21st century. For let's be under no illusions: Europe is going through what is undoubtedly the greatest test it has faced in its 50-year history. Each day that goes by brings more doom-laden headlines predicting the end of the euro or the end of the EU itself. And there are plenty of critics, and not just here in the UK, that have exploited what they see as Europe's failure to sort out the eurozone crisis as yet more evidence, if any were needed, of the fatal flaws in European integration.
The very idea of 'more Europe' as a possible solution to this crisis is totally alien to such people, and yet to me it is absolutely the answer.
If there is one lesson that we can learn from the crisis it's that Europe is deeply inter-connected, far more so than most national governments might think or indeed admit. Decisions taken in one capital have knock-on effects across the EU and beyond – that's obvious from the impact that the Greek economic crisis has had on the rest of the eurozone and the wider EU. The days of governments saying one thing in front of their peers in Brussels and doing entirely another back home in front of the electorate are over – one of the main EU responses to the crisis has been to put into place reinforced budget rules for all Member States that will require each country's proposals to be examined by their European partners, including the Commission, to ensure that they will not be detrimental to the union as a whole, for example by running up unsustainable debt levels.
This imperative to work together is what I mean by more Europe – a concept also summed up neatly by European Council President Herman Van Rompuy earlier this year when he said: "What we are currently going through is not a renationalisation of European politics, it is the Europeanisation of national political life."
It does not mean giving up sovereignty to 'Europe', to 'Brussels' or to the Commission: for example, budgets will still be drafted and adopted at national level, in a fully democratic and transparent manner. But what it does mean is accepting the reality of European integration – that Europe, as a political entity has been moving towards ever closer union for the last 50 years, a movement that has been supported at each stage by governments across the EU – how else could it happen without this democratic support? It is an integration that is built on solidarity – the very concept that we are all in this together and must share the responsibility for both good times and bad.
But European integration is much more than a simple political reality, hard as that may in itself be for some governments to admit. It is also the great strength of Europe, what makes the EU unique. It is what has given us – the 500m citizens of Europe – all the many benefits and advantages that we share today. It may seem inappropriate to talk about what Europe has given us when at the moment all it seems to have given us is economic instability and recession, but it is, I believe, by building on the European foundations that we already have – by crating 'more Europe' – that we will be able to overcome the current crisis and return, stronger than before, to the unprecedented levels of peace and prosperity that Europe has known since the second world war.
Let me give you some examples.
There is widespread consensus that Europe's austerity measures need to be complemented with growth measures to stimulate the economy and create jobs – this has been repeated on numerous occasions from the March EU Summit to last week's informal meeting of G8 leaders in the US and the informal Council meeting on Wednesday.
Easier said than done, perhaps? Well, Europe's strategy for growth and jobs, agreed by all 27 Member States, has been in place since 2010 - it's called the Europe 2020 strategy. It commits each Member State to making the necessary structural reforms to meet EU-wide goals of stimulating the labour market, improving energy efficiency, deepening social inclusion and promoting entrepreneurship and skills.
A recent Eurobarometer survey in the UK showed that around 55-60% of people interviewed believed that these were worthwhile goals – and yet all national governments have been slow to make the necessary structural changes to help meet them. The shift in the political mood towards greater emphasis on growth should, I hope, mean an acceleration of these changes – and an acceptance that a Europe-wide, and not just eurozone-wide approach is what is needed.
Another example – the single market. I know that for many British people, this is the main (if not only) raison d'être for the EU – easy, tariff-free access to a market of 500m consumers. Indeed,
10% (3.5 million) of UK jobs are reliant on exports to EU member states, UK exports to member states are worth more than £200 billion, and 49% of foreign direct investment in the UK comes from EU countries – these are UK government figures, by the way!
It is 20 years since the deadline for completion of the single market, and yet there are still numerous barriers to completely free trade within and between EU Member States; artificial barriers maintained because of the intransigence of a handful of countries, defending a particular interest or sector of importance to them at the national level. All the evidence, not least in the report on the single market by the then former Commissioner and current Italian PM Mario Monti drafted in 2009 at the request of President Barroso, showed that completing the single market would give a massive boost to the European economy. And yet it was not until Europe was teetering on the brink of economic and financial meltdown that the political momentum finally shifted in favour of taking the necessary final steps to fully open up the EU market.
This is what I mean by 'more Europe' – countries working together towards the collective good, rather than putting national self interest first; working with the European institutions that they themselves put in place rather than against them to find the best solutions to problems and drivers for growth.
I'm happy to say that this is increasingly the way things are being done – yes, there are disagreements between Member States, or between Member States and the Commission, on certain issues – project bonds or financial transaction taxes, for example – but there is far less in the way of unilateral or bilateral action, trying to impose one particular view over another.
