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Vice-President of the European Commission responsible for inter-institutional relations and administration
The value of Europe: national parliaments’ role in supporting May’s European elections
Joint meeting of the European Affairs Committees of the Romanian Senate and Chamber of Deputies
Bucharest, 10 February 2014
Minister, Honourable Members, Ladies and Gentlemen,
Thank you for this kind invitation to speak to both your committee. Over the last four years or so, I've had the chance to visit or speak to almost all the European affairs committees of the 28 national parliaments in the EU, and I hope to complete the list by the end of this Commission mandate.
It's important for national parliamentarians such as you to have the opportunity to talk about EU issues with representatives from the European institutions, be it the Commission, the parliament or the Council, on a regular basis. And of course, it is just as important for the Commission to have the opportunity to listen and discuss with national parliaments as well!
National parliaments have a vital role to play in the European policy-making process – through the subsidiarity control mechanism of course, but in many other ways as well – and I firmly believe that occasions such as this and the regular COSAC meetings are key elements in ensuring that the EU is better understood in the Member States and has greater democratic accountability.
I want to talk briefly today about a number of issues of particular importance to you as national parliamentarians, especially in this European election year.
2014 is a year of binary anniversaries – by which I mean there are lots of 1s and 0s!
It is 100 years since the start of the First World War; but also the 10th anniversary of the enlargement of the EU with 10 new Member States.
Of course, there are still a couple of years to go until you celebrate the 10th anniversary of Romania as a Member State, but there are nonetheless plenty of things to look ahead to in 2014 as well!
For example, this will be the third time that Romanians have voted in the European elections, and the first time following a complete European Parliament and Commission mandate.
The elections will offer Romanian voters the chance to truly influence EU policy making, by directly electing members to the European Parliament, which as you know is now co-legislator with the Council on most legislative proposals.
But with your own Presidential elections towards the end of the year, it's important to ensure that Romanian voters do not suffer from election fatigue; that we all of us – here in Romania and back in Brussels – do our utmost to encourage citizens to vote, and more importantly to better understand what exactly it is that they are voting for.
If we can show citizens why the European elections are important – why the EU in general is an important part of their life – we can perhaps start to reverse the trend of ever-diminishing turnout at European elections.
You've already experienced that here in Romania: the first EP elections in 2007 saw a turnout of around 30%, and yet within two years, that figure had already fallen to 27%.
It's a trend that is mirrored across the EU, sadly, and I think it shows us clearly where we need to focus our efforts at European and national level in the first few months of the year.
We need to show the added value of Europe, the real gains that it brings to the men, women and children across the Continent, each and every day of their lives.
There are of course many ways of doing this, and I know that the European Parliament and Commission offices here in Romania will certainly be doing their part to raise awareness of the elections and encouraging people to vote.
But there is more that can be done at national level as well, of course.
When I speak to national parliaments, I often talk about the need to stop the 'Brusselisation' of failure and nationalisation of success.
All too often, 'Brussels' is blamed for imposing its will on Member States, for forcing national governments to take unpopular decisions. And it is not just the media who talk in these terms – sometimes it is national governments and parliaments as well.
I do not by any means wish to deny the legitimate concerns raised by many about issues such as democratic accountability, transparency and legitimacy; these are indeed issues that we need to address at the European level if we wish to convince citizens (and therefore voters) of the benefits of a united Europe.
And yet these negative perceptions of European democracy are in many ways self-inflicted.
The simple truth of the matter is that we are all 'Brussels'; decisions are not made by Brussels but in Brussels, by all the players in the policy-making process working together.
And this of course includes both national governments, in the Council and European Council, and national parliaments, who have many opportunities to get involved.
These range from the pre-legislative consultation and impact assessment phase to the final adoption of EU legislation at national level.
National parliaments are also of course responsible since the Lisbon Treaty for ensuring that the principle of subsidiarity is respected, and many of them have exercised their right to question EU proposals already, through the so-called yellow card procedure.
