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José Manuel Durão Barroso
President of the European Commission
Speech by President Barroso on the review of the Hellenic Presidency
European Parliament plenary session
Strasbourg, 2 July 2014
Prime Minister Samaras,
The end of the Hellenic Presidency marks the end of one Parliamentary mandate and the beginning of a new one.
It took place in a very specific set of circumstances, coinciding with the beginning of our exit from the deep crisis that the European Union has known, probably the most difficult we have had since the creation of the European Community in the 1950s.
We have now started the road to recovery. But there is still a long way to go.
And I think it is important, that precisely at this moment, a country like Greece, which has been one of those most affected by the crisis, has been able to show its European commitment of its leadership, not only to respond to the challenges at home, but also to contribute so constructively to our European agenda.
So I would like to thank personally Prime Minister Samaras for the way in which he, and his very competent and dedicated team, have carried out their duties and responsibilities, leading the Council at this very specific and challenging time.
Under his skilful captaincy, the Hellenic Presidency - across many files – has worked extremely hard to put in place what was necessary, and to bring very important decisions to fruition, against tight deadlines because of the European Parliament elections.
President Samaras already mentioned many of these files, so I will not repeat them. I prefer to concentrate my attention on the big achievements related to the economic situation.
The reality is that economic confidence has improved, and is improving, in Europe. Growth across the European Union is predicted to be at 1.6% this year, rising to 2% by 2015. Investment is rebounding. Our collective excessive debt is now under the 3% mark, for the first time since the beginning of the crisis.
Six more Member States have now exited the excessive deficit procedure, bringing the total number down to 11, less than half of the 24 who were in this position in 2011. That, I believe, is progress; and it shows that the Stability and Growth Pact is working.
During the last months, and after the successful exit of the programme by Ireland and the successful implementation of the programme for banks in Spain, Portugal exited from its financial assistance programme also with success. The situation in Cyprus and Greece has stabilised, with real visible signs of improvement, namely in terms of the correction of very significant imbalances.
I know this process has been painful. I would say Prime Minister Samaras and his government know this better than anybody. But after these difficult but necessary reforms, Greece has now seen a further reduction in its deficit; has projected growth; has corrected its historic imbalances; and is recovering competitiveness. Despite the many prophets of doom, Greece has remained an integral, and loyal, member of both the euro area and the European Union.
I remember that no so long ago, I personally had to discuss these matters, not only with many in the European Union, but outside the European Union. Those were predicting the Greek exit, the implosion of the euro, even the disintegration of the European Union.
It will be helpful if they could admit that they were wrong.
Nobody denies that the recovery is still fragile and uneven; and that growth is modest. Unemployment, and in particular youth unemployment, is the biggest challenge facing us. We cannot afford a jobless recovery or a lost generation. That's why we need to speed up the work that is now on the table of the Council and the Parliament.
It is now possible to make more progress in that direction because very important achievements were made during these last months. Some of these developments would have been considered unthinkable some years ago. If you had asked analysts in Europe and also outside Europe, if it would have been possible, just two or three years ago, to have a Banking Union, and to have a competence of the European Central Bank over the national banks, they would have said 'this is not realistic'.
I remember when, in 2012, the European Commission used the words 'Banking Union' many people said that I was not being realistic. They did not even accept the words. They said 'ok if we talk about financial stability, but don't speak about Banking Union'.
And now we have a Banking Union; now we have an agreement on both the Single Supervisory Mechanism and the Single Resolution Mechanism and Fund. This was as a crucial sign of our commitment, to the markets and to our citizens, ahead of the elections, that the Economic and Monetary Union is here to stay and is going to be completed.
Alongside other important pieces of financial markets regulation, this will strengthen confidence and stability in the financial markets, and it will help to restore lending to the economy.
Because let's be honest: without stability, it is impossible to have any perspective of growth. So if this work of stability had not been done, we couldn't consider now – as we are considering – the ways to foster growth at European level.
Another important issue is the European Semester, already in its fourth edition. It has now reached cruising speed; it has taken us further down the road of economic coordination; a prerequisite given the high level of interdependence of our economies.
With the country specific recommendations agreed at the European Council last week, we are now in a phase of moving Member States from crisis-mode to a more forward–looking reform-oriented perspective.
And I want to underline it was a unanimous agreement. I say that because sometimes I think that those who agree at a European Council level forget what they have agreed, and say it was the others who have agreed it.
So I repeat: the endorsement of the country-specific recommendations was unanimous in the Member States; so it binds all the governments, left or right, north or south – this exercise is now making real progress..
The Semester was also unimaginable some years ago. If, some years ago you would have asked "will the European Commission one day have the power to look at the national budgets before they are adopted?", people would have said it was impossible.
And now it is not only possible, but it is an obligation
Why? Because the crisis has highlighted how interdependent we are. And the semester, unimaginable few years ago, has become an established focal point in the European calendar and in our economic governance.
