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José Manuel Durão Barroso
President of the European Commission
Speech by President Barroso on the Greek Presidency
European Parliament plenary session
Strasbourg, 15 January 2014
First of all, let me very sincerely congratulate you, Prime Minister, for your very inspiring words. Listening to you I thought that not only Europe owes a lot to ancient and classic Greece - without Greece, European civilisation would simply not exist as such these days -, but also that I'm sure we are going to owe a lot to you, to modern Greece, for the great example of courage, determination and commitment to Europe that you personally and the people of Greece are giving these days.
It is, I believe, a fitting coincidence that we end this Parliamentary term under the Presidency of Greece – a country that has been the focus of so much political energy and public attention during this mandate and that, in the end, has emboldened us to do all we can to fight both the root causes and the social consequences of the crisis.
Let's not forget that some people, not so long ago, were predicting that Greece would exit the euro, that Greece could even leave the European Union. In the more apocalyptic scenarios, some people were even predicting the implosion of the euro, eventually the disintegration of the European Union. The fact that today the Prime Minister of Greece is here with his strong European commitment, proud of the commitment of his country to Europe, standing among us, launching this new Presidency proves that the prophets of doom were wrong. The resilience and determination of the Greek people are far, far greater than the scaremongers were ready to foresee.
Greece's own experiences since the beginning of the crisis make it even more determined to make a success of this Presidency. The Commission and the Greek Presidency are united in not being distracted from the real agenda we have in front of us. We must stay focused on delivering concrete results for the growth and jobs Europe's citizens need.
Greece has embarked in a very painful but necessary adjustment process and some impressive results are already appearing: a government deficit that has been cut from nearly 15% in 2009 to an expected primary surplus in 2013; recovering competitiveness, as illustrated by the steadily falling current account deficit; and a vast programme of structural and public sector reforms. We expect positive growth throughout this year in Greece. The courage of the Greek people in the face of great hardship is bearing fruit. And as you know well, Prime Minister, the European Commission, has always stood by Greece and the Greek people. And I thank you for your kind words in recognising that. And as you know, this Parliament, when many others were expressing doubts and less commitment to Greece, has always stood by and supported Greece as well.
As I already told Prime Minister Samaras in Athens, the Commission fully shares Greece's priorities: supporting growth and jobs, namely through the deepening of the single market and boosting external trade; deepening the Economic and Monetary Union and reinforcing its social dimension; improving the framework for human mobility and addressing the real problem of legal migration and also promoting maritime issues.
The list is long. The ambition is great. But based on the extensive experience of Greece – this is the fifth Presidency of the Council by Greece, I've worked at least with three Presidencies – I believe that with the strong determination of the Prime Minister and the government it will be a success.
The focus of the Presidency, strongly shared by the Commission and the Greek government, for the time left before the end of this legislative term, is clear: we need to finish what we started; we need to deliver as much of our growth and jobs agenda as we possibly can.
Consistent and continued structural reform is the way to do it: whereas only a year ago commentators - and not only commentators, some politicians too - were predicting that countries would exit the Eurozone, around the turn of the year we started to see programme countries exiting their respective support schemes. Ireland is now able to issue long-term debt at rates of only about 3% - so less than some countries that did not need to ask for adjustment programmes and assistance. Latvia that has implemented together with Greece one of the toughest adjustment programmes, has not only joined the Euro area but currently has the highest growth rate in the European Union. Spain is exiting its specific programme for banks, and is once again showing its remarkable dynamism and attracting new investors. Portugal has seen positive growth since the second quarter of last year, and its unemployment rate and interest spreads are consistently going down.
So don't tell me structural reform is unnecessary or unproductive. The facts show otherwise. We need structural reforms so that we can address the real problems of competitiveness in many of our countries, if we don't want to be the losers of globalisation.
