Vice-President of the European Commission, EU Justice Commissioner
Building the Future with Europeans in the European Year of Citizens
Forum of the Committee of the Regions / Brussels
28 November 2012
Ladies and Gentlemen,
It is a pleasure to be here with you today to discuss the European Year of Citizens 2013.
Let me congratulate you on the theme for today's forum: "Regions and cities ready for the European Year 2013: Citizens' Agenda going local." I am glad that representatives of regions and cities want to be at the heart of this very important and very political European Year.
Indeed, European and local have always lived side by side. European politicians have always been local politicians.
I know this from my own experience as I began my political life more than 30 years ago as an elected local Councillor in the town of Esch-sur-Alzette in Luxembourg. It was there that I found the closest and strongest links between citizens and their elected representatives.
As many of you here know better than anyone, in times of crisis these local links are more important than ever. Local representatives are still the first port of call. For the same simple reasons as 30 years ago.
Citizens want to turn to:
Someone who speaks their language.
Someone just around the corner.
Someone who understands their problems.
Indeed, in this respect, little has changed in 30 years.
Yet in another sense, everything has changed since I became a local Councillor 30 years ago.30 years ago, you couldn't even travel the 3 kilometres from Esch-sur-Alzette in Luxembourg to Russange in France without a lengthy wait at the border.
Today, any EU citizen can travel 3.000 kilometres from Vilnius in the North-east, to Lisbon in the South-west, crossing five national borders and never once stopping to show their passport.
30 years ago, our continent was still divided. East and West lived separate lives.
Today, people from East and West are united under a common status: European citizenship. Sharing common values: freedom, democracy, peace and the rule of law.
Three small examples: Each one showing how far we have come in just one generation.
Jean Monnet once wrote "ce qui était impossible pour les pères devint naturel pour les fils" – "what had once been impossible for fathers, became normal for their sons." This is now our challenge. We have become victims of our own success. The benefits fought so hard for yesterday are now being taken for granted.
In this sense, the European Year of Citizens next year will be an opportunity to make people aware of their rights. An opportunity to show how European policies affect their lives. And the best moment to look together for the best way to our common future.
Today, I would like to discuss three points at the heart of the European Year:
First, building a better Europe for citizens.
Second, inviting them to join the debate.
Third, informing them of their rights.
1. Building a better Europe for citizens
Today, peoples' overriding concern is the crisis. 9 out of 10 Europeans cite unemployment or the economic situation as one of the most important issues currently facing their region.1
And what do citizens expect from us?
According to a recent Eurobarometer survey, Europeans' foremost expectation of the EU is that it should fight the crisis.2 Indeed, over half of our citizens give this response.
They have lived the effects of the failed recipes of the past: Of national decisions with international consequences.
They have seen how the economic difficulties of some Member States spread unchecked to neighbouring countries.
They recognise that we need European answers to European problems.
They recognise that Europe will emerge stronger, not just in spite of the crisis, but because of it. According to a recent poll, over half of Europeans agree that our Union will be stronger in the long-run as a consequence of the crisis.3
The European Union has already acted. We have taken unprecedented steps to provide these "European answers" that our continent, our countries and our regions desperately need.Today, the European Commission went one important step further. We presented our Blueprint for a deep and genuine Economic and Monetary Union. It is an ambitious, but realistic document that shows where we can and should go in the next 5-6 years: to a stronger fiscal, economic and banking union in the euro area, with:
a progressively built up federal budget of the Euro zone with a financial capacity to stimulate growth and to stabilise the economy
a Euro zone Treasury in the Commission (made up by the ESM and a Euro zone Redemption Fund and with the capacity to issue Euro bills of 1-2 years maturity)
a Euro zone Finance Minister (the Commission VP for economic and monetary affairs), accountable to the European Parliament (with a specialised Euro zone committee), with the right to veto national budgets which are not in line with the rules
a Eurozone Bank Resolution Mechanism and a Euro zone Deposit Scheme
a single Euro zone seat at the IMF.
This blueprint is one of the most interesting, most relevant and most political texts I have seen since becoming Commissioner in 1999. It shows leadership and resolve; it shows vision and explains where Europe should go in the coming years.
Our destination in the coming years is clear: if we want to preserve and strengthen Europe's position in the world, we need to turn our Economic and Monetary Union into a strong European Political Federation with a Monetary, Fiscal and Banking Union.
We need to be ambitious and go ahead. And we need to make sure that stronger powers and competences at European level go hand in hand with stronger democratic legitimacy at the European level.
This debate has just started. I am convinced: We need a stronger, a more federal Europe.
We will need a strong Political Union that is at the heart of everything we do.