We have in total received 254 reasoned opinions from national parliaments since the inception of the subsidiarity control mechanism in 2010, and as you know this has led to two yellow cards, on the Monti II proposals on the right to take collective action, and on the EPPO. The Romanian Chamber of Deputies was one of the houses which issued a reasoned opinion on the second of these proposals.
The Commission welcomes the increased level of consultation and discussion with national parliaments that this subsidiarity control mechanism has created, showing as it does the commitment of national parliaments to play a full role in EU policy making.
But it is in fact only part of the wider political dialogue with national parliaments that President Barroso has made one of the flagship initiatives of his presidency.
This has proved to be a great success with an obvious added value – in 2013 alone we received 592 opinions from national parliaments on a wide range of issues. Although, I should add, that this is not just about exchanging letters: the political dialogue has also seen many more Commissioners and experts get directly involved in talking to national parliamentarians directly on the issues that count.
And the Romanian parliament has certainly been very active in the political dialogue area. Last year, we received 38 opinions from the Chamber of Deputies, including 2 reasoned opinions, making it the fourth most active chamber among all national Parliaments. With 26 opinions, including 3 reasoned opinions, the Senate was the sixth most active chamber in 2013.
Your involvement in the political dialogue and subsidiarity control mechanism shows clearly to the citizens of Romania that you, their political representatives, are fully engaged at the European level; that you take an interest in how EU policy making will affect their lives here in Romania; and that you are playing an active role in trying to make EU policy proposals as good as they can possibly be.
In short, political dialogue is an invaluable part of the policy-making process: if opinions from national parliaments arrive at an early stage, they can serve as an early warning system, showing the Commission where the main issues are likely to be with the European Parliament or in the Council later on in the legislative process.
Of course, we can do more to make this process easier, improving the way in which opinions from national parliaments are drafted, to make them more focused, for example, and by speeding up the response times from the Commission; indeed, we want to guarantee a response within three months, and will continue to work towards achieving that goal as quickly as possible.
But important as it is to show how national governments and parliaments are deeply implicated in the European decision-making process, this is by no means the only way in which we can hope to encourage voter turnout.
We need to show that European law-making is not an end in itself - a mere talking shop where decisions are made with little or no thought for their impact on people's lives.
We need to show that European decision-making is not only open, transparent and democratic but also relevant to the lives of everyday citizens.
This is the real added-value for citizens, from Romania to Portugal, from Finland to Cyprus – the little things that many of us simply take for granted but which would not exist without Europe.
Indeed, it is perhaps easier to show this added-value by looking at the cost of no Europe – at what would change, or would be lost, if the EU did not exist.
First and foremost, all of our freedoms would be seriously curtailed, of course: the freedom to live, to work, to travel, to retire wherever we want in Europe, with no need to show our passport at borders or apply for visas.
This is, I understand, a sensitive issue here in Romania at the moment, given the reaction of certain Member States to the lifting of transitional restrictions on the free movement of your citizens.
But the Commission's position is clear: the freedoms that come with EU membership are shared by all, regardless of nationality or status.
The single market is often described as one of the crowning glories of the EU, one of the greatest achievements of 60 years of European integration.
Yet the rights that the single market endows upon Europe's citizens and businesses also come with responsibilities on the part of Member States, to ensure that those rights are open to everyone.
Yes, of course, there are rules in place to ensure that those rights are not abused, and that is perfectly legitimate and correct.
But in turn, those responsibilities must also be met by Member States; they cannot cherry-pick the ones they wish to guarantee for their own citizens and deny them to those of other countries, at least without full justification.
Romanian citizens now have the same right as their fellow EU citizens, to work and travel where they wish, but of course Romania still remains outside the Schengen border-free area.
Let's be clear about this: the Council has itself acknowledged that you have fulfilled all the necessary criteria to join the Schengen zone; it is just a handful of Member States that remain uncertain.
In the end, it comes down to a matter of trust; Europe works well when Member States and institutions alike share the same goals and priorities, and when cooperation, trust and respect between them is high.
What we need to do is make sure that we have that trust by working together to address those issues that are currently stopping Romanian citizens from benefiting fully from their rights as EU citizens.
