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Speech - EU Citizenship – Anno 2013

Commission Européenne - SPEECH/13/1003   02/12/2013

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European Commission

Viviane Reding

Vice-President of the European Commission, EU Justice Commissioner

EU Citizenship – Anno 2013

Dialogue with Rik Torfs, Rector of KU Leuven / Kortrijk, Campus of the University of Leuven

2 December 2013

Main Messages

The elections next year are about many things. But above all, 2014 will be the year that Europe makes a choice.

Being a citizen is a “state of mind” – it is something that exists 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. It is about getting involved in the debate, having your say and questioning the status quo."

"But there is one thing I can tell you: it is up to you. Europe is not something that just “happens”. Europe is what we make it."

Good morning everybody,

It is a great pleasure to come to beautiful Kortrijk to speak with you, Mr Torfs, but also to all the students, staff and everyone else who has come here today.

This morning, I would like to do three things:

  • First, I want to ask you to take part in an experiment.

  • Second, I want to present you with a choice.

  • And third, I want to extend an invitation to everyone here today.

1. How far we have come

So let me start with the experiment.

Seeing that I am in a university famous for philosophy, it should not surprise you that it is a “thought experiment”. A “what if?”

What if instead of giving this speech here today on 2nd December 2013, I would have given it 30 years ago on 2nd December 1983? Probably before most of you were born?

What if instead of talking to the “Class of 2013” I was talking to the “Class of 1983?”

What would be the same and what would be different?

Well, at first glance, not much would be different. What I would have seen talking to a group of students would probably have been much the same as 30 years ago.

Sure, people’s phones would be a bit bigger and their hair a bit longer – but students’ concerns back then were probably much the same as yours today. What is happening on Saturday night? Will I pass my exams? Will I get the job I want when I graduate?

Yet, if one of these students had stepped outside of the lecture hall 30 years ago, they would have seen a Europe very different to the one we know today.

  • A Europe much smaller than today, split down the middle by the Iron Curtain.

  • A Europe where you could not even travel the 30 kilometres from here in Kortrijk to Lille in France without stopping at the border.

  • A Europe where the very idea of “European” citizens was unthinkable.

Looking back to those days, I would like to point out something which is often taken for granted. What we have achieved in the last 30 years is amazing. We have created European citizens with real rights. In just 30 years, in one generation.

  • Today, as European citizens – you live in a continent which is both peaceful and united.

  • Today, as European citizens – you cannot only travel 30km to Lille without showing your papers, you can travel 3000km across Europe – from Vilnius in Lithuania to Valencia in Spain - without once stopping at a border.

  • And, as European citizens – you can take part in programmes like ERASMUS - which will support five million students between now and 2020. And here is why it is good for you. If you want to do a Master's course outside of Belgium when you graduate, you will be able to receive a loan directly from the EU to fund it. All this thanks to a vote in the European Parliament last month.

2. European elections: your choice

And this brings me to my second point. At the end of May 2014, citizens in our Union will be voting in the European Parliament elections.

The elections next year are about many things. But above all, 2014 will be the year that Europe makes a choice.

2014 will be the year that people across our continent – including all of you here today – choose what kind of Europe they want to live in:

  • A Europe of nation states or a Europe of citizens?

  • A one-speed Europe or a two-speed Europe?

  • A Europe based on values or a Europe based on interests?

For each of these questions, I have my own answers. I am sure that Mr Torfs has his and you have yours. And that is the way it should be. An election is about letting people make their own choice. It is about letting people find their own answers.

But today, we are faced with a new challenge. I am talking about the fact that for many young people across Europe, the first question they ask themselves when it comes to the European elections is not "What choice will I make?" but "Will I make a choice at all?" Or even "What is the point?"

The numbers speak for themselves.

  • Only 4 out of 10 young people think their voice counts in the EU.

  • The result? Fewer than 1 in 3 young people voted in the last European elections in 2009.

We need to change this. We need to show people that their voice matters. And their choice matters.

Now I know that here in Belgium, voting in European elections is compulsory. But I still think it is important you know that your voice counts. Moreover, I am sure that many of you here have friends in France, in Germany, in the Netherlands – perhaps even in Luxembourg!

We need you not just to make your choice, but to convince them that their choice matters too!

  • That their choice determines whether the European Parliament will vote to keep ERASMUS funding or to scrap it altogether.

  • That their choice determines whether the European Parliament will vote to protect online data or to give it away freely to anyone.

3. An invitation: join the debate on Europe's future

But let us not forget – being a citizen is about more than just elections. And this brings me to my third point.

Citizenship is not just about an “action” – the act of voting. It is not something that exists for the one second you cast your vote and then disappears until the next election.

Rather, being a citizen is a “state of mind” – it is something that exists 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. It is about getting involved in the debate, having your say and questioning the status quo.

In Europe today, these sorts of debates are more important than ever. In the last few years, European Institutions have been granted new powers to stop the economic crisis repeating itself. These new powers are changing the way that these institutions interact with Member States and Europe’s citizens.

And as more and more decisions that affect people's lives directly are taken at European level, institutions and decision-making processes need to become more democratic. That requires some big changes. But before we implement them, I strongly believe that we need a debate to listen to citizens’ views on how Europe is changing.

The decisions which will determine Europe’s future cannot just be made by politicians behind closed doors. We need to talk to people – like you – to decide upon a path for Europe together. And that is exactly what we have been doing.

Since late last year, the European Commission has been holding “Citizens’ Dialogues” in town halls across Europe.

These are really about one thing: giving Commissioners like me a chance to listen to people's views. At a Dialogue there are no long political speeches like this one.

So far we have held almost 40 of these Dialogues across Europe and they will continue in 2014.

Earlier, I promised you an invitation – so here it is. In just a few weeks' time, on 16 January, I will be holding an Online Dialogue. So this time, I will not travel to one particular place, but take questions and listen to views voiced via Facebook or Twitter by citizens all over Europe.

Of course you will have a chance to ask me questions today, but experience shows time is always too short for everyone to have their say. And in the Online Dialogue, you will have the chance to be part of a debate on European issues with other people, young and old, from many different Member States and hear their different views – a unique experience.

I hope I have given you a good idea of what I think it means to be a European citizen in 2013.

Just one final thought before I pass over to Mr Torfs.

At the beginning of my talk, I asked you to think back 30 years into the past. But what about the future?

Who knows what you will be doing in 30 years' time – on 2nd December 2043. And who knows what Europe will look like by this point. And what it will mean to be a European citizen.

Now, I cannot predict the future any better than you.

But there is one thing I can tell you: it is up to you. Europe is not something that just “happens”. Europe is what we make it. And I hope that all of you here today will be inspired to vote, join the debate and shape Europe’s future!

Many thanks.


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