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Vice-President of the European Commission responsible for the Digital Agenda
Europe is ready for change
European Parliament elections: Future Directions for Europe and Implications for Australia" – hosted by Melbourne Press Club
Melbourne, Australia, 18 June 2014
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I think it’s wise to start my speech with an admission: the European Union can be difficult to comprehend … that goes for insiders as well as observers, I should say.
Our complexity is natural in many respects, so I don’t offer the admission as an apology. Any attempt to bring together 28 countries of 500 million people, while speaking 24 languages, is bound to hit a few bumps.
We are also a new Union – much younger than independent Australia, and some of our institutions took their current form as recently as 1979 (the Parliament) and 1999 (European Central Bank). Think about what the United States looked like in 1849 or Australia in 1965, and think about how far you have come since then.
The institutions that bind us together as a Union are not only unique: they are designed with many checks and balances to keep us from returning to the extremes of Europe’s recent past…
You might wonder from the recent election results whether we are returning to extreme politics. I want to address that today. I want to give nuance and flesh to the sketch you might have received so far.
I’m not sure you’re aware, for example, that no Australian media outlet is represented in Brussels. None at all. Indonesia and Australia are the only members of the G20 absent from the world’s biggest press gallery.
Having said that, we don’t rely only on newspapers and television for our impressions and news today. Not only are people more informed than ever though online sources, half of the Australian population has a parent born overseas. Most of those parents come from Europe, so I think Europe’s past and present is not unfamiliar.
But let me share a little bit of my own story to remind you that the past is never far away.
I was born in Rotterdam, a port city like Melbourne … with just as much rain but nowhere near as much sun!
The German army bombarded Rotterdam in the early days of the Second World War, and I was born the following year. The Nazis devastated the city: killing 800 and making tens of thousands homeless. I did not grow up in poverty, but I did grow up in rubble. You had to look at the past every day.
Sometimes these events can feel like a long time ago: caused by leaders and people who made the wrong decisions under different circumstances … circumstances that can never be repeated.
I get that, I really do. If you have been so lucky, never to have personally experienced the violence of war, or its far reaching consequences … well, of course it is difficult to imagine how war can change the way you see the future.
The post-war period in Rotterdam influenced me strongly. I grew up with a sense that, if necessary, you can build and create a new life and existence out of nearly nothing. It gave me a strong belief in building and creating. In shaping your own life.
But perhaps most of all, it made me realise you cannot do this on your own. Maybe you can build yourself a roof above your head. But you need partners, allies, like-minded people to realise a society. To establish the rules and conditions which safeguard fundamental values, not to mention peace.
You can’t build that future if you remain gripped in the past. And you’ll get it wrong too if you forget the past.
The year 2014 is very relevant to those thoughts:
Two bloody wars that left a hundred million dead, including more than one hundred thousand Australians. And a Cold War that split the planet. Because leaders didn’t know when to stop, and because others didn’t have the courage to stop them.
We don’t have to look far into Europe’s backyard to see that we can never be complacent. And that is my message to you - whether you live in Melbourne or Malmo – don’t believe this can never happen again.
The last few years have been tough for some parts of Europe. Yes, we still have five of the top 10 most competitive economies in the world. And yes Poland stood alone, like Australia, in avoiding recession. Estonia is a world leader in a lot of digital areas. But you all know the problems too.
Fear of globalisation combined with a six-year recession is a predictable source of difficulty. But we are a long way from trumping our achievements as a Union.
When I first become a Minister in the Dutch government, Europe was a different world, and I don’t mean that in a positive sense. Half the Continent lived under Communism or military rule. Our single market was a nice idea, but not a reality. When I left the government 10 years later, things were better but not by much. The EU had grown only to 12 member states.
If you had told me of the achievements we can survey today, 25 years later, I would have sent you to a psychiatric hospital!
As the President of a psychiatric hospital I can say that!
28 members instead of 12. A continent reunited. A common currency with a waiting list to join. The world’s biggest economic bloc.
It’s a miracle when you step back to look at that big picture. To bring democracy out of the ashes - in not one but 15 countries – is a rare and beautiful achievement.
Compare it to Russia’s experience since 1990, or the challenges following the Arab Spring.
Exactly 25 years ago this month Poland broke free, and we saw the Tiananmen Square massacre in China – I admire China’s achievements, but I know where I would rather live if faced with the choice.
And all of it shows the positive power of the EU on people’s daily lives.
I think that is also a reminder about why our relationship – Europe and Australia – matters and endures. In a time of geopolitical tension, we are reminded that trade alone is no guarantee for peace or prosperity. It takes shared values and institutions and friendships to guarantee that.
So I repeat my earlier message: we can never be complacent.
Maintaining peace, instead of being pulled into war, demands great courage, and the need for unity and visionary leadership.
Peace, so to say, is not for scared people. Peace is not self-evident. Peace is our greatest achievement and cannot be valued enough. It demands our everyday care, our deepest awareness and our full courage to maintain it.
The two world wars teach us about unity and division.
One the one hand, in 1914, Europe's nationalism divided our continent and killed 37 million.
On the other hand, the year 1944 represents what unprecedented unification between allies can achieve. The defeat of evil and the defence of liberty.
So for me, the foundation of the modern Europe begins on the Normandy beaches. It continues with the Australians, Americans, Canadians and others who were willing to stand for freedom.