With day-to-day control by the directly elected European Parliament. A Political Union where every citizen, from the smallest village to the largest city, feels their voice counts in shaping our continent's future.
2. Inviting our citizens to join the debate
But we still have a long way to go.
Today, only one in three citizens thinks that their voice counts in the EU.4 Just one in three. This situation must change.
Today, many people feel that politics is something done behind closed doors, in places far away from them, by people who are nothing like them.
And this brings me to my second point – we must invite citizens to join the debate.
But we must not just invite people to come to us. We are coming to listen to them! And we expect them to tell us what they want, what they wish.
As President Barroso said in his State of the Union address, "the times of European integration by implicit consent is over". We need to engage now.
The Commission has started a series of debates or townhall meetings – and I would like to invite you to come to those and also to organise additional ones to join the debate. In particular during the European Year, these give citizens a real say in Europe's future. For the next 13 months, we will always ask the same questions: "How should we fight the crisis? – What do you expect from your European citizenship? And: What kind of Europe do you want by 2020?"
Let me tell you one more thing about these Debates:
They are not just in Brussels.
They are not just in national parliaments.
They are not just in Capital cities.
And this is no accident. Most of them are being held in town halls, public squares and universities in regions across Europe.
Indeed, the regions are the key.
A recent Eurobarometer survey, polling 50,000 Europeans region-by-region and commissioned especially for an event hosted by the Committee of the Regions, revealed that regional and local political representatives are best able to explain how European policies impact people's lives.5 Not national or European politicians – but regional ones! That means: You!
These results showing the power of regions only confirmed my first-hand experience during the first three Citizens' Dialogues:
In Cadiz, Spain, the first dialogue in September this year did not begin with a European or national politician. We started by listening to Teofila Martinez, the town's mayor and her experience in using structural funds as a much appreciated tool for investment.
In Graz, Austria, for the second Debate, we listened for example to a young local Councillor who asked how he could better communicate Europe to his small rural community.
In Berlin, Germany, for the third Debate, we listened to a woman asking for a stronger role of the Parliament. Three Debates.
Three different regions.
Three unique experiences.
I invite you to our dialogues, but also encourage you to hold yours and to let us know the results, also through the Committee of the Regions.
Your regional expertise is needed – whether you are a member of the Committee of the Regions, a member of the public or a regional representative working in Brussels.
Open up your town halls and your public squares to fuel discussion throughout the European Year.
3. Informing our citizens of their rights
And this brings me to my third point. In one month's time the European Year will begin. 2013 will also be the 20th anniversary of the concept of EU citizens, first enshrined in the Maastricht Treaty.
Even after just 20 years the results are stunning for all to see.
In 25 of our 27 (and soon 28 with Croatia) Member States at least half of those questioned say that they "feel like EU citizens".6
Two years ago, most Europeans saw themselves as just being of their nationality – whatever it may be.
Today most people see themselves as being their nationality and European. Indeed, the percentage of those seeing themselves as both national and European has risen by 8% since 2010.7 That might not sound like a lot. But it is quite a feat considering that national citizenship has been around for hundreds of years, whilst European citizenship has existed for only 20.
Yet our work is by no means finished. Whilst many might "feel" like European citizens, only a minority actually know the rights that this grants them.8 Raising awareness on the status of European citizenship will be a key challenge for the European Year.
European citizenship must be to the Political Union what the Euro is to the Monetary Union: A lived, concrete reality.
A further challenge will be overcoming final obstacles to citizens enjoying their rights. This means "filling in the gaps" to ensure that citizens can travel, work and reside anywhere in Europe.
Practical examples of this:
Earlier this year, we launched a study on the application of EU free movement to determine the final barriers to free circulation on our continent.
We are currently taking steps to ensure correct transposition of the Consumer Rights Directive into national law. Harmonising Europeans' right to withdraw from online purchases within 14 days anywhere in Europe.
We make it easier for Citizens to stand for European elections outside of their home country.
Furthermore, having undertaken the largest ever public consultation in European history, receiving nearly 12,000 responses, the Commission will feed the results into the 2013 Citizenship Report. This report will announce at set of very concrete actions to get rid of obstacles dealt with by people on a daily basis.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
We have achieved so much, but there is still much more to do.
Your discussions here today will contribute to the European Year next year. This, in itself, forms part of a wider chain of events, including the European elections in 2014, which will put the citizen at the core of everything we do.
Building the EU that European citizens want is not some kind of laboratory experiment. It is a political necessity and a historical responsibility.
I am very glad to see that the regions will be at the heart of this:
You have the local expertise.
You have a strong understanding of Europe's diversity.
You can help in building a brighter future for Europe.
I am not asking you what you can do for Europe, I am asking you to do for Europe. Join the debate.