Speech by President Barroso: Slovakia at the Heart of Europe
European Commission - SPEECH/14/343 28/04/2014
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José Manuel Durão Barroso
President of the European Commission
Speech by President Barroso: Slovakia at the Heart of Europe
University of Bratislava
Bratislava, 28 April 2014
Thank you Mr. Rector,
Thank you Prime Minister, Thank you Maroš,
Ladies and gentlemen,
I am very excited to be here today, and proud to receive an honorary doctorate from the eminent institution that is the Bratislava University of Economics.
Let me start by saying that I was already in this university to give a lecture in May 2003, at that time as Prime Minister of Portugal. Sometime afterwards I became President of the Commission. So I think I can say that if you come to the Bratislava University of Economics, there is a chance that you become President of the Commission. And since we are going to have European elections and I know that the main candidates are going to visit Bratislava, I would advise them to visit this distinguished University. And we have heard also Maroš Šefčovič, who has studied here. So you know that if you study at this University, there is a good chance that you become Vice President of the European Commission.
With this I mean the European vocation of your University. I know about the commitment of this University to you nation, to Slovakia, but I also know that you are very much committed, the professorial corps, the students, to build the reputation and prestige of your University as part of this great academic tradition, the great academic community of Europe. And I want to congratulate you very sincerely for that.
I would like to thank very warmly Vice President Šefčovič, my colleague in the Commission for his very kind and friendly words. I am very honoured also, Prime Minister and dear friend Robert Fico, for your laudation. Your laudation was perfect in terms of biography. But since our reality is so dynamic, I want just to add once point to the CV that you have presented. Not only do I have three sons, as you have mentioned, but now I also have a grandson, which shows the confidence I have in the future of Europe.
Europe is evolving. And indeed, I am especially honoured and proud to be with you today because we are just some days before the commemoration of the big enlargement of the European Union, the day on which Slovakia joined the European Union. And so I think it is important to remind us of that moment and to know why the European Union's history is so important and what the European Union stands for.
Slovakia's accession ten years ago this week was a milestone for the country. Slovakia had grasped every opportunity on the path to democratic and economic reform in the years leading up to 2004, and it has been every bit as bold in reaping the full potential of EU membership ever since. Its citizens have benefited remarkably as a result.
And so has the European Union as a whole. Because enlargement has brought the continent together again, reaffirmed the ideas and ideals Europe stands for: the logic of political integration, the power of open markets, the values of liberal democracy and value of the rule of law.
We are coming out of a crisis that threatened to undermine Europe's economic model and faced with global complexities that put in doubt Europe's strength. It is good to remind ourselves now of the success of European accession, how important it was in the past, and how a more united and open Europe is the best way to strengthen our position in the future. It is the best way to defend not only our common interests but also to promote our common values in tomorrow's world.
Ladies and gentlemen,
When the Slovak republic acceded to the European Union, it did so together with nine other countries, in the largest wave of European enlargement ever.
But it would be wrong to consider them only as a group. Their background, history and character, as well as their experiences since their accession, have been very diverse. There is a big difference between Malta, with around 450 thousand inhabitants at the time of accession, and Poland, which had over 38 million. There is a lot that distinguishes Slovakia that was always at a crossroads of Europe's cultural and trade routes, from member states like Latvia and Estonia, who share a rich history of European integration through the Hanseatic League, and a painful one after they were forcibly incorporated into the Soviet Union. All ten countries were very different. So we should not just consider them as a group, because each country has of course its own history, its own character and identity.
Yet what all those countries stood for was one and the same thing: what united all of them in the run-up to 2004 was a sense of self-awareness; of determination; the conviction that, now, they would be able to make their own destinies; a shared belief that they could do so through membership of the European Union and only through membership of the European Union.
And this they did.
Ten years on, we can only be proud of the transformative power of the European project, and applaud the efforts made in the acceding countries to use European membership to reconstruct their economies, reform their institutions and rebuild their societies.