They knew that if fascism conquered Europe and Asia, there would be no real freedom at home. And we continue to thank you for it.
The timeless lesson is that to maintain peace and prosperity, we need to unite.
That is again Europe’s challenge in 2014 - which brings me to the European election results, and to the tendency in public debate to pull back behind national borders. This tendency is about people hoping to rely on the powers and comforts of the national state. It makes millions of Europeans feel more comfortable, safe, and in control. The reasons are obvious. We recognise sources of power close to us, and we feel we can hold them accountable - in a way we do not feel about people we haven’t met or rarely see on our TV screens. It is a natural and direct response to the complexity of today’s global challenges.
And yet those challenges will not go away. From Climate change to cyber-crime we face challenges that don’t stop at borders, that don’t even recognise borders.
There is also a contradiction: never before we have been so globally oriented in listening to music; going on holiday to all possible destinations; enjoying food from all continents; using Asian or American technologies; studying abroad.
I think that millions in Europe – I cannot speak of the Australian experience - tend to forget that globalisation is a two way street. It’s not a one-way street, nor a dead end street.
If it enables opportunities for you, and you are happy using them, it does so for others as well. At the same time, as a political leader I also need to acknowledge the basic feeling many European have, of wanting to be more in control and to have their own identity.
Now those feelings have been expressed at the ballot box – what does this change for Europe and for Australia?
First we need to get these elections results in their true perspective. It is a loud backlash, yes. But the figures show that only 13% of citizens voted for the extreme right, much less for the extreme left.
In fact, in my own home country the mainstream vote went up, the extreme vote went down. Why ? Mainstream parties have really enaged voters, they did not run away from EU debate or the concerns that have frustrated people. Nor have they simply given oxygen to extreme parties. This is a difficult by necessary balance to aim for across Europe.
Across Europe avery clear majority of Members of Parliament have a pro-EU stance. As do the 28 member state governments and the European Commission – the guardian of the European general interest.
So legislating will still be possible – we have not become the United States with their Capitol Hill gridlock.
Trade deals can expect more scrutiny, I will be honest with you. But the road ahead is not blocked.
Our next 7-year budget is now in place: so the largest public infrastructure and science programmes in the world are secure.
And I am certain that one of the first votes of the new Parliament will be to finalise a draft regulation I proposed in 2013 for a “Connected Continent.” That law will end mobile roaming charges in Europe, and legally guarantee the open, unified and neutral Internet. Exactly the sort of practical change to daily life that around 80 to 90% of Europeans support.
In summary: it will not be business as usual, but business will go on.
Not every policy is as popular as ending mobile roaming charges. Europe’s citizens, even the ones that didn’t vote, have said: we want a different kind of Europe.
Europe is ready for change in the tone and scope of EU ambition. Europeans want the efficiency and opportunity of being united – but they don’t want some kind of Mother Superior in Brussels.
This will need to be reflected in the selection of a new generation of leaders. We need fresh faces with fresh ideas, not the generation that managed the lead up to crisis and the great recession and stagnation that followed it.
I think we seriously need to consider female candidates for the Commission and Council President posts. But most of all we need the highest quality candidates that can lead us into the more open and digital future.
Whoever assumes these roles will need to show they have listened. They need to show it by being self-critical. By not running away from hard truths. By being confident enough to give space to the diversity within Europe’s unity.
The big policy push that will gain momentum is for the EU to focus on what it does best: bringing down barriers.
That makes me think of Winston Churchill. He said to Roosevelt in 1941, via radio broadcast to his compatriots, “Give us the tools and we will finish the job.”
Once upon a time, the leaders of Europe might have made that request of the people of Europe. Today it is the other way around.
Europeans wants peace and opportunity and prosperity. They want to be enabled to achieve these things: they want European leaders to give them the tools, and then they want to finish the job themselves.
Let me finish with a thought I had a couple of months ago when I visited an exhibition in London. It displayed the artwork of a German artist called Hannah Hoch. A hundred years ago she said to us that the purpose of art was not to ‘decorate’ or ‘replicate’ reality. The purpose of art is to act on behalf of the ‘spirit’ and changing values of a generation.
Art in essence, has to be rebellious. Politics is an art too.
Politicians should act on behalf of the changing values of a generation and prepare the grounds for the new generation. If politicians ‘replicate’ and promise the past, or ‘decorate’ the present with one-liners and void ideas, we are missing the opportunity to give the new generation - the future - a kick-start.
I think the people have realised that all too often leaders aren’t offering this kick-start. Life today is expensive and insecure. People who aren’t getting the chance to realise their dreams are angry, people who got their chance are worried it will all slip away.
Those rumblings might not be expressed in coherent ways all the time. But I think they are there. Leaders who ignore them, or run away from them, will not last. Leaders who simply pander to these fears, or seek to the deliver the past, will not survive either.
So for me it is critical that we capture that changing spirit and chase the complacency out of Europe.
We’ve got to keep judging ourselves against the world, not our past. We’ve got to remember the pace set by friends like Australia – and sync with it.
At home we must to focus on bringing down barriers. Focus on allowing diversity in unity, and remembering that peace takes work and good institutions.
I believe Europe needs change, and the election results show Europe is ready for change.