The Commission's latest Cooperation and Verification Mechanism (CVM) report from 22 January 2014 shows that Romania has made progress in many areas since the previous CVM reports, but that there is still room for improvement in others.
You are of course well aware of what these issues are, and I don't intend to go into any more detail now.
But let me just say that I am convinced that your reform process will continue, and that the goals set out in the CVM will be achieved.
We owe it to the citizens of Romania to make sure that we succeed together in this: as I said before, if we want them to enjoy all the same rights as their fellow Europeans, then we all have the responsibility to ensure that we do everything we can to make that happen.
There are many other areas in which we can show the added-value of Europe, but in the interest of brevity, let me just touch on a few of them here.
And alongside the single market is the single currency, which for all its woes over the last few years, remains an attractive prospect for most EU countries – only last month the 18th Member State – Latvia – joined the Eurozone, and more, including Romania of course, will do so in due time.
One of the main reasons why I think the Eurozone remains an attractive prospect is precisely because of the major reforms of EU-wide economic governance that we have introduced since the crisis. The Eurozone is now more stable, with much stricter rules, and the obligations on each Member State using the euro to keep its finances under control are now tougher than ever.
And we've also improved democratic accountability over the EU's economy, with far greater involvement from national parliaments via the European Semester, the annual economic policy coordination programme that is designed to ensure that each and every Member State continues on the path towards the ambitious goals of the Europe 2020 strategy for growth and jobs.
One of the key tools at our disposal to help meet these goals – and underline the benefits of the EU to citizens – is the EU budget.
As you know, the new financial framework for 2014-2020 came into force last month, and while the overall budget is lower than in previous years, we have nonetheless secured significant increases in funding for many core policy areas that will directly benefit citizens and businesses across the EU, from research spending of €80bn to support for SMEs of €2.3bn over the seven-year period.
That's in addition to the €325 billion in regional development projects across the EU in 2014-2020, much of which is now closely aligned with the Europe 2020 goals. Romanian citizens will benefit considerably from this funding over the next seven years: you will receive €8.1bn for rural development and €22.9bn from EU cohesion policy over the seven years. The challenge for you now is to ensure that you have the capacities to spend the money available to you, and I am sure that you will continue in your efforts to do just that.
And of course the EU has set aside additional financial support for countries such as Romania with particularly high youth unemployment (around 23%). Support of €99m from the Youth Unemployment Initiative should help the millions of young Romanians find new and better jobs over the next few years – another concrete example of what Europe can and does do for citizens.
I want to end with a few words about an initiative close to my own heart that for the first time really gives citizens themselves a chance to set the EU policy agenda. The European Citizens' Initiative came into force on 1 April 2012, and so far we have registered 21 proposed initiatives, of which 12 have already completed their collection period, and 2 have been withdrawn by their organisers. They cover a wide range of issues such as the environment, education, telecommunication, media, citizens' rights, etc.
This is an encouraging number which, I believe, demonstrates citizens' enthusiasm for this new right.
And indeed we are rapidly approaching the final phase of the ECI process for the first of the initiatives to successfully submit to the Commission, "Right to Water". A public hearing on the ECI will be held in the European Parliament next Monday (17 Feb), and the Commission has to give an answer on whether to proceed with a legislative proposal on the basis of the ECI by 20 March.
Two other initiatives - ("One of Us" and "Stop Vivisection") - have announced that they have reached the required number of signatories but the statements of support still need to be verified.
I think you'll agree that the achievements of these three initiatives constitute already a very positive and promising result for the future of the citizens' initiative, and I encourage you all to do all you can to raise awareness of the ECI here in Romania.
This European election year is the perfect time to go back to our roots – to remind citizens of why European integration came about in the first place.
Yes, it was to put an end to the need for war – worth remembering 100 years on from the start of the Great War – but it was also more than that.
Europe, in all its forms, is there to serve citizens: to make life easier, better, safer, cleaner, greener, happier, longer and more prosperous for everyone.
We may not always succeed in all of these goals, but they remain the underlying philosophy behind all we do.
Reminding European voters of this is the best way to encourage them to play their part in European democracy by voting next May.
Thank you for your attention.