While enlargement is the word to use when Europe's institutional framework is concerned, it was nothing less than a true reunification, a word that I personally prefer. A reunification in cultural and societal terms. For these countries had always been part of Europe, and they were eager to take up their rightful and natural place in Europe again. I am very sensitive to this point, because I was 18 years of age when my country, just 40 years ago, became a democracy. We were also living in Portugal in a dictatorship, an extreme right-wing dictatorship. And the 25th of April 1974, so exactly 40 years ago, that regime, which lasted 48 years, broke down. And so my generation, which always believed that our country was part of Europe, looked at Europe as the promise of democracy and freedom. We felt it was not just that my country Portugal, like Spain or Greece at that time, went to the more or less similar transformation at that time, but that they were separated from the other parts of Europe because of a closed political regime. Coming from another position but with similar patterns, what we have seen in this part of Europe was exactly the same. Countries that are undoubtedly European by history, by culture, by all the elements that define the entity, but they could not - because they were not democracies - be part of the European community, what we call today European Union. And then we saw that it was possible.
It was the culmination point of dreams and hopes that date back at least to the Prague Spring and one of the leading figures of that era, Alexander Dubček, already stressed this thought when receiving the Sakharov prize for Freedom of Thought in 1990, saying: "Europe is a living organism linked together through common history and destiny as well as hopes for freedom and better living conditions.'
Ten years on, we can only conclude that enlargement was what made the European 'organism' whole again, and it was the big step we had to take to offer hope to our citizens and shape our common destiny.
At this point in time, coming out of a profound crisis whose social impact on a number of Member States remains very serious, it is worth asking the question what has come of Europe's common hopes for better living conditions. Can Europe still deliver on this promise?
It certainly has for Slovakia.
Since joining the European Union, Slovakia was the fastest among the Visegrad countries to catch up with more prosperous economies, with per capita income rising from 57% of the EU average in 2004 to 76% in 2012. In the pre-crisis years, average economic growth reached 7% - even exceeding 10% in 2007 – and in spite of the crisis Slovakia has kept up the pace as one of the most rapidly growing countries in Europe. The EU also helped Slovakia to tackle one of its biggest problems - unemployment which was at the level of 19% in 2004. Nevertheless, the current level of above 13% is still high and further efforts are needed.
Europe has also offered opportunities. About 85% of Slovak exports go to European markets. Almost 90% of direct foreign investment comes from EU countries. And the quality is even more important than the quantity. Foreign companies have brought along high-end technology, increased labour productivity and helped to modernise the economy. The single market has offered consumers a wider choice of products of better quality and at lower prices.
Europe has offered support. From 2007 to 2013 a total of €11.6 billion of European cohesion funding was allocated to Slovakia. EU funds represent almost 80% of all public investments in the country. With their assistance, 130.000 new jobs were generated, more than 1000 schools have been renovated, 56 hospitals and more than 200 social care facilities have been modernised. Growth and jobs were promoted through investments in 26 industrial parks, 116 research institutions and direct support to over 570 small and medium-size businesses. And in the next seven years, Slovakia can receive a further €20.3 billion to invest in its own development - much more than the entire national budget for one year.
