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Vice-President of the European Commission Responsible for Interinstitutional Relations and Administration
When European affairs become domestic affairs: the role of national parliaments in the EU
National Assembly Committee on European Affairs
Bulgaria, Sofia, 9 February 2012
Thank you for your kind invitation to come to Sofia for this exchange of views with Members of your Assembly.
EU affairs are more and more becoming an integral part of Member States' internal policies and not only since the economic and financial crisis began.
What is negotiated and decided at European level has an increasing impact on national politics. This is not a power grab by leaders in Brussels. It is because our world has changed and we have become much more interdependent. This is a reality. Only the EU provides the tools to better manage this reality.
In many policy areas European affairs have, in fact, already become part of domestic affairs. This is why I particularly welcome today's opportunity to meet members of the Committee on European Affairs and Oversight of the European Funds, which plays a crucial coordinating role in scrutinizing EU proposals and policies in the National Assembly.
I believe that regular direct contacts at political level, between Members of the Commission and national Parliamentarians, are of utmost importance, as they facilitate our communication on key policy projects and foster mutual understanding.
This continuous dialogue with national parliaments is indispensible not only in shaping the priorities of the Union. National parliaments have an even more important role to play as we move towards closer European economic governance.
Important steps have already been taken to coordinate economic policies through the European Semester and to make the Stability and Growth Pact stronger and more credible. And only last week, the leaders of 25 Member States – including of course Bulgaria - decided to bring economic governance to an unprecedented stage of integration by agreeing on a new international treaty. The new treaty will bring about greater fiscal discipline via a new 'fiscal compact' and will strengthen the Excessive Deficit Procedure, economic policy coordination and the governance of the euro area.
While the Commission firmly believes that an approach based on the EU treaties and the institutions of the EU is preferable and should be the objective in the medium term, we support the content of the international agreement. It builds on the solid foundation laid by the 'six pack' legislation and connects well to the new economic governance proposals that are currently under discussion and must be adopted quickly.
You will have seen that the treaty also explicitly foresees contacts among the national parliaments to discuss how national economic and budgetary policies are run, also involving the European Parliament.
This is why the Commission very much welcomes the fact that in 2011 your Parliament has started to participate very actively in the political dialogue with the Commission.
I would like to thank you for the effort and expertise reflected in the detailed opinions we've received from you over the last year, and which covered both the content of our proposals and initiatives and subsidiarity-related questions.
Even if we do not always share the same views, the exchanges we hold are always stimulating, and the Commission especially appreciates your very constructive approach.
Since we launched the political dialogue in 2006, the number of opinions received from national Parliaments has constantly increased (2009: 250 opinions, 2010: 387 opinions, 2011: 620 opinions)
From the over 1000 opinions received since the entry into force of the Lisbon Treaty, only 87 have flagged subsidiarity concerns. Two of these were opinions issued by your Assembly: one on the Common Consolidated Corporate Tax Base (received in May 2011), and the other on the Community framework for the taxation of energy products and electricity (received in June 2011).
We take all such opinions extremely seriously and have responded to them in detail. However, we are encouraged to note that the thresholds for triggering the so-called "yellow card" were far from being reached. This reflects the care we put in to our proposals, even if there is as always room for improvement.
As the scope of the subsidiarity control mechanism is relatively narrow, the Commission has always been fully committed to continue and to enhance its broader "political dialogue" with national Parliaments, which complements the subsidiarity control mechanism.
I am glad to see that your Assembly fully shares and supports this approach.
Let me now focus in more detail on our political priorities for the coming year.
We are entering the 5th consecutive year trying to deal with the most severe economic crisis since the Great Depression.
When we look at the statistics, especially at unemployment rates, and specifically among young people, there is absolutely no room for complacency.
Fiscal consolidation is essential for a return to stability. Enormous efforts are being made to bring public finances back to health across Europe. We are also putting in place much stricter controls to ensure that there is no repeat of the economic and financial turmoil of recent years, which has had such a profound economic and social cost.
However, the Commission has made it very clear that growth is also part of the solution. Leaders last week agreed unanimously that we must step up our efforts urgently to get the European economy growing and to create jobs. This requires deep structural reforms at national level. It is also means that we must do all we can to unlock the potential of Europe's single market and to use the EU budget intelligently to help SMEs and help get people back to work.
We already have an excellent strategy. It is called Europe 2020 and we have all agreed on it. It sets out a clear direction for an EU which is smarter, greener and fairer. More competitive. An EU that delivers lasting jobs and prosperity to its citizens. Europe 2020 balances the urgent need to restore stability with a long-term framework for reform. So we have the right plan – now we need to get on and deliver it.
So while we must of course respond decisively to the current crisis, we must also maintain our focus on a more stable and prosperous future. In other words, we must put out the fire and lay the foundations of our new house at the same time.
