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Vice-President of the European Commission, EU Justice Commissioner
2014: time to make a choice
KPN's New Year's reception/Brussels
7 January 2013
Dear Ladies and Gentlemen, dear Mr Blok,
I am happy and honoured to be here and see you once again.
1. Looking back and ahead: Data protection
What a year we have just had. As you, Mr Blok, have just mentioned, 2013 was, to a large extent, dominated by the shocking revelations about mass spying. These scandals have been a wake-up call, and Europe is responding. Trust has been damaged, and trust needs to be rebuilt.
As you know, the European Parliament has shown the way, backing proposals for strong, uniform EU data protection rules which the European Commission put on the table already two years ago. The Heads of State and Government committed to a "timely" adoption of the new rules in October. Not much progress has been made since. But I hope that under the Greek presidency that has just started, Member States will now finally take the big decisions needed. The Commission will support the Greek government's ambitious objective to reach an agreement by the summer.
Our reform will give citizens more control over their personal data and open up a true digital single market to business. Citizens are demanding high data protection standards, and they deserve nothing less. It is now up to Member States to deliver the goods. We have lost too much time already. My wish for 2014 is that we move full speed ahead on data protection.
2. European Parliament elections 2014: decision-time
Big decisions await us this year. Not only on data protection, but also on the very future of the European Union. 2014 will be the year citizens will have a momentous choice to make. Europe is at a cross-roads, and at the European Parliament elections in May, they will decide which course it will take in the coming years.
The brutal crisis we are starting to overcome has pushed integration in economic and financial policy to a level that would have been unthinkable even a few years ago. Reforms like these are indispensable if we are to make the European Union more stable and prevent future turbulences. But they are not enough. Our Union will have to become a lot more democratic, putting citizens at the centre of the action.
Huge changes lie ahead for our Union. We will need to get a broad, truly European debate going before we make these changes and set up new structures. And this year's European Parliament elections are the decisive moment for citizens to have their say in this debate. It will be up to us, the friends of a strong and democratic Europe, to make clear to voters that they have a real choice here. That their vote counts.
3. Democracy needs to catch up with reforms
The crisis showed us very clearly that no country is an island. What happens in one Member State has repercussions in the others. That is why we have started to co-ordinate economic and fiscal policy much more at European level. The European Commission now even gets to analyse and comment on Member States' draft budgetary plans before national Parliaments have their say. That is a huge leap forward. Take banking for example. Just a few weeks ago our plans for constructing a banking union got a big boost when Finance Ministers agreed to set up a common system for resolving failing banks.
These reforms are essential. They prevent difficulties from spreading across our Member States. And they will help us spot and solve problems early, before they escalate into a full-blown crisis. Indeed, further reforms will be needed. Bold reforms. But we must not limit ourselves to constructing a new architecture in the economic and financial sphere. We need more: we have to ensure that democracy catches up with this new construction we are building. More and more decisions that affect the daily lives of citizens directly are taken at European level. There is only one conclusion to be drawn from this: our institutions and decision-making processes have to become more democratic and transparent.
We need a true political union. To me this means that we need to build a United States of Europe with the Commission as government and two chambers – the European Parliament and a "Senate" of Member States. But there are of course other opinions out there for the future of Europe. You might have other ideas as well. And that is how it should be. We need to have a broad debate before we start to make the big changes required.
4. How to mobilise voters
This debate is moving into the decisive phase now. In a little more than four months' time, citizens across Europe will be able to choose the Europe they want to live in. They have lived through five years of crisis and crisis management. They have seen the beginnings of an ambitious reform process. The European Parliament elections will be their moment to say how they want this process to continue.
There is a lot at stake. The outcome of these elections will shape Europe for the years to come. That is why voting at these elections is crucial, it is more important this time than at any other European Parliament elections.
Yet, the big question is: how many Europeans will take this unique chance? Only one third of citizens feel that their voice counts in Europe. Voter turnout at European Parliament elections has been dropping continuously since 1979 – even as the Parliament's competences have kept increasing.
It is easy to look at the figures and be defeatist. How often do I hear people say: "This is a lost cause. People will not go to vote. And those who do will back the Eurosceptics." I am not prepared to give up. There is still time to mobilise voters. If we convince them that their voices matter. And that their choices matter.
And when I say "we", I am not just talking about the European Commission. We cannot do this alone. All EU institutions need to be on board, all Member States – and people like you and the businesses and organisations you represent.
All of us need to get the message across: European Parliament elections are more important than national elections. Because they decide on the direction a whole continent will take. We have to be clear: These elections are not about more Europe or less Europe. They are about how we make best use of the Europe we have today.
Voters can decide whether Europe should take a more social or a more market-oriented direction. Voters can decide whether the future majority in the European Parliament will favour opening Europe's borders to immigration or build a Fortress Europe; whether they will defend free movement rights of all EU citizens or focus on new rules against poverty migration; whether company boardrooms will have women quota or not; whether we are tough with the U.S. when it comes to data protection, or whether we will instead favour the economic benefits of free trade.
This will be our best weapon against the Eurosceptics: to explain to our citizens that their vote really matters. That the big decisions on policies in the European Union are made by the parties of the centre. And that therefore it would be a waste of their vote to use it as a protest vote, by choosing Eurosceptics on the right or on the left.
That is the case we need to make. And we have to get it across in the right way. If we lecture people and give them the impression that we know what the "right" answers are, we will put them off. If we show citizens that we take them seriously, if we point to the options on the table and make clear that it is for them to make their own decisions, we have a chance. And then, I am convinced that a turnout of more than 50% is possible in these elections.
That is an ambitious goal, I know. But ambitious we must be. 2014 is a big year. That is why we have to think big. These elections are Europe's democratic moment. We must make sure citizens seize it. That will require a big effort from all of us. I will be fighting every day until the elections. And I am counting on you to join me.