So I underline at this moment, not only to congratulate Slovakia and the Slovakian authorities for the very important success in the negotiations of the cohesion funds – and you know how much the European Commission and myself have been always supporting the cohesion countries, but also because I think it is important in the public debate, when some people today express some pessimism, negativism regarding Europe, to show with concrete figures and concrete examples that the solidarity of Europe is not just a vague word. It is very real with very concrete figures, with a concrete translation in the concrete lives of citizens. But for that we also need - and I am sure that that is a very important debate here in Slovakia - political leaders from all sides to engage with the society, to explain what is at stake. But not only the political leaders, not only the state, the civil society in general, you for instance as a University have a very important role there. So that we feel that the process of Europe and the European integration is not just something for Brussels, where the European Commission is, or Strasbourg, where the European Parliament has its work, but for all of us, Bratislava is also a European capital. The European Union is not a foreign power in our countries. And if sometimes you don't like what is going on in the European Union, let's not turn our back on Europe, let's engage, make it better, if needed. And I think the European Parliament elections are precisely an opportunity to do that, because today, what is decided in Brussels or in Strasbourg is very important for Slovakia and for any country in the European Union. You should not leave the decision to others. It is very important to understand that the decisions taken by the European Union, yes, most of them are proposed by the European Commission, using its right of initiative. But at the end they are taken by the Member States in the Council and by the Parliament. So you have the opportunity to choose your members of the European Parliament. And to give also a contribution to this European democracy that of course does not replace national democracy, but complements the national democracy dimension. So that is why I like also to complement my remarks with concrete figures so that nobody can say in a credible way that Europe is just about vague things, about concepts, about European Council meetings. No. Europe is solidarity in action. I'm not saying that everything in Europe is correct and perfect, far from that. As in any human construction, there are problems. But if we are objective, we have to recognise that the EU has been giving a great contribution for prosperity and cohesion for our Member States over the years.
But most important, more than such figures that I like to give as examples, is the fact that Europe, apart from opportunities and financial support, provided the framework for Slovakia to reform its structures, to fuel a process that fundamentally updated the country's political, economic, social, and administrative institutions to promote the stability and security investors, entrepreneurs and citizens demand.
The context was European, and I think it is very important because we have seen in several enlargements of the EU that this was an opportunity for our countries to modernise themselves, to compare what they were doing with what others were doing, to learn also with each other. And I know, because I have been visiting our country several times, even before being President of the Commission, that this country went through a very important process of modernisation. The context was European, but what was done here was done by the Slovakians themselves, by the Slovak society, by the students, by the researchers, by the professors, by the workers, by the entrepreneurs, and that is why I say that the most important credit, while acknowledging the European contribution, comes to the Slovak people themselves.
Another element mentioned in the quote of Dubček that I mentioned before, was the one regarding hopes for more freedom through European integration. And that has been really important. Democracy and the rule of law have been indisputably established, freedom and security were put beyond doubt. Borders no longer hamper Slovak entrepreneurs, teachers, students, artists, researchers and others.
Accession to the European Union was the logical next step in the country's independent and democratic history. And citizens realise that still. Two thirds of Slovakia's population are supportive of the decision to join the EU. Free movement of goods, services and above all people is still considered as the most positive outcome of this process. And Euro membership, the most tangible symbol of European membership and identity, is seen as the second most beneficial result by the Slovak public opinion.
Slovakia's success since accession and its citizens' attitude towards it are clear proof of Jean Monnet's dictum that 'we are not forming coalitions of states, we are uniting people.'
Ladies and gentlemen,
At the same time, these last few years have been some of the most turbulent in the European Union's history, with our economic model under pressure, our international credibility undermined and, more recently over Ukraine, even our very safety under threat.
Enlargement has been a strong point for the European Union as a whole in those circumstances, too.
Only through enlargement have we been able to link up opportunities across Europe through the biggest single market in the world, with recently acceded economies overall performing better than others. Only through far-reaching integration on such a scale have we been able to remain an attractive trading partner for all major economies in the world, at the centre of global supply chains, the biggest provider and receiver of Foreign Direct Investment and the prime mover in global efforts to further liberalise trade. And throughout the crisis, only through international openness and the knock-on effect this had internally did we get our economy back on the road to recovery.
If enlargement proved very beneficial in economic terms for the countries acceding, its economic worth for the EU as a whole has in the meantime been proved as well.