Yet we have never said that this was only about fiscal consolidation or that this was only about structural reforms. We have always said, and the Commission has been saying at least since 2010, that we also need investment, and that we need to look at the social impact of the crisis. We need to keep up the investment measures necessary to make the reforms work to the benefit of jobs and growth. Our number one aim is to restore employment. This is the biggest drama of today's Europe. We cannot say we are out of the crisis while we keep these very important levels of unemployment. But it is true that we have now exited a phase of the crisis where there were these systemic threats to the euro area. So this why we need to resume investment in the economy. We still have a fragmented financial market where the companies are paying interest rates, not because of their intrinsic quality but because of the country in where they are located. This is an issue that I'm sure has the full attention of the European Central Bank.
And for terms of investment, we need to use the European budget. For many of our countries and regions, the European budget is, if not the main, sometimes even the only source of public investment. That is why we need to make the most of it. The European Union budget is an important tool to direct reforms and investments, and to leverage loans for SME's in close cooperation with the EIB, as the European Commission and the EIB have proposed. We need to ensure that the new Multiannual Financial Framework will deliver through the sectoral programmes which will firm up the economic recovery.
Especially important is what Member States can do through the Youth Guarantee programme, now that they have adopted the Youth Guarantee. A programme which the Commission proposed and is now agreed. This has to be activated as a matter of urgency so that we can reduce youth unemployment. We cannot lose a whole generation.
The Greek Presidency will also have other issues to discuss and to facilitate agreement, in terms of the budget for instance, on the own resources package and start the work of the inter-institutional high-level group on own resources created between the Parliament, the Council and the Commission.
It will be important, and will take effort, to deliver a balanced and successful European Semester in the current context. The timing of the elections means that there will be very tight deadlines between the publication of the Country Specific Recommendations and the European Council at the end of June. We will need to work together in a constructive spirit to make sure the process runs as smoothly and transparently as possible, as was the case last year.
The Greek Presidency has rightly stressed the social dimension of economic governance, since no one knows better how important openness and legitimacy are to the eventual outcome of a process of profound reform.
Our focus on immediate measures to fuel growth and jobs does not in any way detract from the necessity of continued reform of the underlying European framework and our common economic policies.
As I already stressed yesterday in this House: completing the European banking union is not just one of our main deliverables, but also our primary duty before the elections. Parliament and Council now need to do everything they can to reach a final agreement on the Single Resolution Mechanism. Like you, the Commission would have strongly preferred a system fully based on the community approach, and we have been defending this. As Parliament and Commission, we should now work together to ensure that the intergovernmental dimension is kept to the absolute minimum of what is politically necessary. And we should be vigilant that the outcome remains fully compatible with, and upholds the primacy of, European Union law. The European Commission will contribute actively to help find an agreement before the elections. We believe this is indispensable, not only for the banking union but for the deepening of the economic and monetary union.
And we need, honourable members, to remain active on all fronts until the very last day: adopt as much of our legislative agenda as possible, especially proposals such as those remaining under the Single Market Act I and II and the telecoms package that should provide the economic opportunities for the years to come; accelerate the economic momentum of today with investments for growth under our new multiannual financial framework; and stabilise our economic foundations through further adjustment and reforms to remedy the gaps and errors that became clear in previous years.
And in fact, as the Prime Minister already said, there is good news. The important progress made in last night's trialogue on MiFID is another step towards greater transparency and discipline in financial markets and another advance towards completing the comprehensive programme of financial reforms I launched in 2009.
At the same time, we need to continue work in areas that go beyond our efforts to remedy the economic crisis but are equally vital to demonstrate the European Union is capable of delivering the results our citizens expect:
- on data protection, which is so important for upholding our values and the way we want our society to function;
- and on the rule of law, where this spring the Commission will present a more robust mechanism to counter systemic threats that may arise in any one of our Member States.
- on climate and energy, where the Commission will come with a concrete framework for the period up to 2030, and where we are determined to continue to take the lead globally. Because when we look at the new energy landscape emerging, for us to guarantee future growth and jobs we have to strike a delicate balance between sustainability, security of supply and competitiveness;
On these and other issues, the Commission is intent to work together with you, as long and as hard as possible, to get things done.
With the date of what is going to be possibly a tense election coming closer each day, the political mindset in the months to come will often be unpredictable and political attitudes risk becoming more extreme. We are seeing, in fact, a rise of extremism from the extreme right and from the extreme left. We must, however, make sure this campaign is an opportunity for more genuine debate about Europe, not a festival of unfounded reproaches against Europe.