The Commission Work Programme 2012 is a programme designed to do just that. A programme of ambition and new initiatives, but also a programme of consolidation and continuity. And its multiannual nature allows all stakeholders, not least national parliaments, to plan ahead.
The Work Programme is therefore a strategic tool at your disposal, and I would like to encourage you to make use of it in a proactive manner.
Growth is at the heart of the work programme for 2012. We cannot wave a magic wand to bring back growth. But there is plenty that we can do.
The key to unlocking growth is competitiveness. And competitiveness is based on strong framework conditions that help business to thrive. This means modernising the single market, reducing bureaucracy, facilitating access to capital and providing support for research and innovation.
The Single Market is the EU's motor of growth. But to run smoothly and at full speed, it must be fuelled and maintained. With the 12 proposals set out in the Single Market Act, the Commission launched the first phase of an ambitious process to bring the Single Market into the 21st century. Early adoption of these measures would show an EU determined to do everything possible to boost growth and create jobs.
This is a clear priority and therefore the Commission will push the single market agenda further. New opportunities are waiting to be explored and exploited – not least in the digital Single Market. By 2015, 50% of Europeans should be buying online, and a third of SMEs should be doing business online. We expect to halve the number of Europeans who have never used the internet, and the difference between roaming and national tariffs should be close to zero.
Take the example of the on-line music business, which holds great retail potential. The Commission will propose new rules for cross-border licensing to expand the markets for entrepreneurs and artists.
We will also propose a common framework for electronic identification and signatures. This can boost electronic transactions across the EU and encourage both consumers and businesses to make the most of the opportunities available to them.
Efficient, modern infrastructures are the lifeblood of a thriving Single Market. With the Connecting Europe Facility, the Commission has proposed to support key investment in energy, transport and broadband. To assist public and private actors in creating tomorrow's networks - today.
We will also propose measures to tackle fragmentation in the European Research Area. This will help realise the so-called 'fifth freedom', namely the free circulation of knowledge. We want to see researchers spend more time in labs, and less time on paperwork.
In 2012, we will also aim to complete the ambitious overhaul of financial regulation and supervision, which the Commission has undertaken in recent years. This will provide all stakeholders with a stable and transparent environment for healthy, growth-stimulating investment.
When we let young people down, we jeopardise our future. The high youth unemployment that we witness today is one of our most pressing and serious challenges. 7.5 million young people across Europe are 'NEETs' - not in employment, education, nor training.
Many of the levers of social and employment policy are national, regional or local. But the Commission will propose complementary action at European level based on the flagships for skills and social inclusion and our Youth Opportunities Initiative. The Commission will assist job-seekers in exploring opportunities by enhancing information systems to better match skills and job openings across borders – with the creation of a Youth on the Move card. As the President announced last week, our intention is to work closely with Member States to ensure that the right national and European steps are being taken to get young people back to work.
Building a European energy system that ensures sustainability, competitiveness and security of supply also remains a top priority. In 2012 this includes a review of nuclear safety rules and the launching of a strategy for deployment of renewable energy beyond current commitments.
We cannot discuss the EU's political agenda for 2012 without talking about the EU budget. Much political effort this year will indeed be dedicated to ensuring the adoption of the Commission's proposals for the period 2014-2020. The modernised instruments on agriculture, on cohesion, on employment, on research and innovation and on infrastructure will lead to a major renewal of one our most crucial investment tools.
Our budget proposals are first and foremost proposals for growth. We must use the EU budget to make the forward-looking investments in education, research and infrastructure that Europe so desperately needs. Of course, we must take account of the current economic and fiscal climate. This means we need to make sure that every euro is used to deliver results for our citizens in areas of true EU value added. Well-targeted spending at EU level can help to relieve pressure on national finances.
I stressed earlier that at the end of the day the success of an economic renewal depends on implementation. It seems self-evident, yet the delivery of results must receive our full attention in 2012 at several levels:
At national level, efforts to follow-up the 2012 European Semester must be stepped up. Despite a high level of political commitment, many of the reforms identified and agreed for 2011 have not been implemented to a sufficient degree. This must change. You play a key role in keeping your government accountable and in helping to deliver on European commitments.
The Commission has already tabled a range of key proposals to help drive reform and lift competitiveness. Many of these proposals are today pending before the Council and the European Parliament. The EU patent is an example of how delays bring real costs: if adopted, it would reduce by 80% the cost of inventions by our companies. Likewise, Commission proposals on standardisation, energy savings or roaming charges are waiting for Member States and the European Parliament to make progress. This is why we have proposed – and the European Council and Parliament have accepted – to fast-track the proposals with the greatest potential for our citizens and to get them implementing and delivering benefits quickly.
Ladies and gentleman, as I have said we stand before a challenge to our economic and social model. We need to rise to this challenge together, European institutions and national Parliaments, and make sure we deliver for our citizens.
It is a difficult road ahead of us, but one that we must take together.