What the crisis also showed, however, was that reform efforts could not be allowed to stop the moment a country acceded to the European Union and especially the Eurozone. So we had to draw the lessons, and we did: Economic reforms were taken more seriously. Budgetary efforts were enhanced. Economic governance was strengthened, and the whole economic framework behind the Euro was reinforced through better financial regulation, coordinated oversight and, very recently, common resolution for banks. We have been creating what the Commission has proposed as the Banking Union. The solidarity and responsibility a genuine Economic and monetary union needs are now closely entwined and convincingly practiced.
I want to underline this point, because during the last years I have heard many people inside Europe and outside Europe saying that Greece will exit the Euro, that the Euro area will implode, that even the European Union was at risk of disintegration. And we have seen that it was possible to resist, if we have a plan and determination, that the European economy and the European project are much more resilient than what the critics argued. Of course, we know that not always the solutions were perfect. Sometimes it took more time than we wanted. It is difficult to take democratic decisions with 28 countries that are, all of them, democratic countries. But it is my deep conviction now in my ten years as President of the Commission, that the forces of integration in Europe are stronger than the forces of disintegration. And I am sure that the Slovak people will benefit more from a Europe that is united, from strong European institutions like the European Commission, the European Central Bank or the European Court of Justice, institutions that are not there to serve a particular interest but the common European good.
An enlarged Union was now deepened. I say that because very often people put in contradiction 'enlargement' or 'deepening'. the reality is that it was now with 28 countries, and 27 before Croatia joined, that we have done the greatest leap forward after the introduction of the Euro with the Banking Union for instance. So it shows that if there is political will of the governments, there is not a real contradiction between the process of enlargement and the process of deepening the European process. Of course, we should not deepen for the sake of deepening – we have to see in each case what to do. But I think I can say now that in fact the enlargement was not, as some were intending, an obstacle for the further deepening of the integration.
Moreover, recently the situation in Ukraine has raised some challenges. It was made clear once again that European values still attract strong support from citizens, not only in Europe but also in the neighbouring countries and that Europe's geopolitical strength can never be taken for granted.
Remember that the developments in Ukraine started with the people of that country expressing their clear wish to take their future into their own hands, to align their economic and societal fabric with the same values and logic that Europe too stands for, and to work hand in hand with the European Union towards more economic opportunities and to safeguard a more democratic Ukraine.
This has turned into a test of our Union, calling for a united response. And the outcome of the current situation will greatly impact in the geopolitical configuration of our continent for the years to come. This is the way we want to help solve that crisis. Our view of the world is not a view of the rule of force, but the rule of law. It is a world were sovereignty is shared and not restricted, where the logic of cooperation replaces the law of confrontation. It is exactly the same world view that worked so successfully in several years of enlargement. It is the world view shared by those that were in Kiev, waving the European flag. This is the only world view that can resolve the crisis and offer all the citizens prospects of peace. This is the world view of the European Union, the one that was recognised when the Nobel Peace Prize committee awarded to the European Union the Nobel Peace Prize. I believe that we should stick to those values with determination.
Ladies and gentlemen, I will conclude,
The writer and diplomat Ladislav Ballek, who passed away earlier this month, said that 'the world is excessively focused on markets and forgets about people…. Nowadays it is the human spirit which is the only production factor. It must be educated but also cultivated, otherwise it will lose its link to other human beings. If we stop cultivating human spirit, we'll pay a high price.'
Of course Europe will need vibrant and open markets in the years to come, but only to give more room for Europe's people, to reap the potential within Europe's citizens and to unleash a spirited defense of European values.
Our community is a community based on values. Of course we need a market, a market that gives us dimension, the scale that we need to become even a more important economic player in the world. But we should never forget that the European Union, different from other experiences of association between Member States, is based on democratic principles.
And this is what enlargement makes us remember.
I know you and the people of Slovakia will not soon forget it.
And in an academic institution of such renown as this University, I know I we are having here the allies in always cultivating the human spirit. Because in the end it is about that that we are speaking, about the human spirit. And it is with these words that I very much want, once again, to thank you, very sincerely, for the great honour you gave me by giving me this honoris causa degree of this great academic institution.
Thank you very much.