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European Commission

José Manuel Durão Barroso

President of the European Commission

Statement by President following the High-level meeting with philosophical and non-confessional organisations

Press conference/Brussels

5 November 2013

Good afternoon Ladies and Gentlemen,

President Van Rompuy, Vice-President Surján, representing the President of the European Parliament and I have just had a very constructive discussion with eminent representatives of philosophical and non-confessional organisations.

As you know, under the Lisbon Treaty, the European Union equally respects the status of religious and non-religious organisations. We have been meeting annually since 2005 and by now we have a well-established way of working: we meet with religious leaders in the spring, and with philosophical and non-confessional organisations in the autumn. There is no discrimination in this order and in fact, not only we have regular contacts, but also we have this High-Level meeting that today we have once again organised.

It was a very interesting and very open discussion, the one we just had. We debated how to put citizens at the heart of the European project in times of change, but also, as many said, how we can put also Europe at the heart of the European citizens.

It was 20 years ago that the Maastricht Treaty entered into force and the concept of European citizenship became a reality. We have chosen to make 2013 the 'European Year of Citizens' to emphasise the symbolic and political value of this event. But this was not the most important reason for our decision. The most important decision was in fact to try to link better citizens and the European Union. We know that now, the times of European integration by implicit consent are over. We cannot do any of the important actions at European level without the support of our citizens.

Budgetary adjustments, for instance, have been painful for many citizens across Europe, particularly in the most vulnerable countries. But this major adjustment, for instance, will only have effect if it is properly explained, if there is ownership of the Member States in the important reforms that are needed for Europe to regain its competitiveness and to compete in a much more globalised world.

Since the start of the crisis, we have seen a growing gap between people and politicians. And we have to recognise that while some of the populist movements and some of the extremist forces in Europe were there well before the crisis (and we know that it's very often linked to migration), the reality is that, today, also because of the difficulties in economic terms and of the real problem of unemployment, there is a kind of attack, not only to the legitimacy of politicians, but also against the legitimacy of the European project. I think one of the reasons for that is difficulty with the mechanisms of communication and the mechanisms of representation. Citizens don't always see how decisions are made. And in the European Union this is particularly a problem, because we have to take decisions among 28 countries, national parliaments, and of course the European institutions.

I believe more unity is the best response to the crisis. But more unity has to be also accompanied by more democracy, more transparency, so that the citizens feel that they are really at the centre of the interests of the European Union.

I believe that European democracy must be furthered by enhancing the relationship between national democratic processes and the European democratic process. This is the best way to involve our citizens in the decisions we take. As a consequence, we need to move further on the path towards a genuine European political sphere. Now, it is up to us, as engaged Europeans, to breathe life into this European political sphere, so that we can communicate on all the European political space, and that the citizens of Europe really feel they are citizens of their countries but also they have this European citizenship.

I believe that in this troubled period it is more than ever important to reassure citizens that they are at the heart of the European project; that the decisions taken in Brussels and in national capitals are not against them but for them, and for our common European interest.

I believe that the solution to our problems is to be found within Europe, and not outside it. In fact it was not Europe that created the problems. Europe is part of the solution, Europe is helping the different governments to get things right to find the proper solutions.

I also believe that for this to happen we need a sense of belonging to a community of values. And today, during our discussions, we highlighted very clearly our commitment to the values, the values of freedom, the values of solidarity, the responsibility, the values of equality, all the values that make the European model so special: from the economy, with social market economy, to the respect of rule of law that should of course be a principle, not only when we speak with foreign powers or other partners but also inside the European Union.

In September, in Strasbourg, I said it and I would like to repeat it again: Do we want to improve Europe, or give it up? My answer is clear: Engage! If you don't like Europe as it is: improve it!

So that was the message we have heard today. Criticisms as well, people that want more from Europe because they are committed Europeans and at the same time they want to engage with Europe. And I believe this is the right spirit to face the very important challenges we are facing today.

I am happy to say that we got some good answers today. And I would like, once again, to thank all the participants for their valuable contributions.

Let me now give the floor to President Van Rompuy.

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