One issue in particular is already in danger of being subject to all kinds of populist rhetoric rather than objective assessment: free movement of people in general, and of workers in particular, in the European Union.
Free movement of people is a fundamental principle of Europe, a fundamental principle of the treaties, indeed one of the core elements that distinguish our Union. Free movement is an indispensable ingredient of European citizenship. Free movement is one of the most popular fundamental freedoms with Europe's citizens across Europe. Ask young people all over Europe, the first thing they say is important about Europe is precisely free movement. Free movement is also an indispensable pillar of the single market, without free movement of people it would not make sense to have a single market based only on free movement of goods or capital. Free movement contributes to economic growth and to European competitiveness.
So, let's be clear about free movement. The European Commission as the guardian of the treaties will uphold this principle: it is a historic achievement, a civilisation progress, a true acquis of freedom, democracy and the rule of law. It cannot come as a surprise to anybody that the principle of free movement exists and that it is applicable throughout the Union, without discrimination, because we don't want citizens of first class and citizens of second class in Europe. Free movement is the result of decades of negotiations and agreements between the Member States and also this Parliament, it is in our law and we should respect our common law.
But contrary to impressions created recently in national debates, it is not a freedom without rules. It is not a freedom without rules. Free movement is subject to European law that has also been jointly decided by the Member States in the Council and by this Parliament. These rules offer guarantees to citizens, and they also offer possibilities to Member States to deal with abuses.
So, if there is an abuse of free movement the Member States are not only entitled, they have the duty to act.
Of course, as it is the case in our democracies with national rules under national law, the implementation of European Union law must be subject to appropriate procedures and where necessary appropriate procedures of review and redress.
This is why the Commission supports national, regional and local authorities to manage this principle correctly, in particular in order to fight abuses when and where they arise. The Commission has published a communication already last November, even before these last polemics about this point, and we have outlined an initial five actions: 1) fighting marriages of convenience; 2) applying social security rules correctly; 3) making more use of the European Social Fund to promote social inclusion and fight poverty; 4) bringing local authorities together and help them learn from one another; and 5) assisting officials in correctly applying free movement rules on the ground.
So let us work together in a constructive and objective fashion. Let's not use stereotypes and myths. Let's have a rational and reasonable debate. Let us not give in to scaremongering and obfuscation. Let us, together, preserve a precious good for the sake of all of us as it is good for Europe's competitiveness, it's good for Europe's markets, it's good for European citizens, it's good for all of us that enjoy freedom in Europe and have an open idea of Europe and not a narrow, chauvinistic idea of the protection of the different countries.
2014 will see the first European elections since the entry into force of the Lisbon provisions that have so fundamentally changed the European institutions, not least in terms of the power and prestige of this European Parliament.
2014 will also be the year to commemorate the centenary of the First World War.
By the way a war that started with, as you know, events in Sarajevo. And now we are seeing countries of the Balkans joining the European Union in their hope to consolidate peace and democracy. I think it is a message that we should be attentive to.
From the European wars of the past 100 years to the European unification that continued spectacularly with the enlargements of the last 10 years... With all those memories in mind, I hope we will have a more profound European debate and that the European project will be more strongly defended than before. I hope, namely, that mainstream political forces will be able to leave their zone of comfort. That they will no longer consider European unification as a given by implicit consent and that they will have the courage to explain with rational arguments and passion why more than ever we need a strong Europe.
While in the past, young Europeans were killing each other in colossal wars, now - thanks to European integration - they will vote together to decide on their common future. What a difference.
So, let's make this vote for the European Parliament another important moment to reinforce a true European democracy. By the way, two Greek words: Europe and democracy – another thing we owe to our Greek ancestors.
And let us also remember what is at stake. What the real foundations of European integration are. And what the dangers of disintegration could be. On that basis, let us work together to deliver the results that really matter, with pragmatism. Pragmatism - another Greek word.
I believe that with this commitment to democracy and this pragmatic approach the Greek presidency will contribute to make our Europe stronger.
I thank you for your attention.