Perhaps this is due to the underlying understanding that the EU is indeed stronger when it pulls together, but perhaps there is also an understanding that without Europe – with less Europe, if you like – things could be a whole lot worse.
I've already mentioned a couple of the positive aspects of European Union membership – the single market and Europe 2020 – but there are plenty more, often ignored or misunderstood, that underline why 'more Europe' is more necessary than ever.
There are some that grab the headlines in a positive way – cutting the cost of international roaming charges, for example, as was the case most recently. Others are sometimes reported in less positive terms – the freedom of movement, for example, is a massive benefit to Europeans, especially in times like these when job vacancies and skills need to be matched from the widest possible pool. This freedom is often reported not as a benefit but as a burden – as 'foreigners stealing our jobs or taking our benefits'. Yet without it, millions more Europeans would be potentially out of work, putting far more pressure on both public and private sectors alike.
There are hundreds of EU benefits, direct or indirect, that I could mention. Let me give you a few specific examples from the UK – a net contributor to the EU budget, of course, but one that nonetheless benefits from EU support for projects the length and breadth of the country.
In Northern Ireland, for example, EU funding of £6.5m has helped turn the disused Belfast gasworks into a thriving business hub, with shops, hotels and conference centres providing jobs for 2,500 people.
In Wales, £15.3m of EU funding has been invested in the Low Carbon Research Institute in Cardiff, described by President Barroso as one of "the best examples in Europe of research, innovation and sustainable development" and which is working to develop effective alternatives to fossil fuels that will have an enormous long-term benefit for all of us.
In Scotland, £3.5m in European funding was granted to help create the Heart of Hawick project, rejuvenating the former mill town of Hawick on the border with England through investment in social, cultural and economic regeneration. And in England, a £22.5m EU investment has helped Newquay Airport develop and expand, creating jobs and employment opportunities in one of the remotest parts of the country by significantly improving transport links.
History shows us that, for all its faults – and I think it's important that we recognise that the system is not perfect, and that we can always do better – for all its faults, the benefits of European integration outweigh the disadvantages. 'More Europe' is what we have always had – each new Treaty, each new Directive, each new Member State – brings 'more Europe', the fuel that moves the European machine on to a new stage and gives it new impetus.
It is a road that has always been strewn with potholes and pitfalls – the euro crisis is perhaps the biggest and deepest but it is by no means the first and is unlikely to be the last – but the EU continues to move forward, slowly but surely, towards the goals of peace and prosperity for all. The current economic situation may have forced us into a major detour, but I believe that we remain en route for this destination – and indeed are better equipped now to get there faster.
But the European machine to continue on its journey, all its constituent parts need to be in good working order, and that is why I believe that 'more Europe' will only work if we also have 'more Britain'. Seen from Brussels, the UK is a bit of a curate's egg – a large part of the media, public and political opinion is broadly eurosceptic, seemingly happy to see conspiracy and cronyism in all things European. Yet the British in Brussels – civil servants working for the Commission or other institutions, ministers attending Council meetings, MEPs debating in the European Parliament, local councillors and mayors at the Committee of the Regions or trade union and industry leaders at the Economic and Social Committee – by and large take a more pragmatic approach. They are generally committed to making the system work more effectively and efficiently, warts and all. This is an approach that, perhaps ironically, is generally well received - indeed, Brits hold more senior positions in the EU civil service than any other nationality.
That's why I think it’s a real shame that the UK is so under-represented within the EU institutional set-up. Only 5% of EU civil service are British – in the Commission alone, they account for just 3.9% - even though the UK accounts for 12% of the EU population. In comparison, there are nearly twice as many Germans in the Commission, and almost three times as many French or Italians.
Moreover, many of the British officials who joined the EU civil service back in the 70s when the UK joined the European Community will soon be due to retire – around half of them in fact over the next five years. At the same time, a tiny share of the applicants for the EU's annual graduate recruitment exercise are Brits (around 1%) – and fewer still actually manage to pass the exams.
Of course, this is not simply a matter of indifference or dislike of Europe – there is also the very practical reason of language skills, for example, that holds back potential British recruitment. Yes, English is a global language, and it is widely spoken in Europe – but part of the idea of 'more Europe', of greater integration and mutual understanding, involves celebrating the great diversity of languages and cultures our continent has to offer. That's why it is a requirement for all EU officials to speak at least two EU languages, why we encourage staff to learn more and why it is worrying that more emphasis is not placed on language learning in the UK.
Of course, it is not necessary to speak 23 different languages to benefit from all that Europe has to offer – but speaking another language makes it far easier to benefit from the freedom to study, work, marry, retire, or travel anywhere within the EU. And if you can do that more easily, I truly believe you can have a greater appreciation of just why we need 'more Europe'.
Thank you for your attention, and as I said at the beginning, I am looking forward to a lively debate!