We now have in place a genuine debate about national economic policy, about what is happening in each of the Member States. I want to congratulate this House, Member States and national parliaments for the constructive role they have played, against very tight deadlines, to agree on the country specific recommendations and complete this Semester of economic governance.
That said, and I also want to highlight this, it is a completely false the idea that has been popularized in some countries that these are impositions from Brussels or from the European Commission. That is not at all the way it works.
The European Commission has the role of proposition, of initiative and as the initiator of the process. The European Commission is also the objective referee. The role of the Commission is to check whether the recommendations have or not been implemented at National level. But the decisions, I repeat, have been taken by all the Governments, by the Finance ministers and at the end by the Prime ministers of all our countries.
So please, it is time to avoid these discussions putting the blame on Brussels for the decisions that are taken by the Governments themselves.
I hope that they will have the courage to stand by the decisions they take collectively.
And now we have to focus precisely on implementation; there is no room for complacency because a lot of reforms are needed. We need to do more regarding employment, the Youth Guarantee, the fight against poverty and social exclusion, investments, taxation and overall, the progress for our competitiveness.
These were some of the two most important developments during these last six month: the European Semester process and also the completion of the Banking union.
But there are many other areas where we need to speed up our work and I believe the Italian Presidency has a lot of work to do here, namely in terms of more focused actions regarding the fight against youth unemployment and also what we can do to use better our 1 trillion euro budget for the next seven years for investment. So when people speak about a new Marshal Plan for Europe, we have much bigger fund than a Marshal plan. We have a budget for the next seven years that, if properly managed, can help us very much in terms of the investment that some of our countries don't have the margin to do just by themselves.
It is also about efficiency. That is why I really was happy with the results of the last European Council regarding the REFIT, the programme for Regulatory Fitness and Performance at a European level. During the last six months through our REFIT programme, we have lightened further the amount of legislation which serves no useful purpose any longer. We have withdrawn 53 more proposals and so we have already - since 2006 - withdrawn 293 proposals. It seems that these figures never appear publicly and the conventional wisdom today is still about speaking about bureaucracy from Brussels.
Let me tell you that if all Governments were making the same efforts we are doing at European level to reduce administrative burden, we could have much better environment for our citizens and namely for our SMEs.
Let's not forget that 80% of the European budget is administered by Member States themselves, and one-third of the administrative burden linked to EU legislation comes from national implementation. I think Member States can and must play their role, too, in creating a more growth-friendly environment, cutting red-tape and this is a collective responsibility of the Commission, of this Parliament and also of the Council.
We have also discussed other important issues during these last six months. I will not repeat what was already said regarding the important area of Justice, Freedom and Security, namely the issue of migration.
So allow me, finally, to say a few words on the enlargement process because this was a period when we commemorated ten years after the big enlargement of 2004.
Let's not forget that in 2004, when by the way my first Commission took office, we were at the beginning of the year only 15 countries, now we are 28. We have almost doubled the membership. It is one of the greatest achievements ever in term of European history that we have this reunited continent.
And this is why 2014 should be a year of reminder as well. Because it was 25 years after the Iron Curtain came down; 70 years after D-Day; 100 years since the First World War, , as well as the celebration, in May, of ten years of the reunification of Europe.
A Union open for the future, bringing together the rich and less rich; the big and small; the old and new; the central and peripheral; the north, south, east and west.
Those Member States have also grown stronger economically, politically, democratically.
Latvia, who will hold the Presidency from the start of 2015, successfully joined the Euro at the start of the year. Lithuania will become the 19th member of the euro area at the start of 2015; a country whose wealth has increased from 35% of the EU GDP average in 1995 to 78%.
Dear Members of the Parliament,
How can still people be negative regarding enlargement and reunification of Europe?
How can they not understand the great convergence machine, the great creator of opportunities that is the European Union?
Working for those new Member States but also projecting stability; avoiding many Ukraines around us that would have happened if we hadn’t taken forward the enlargement process when we had, at the right time.
I really believe that the European Union should remain open; not least to the Western Balkans. It would be a complete mistake for Europe, because of current difficulties, if it was suggested to close our borders.
We have to manage some specific challenges, yes.
Freedom of movement is a sacred principle; and we should combat any kind of misuse or abuse of the rights of freedom of movement; but it would be a real mistake for Europe to close down its borders.
I have seen just recently, visiting Serbia and Albania, the progress that those countries are making.
It would be a really irresponsible thing to do, if we don't keep the hope and prospect for accession to those countries, if and when they meet the necessary conditions, democratically and economically, to join when they are ready the European union.
So it was a very important Presidency during very difficult time.
Prime Minister Samaras and his team have shown their commitment, capacity and experience, as the fifth Hellenic Presidency, as well as their nation’s strong traditions.
Traditions that I believe were very much present during this Presidency and that can be perhaps best described by the three Greek words that underline our European approach as we face the challenges of the 21st Century:
logos, going ahead with what is rational and right for Europe;
pathos, listening to all sides and understanding the needs of our citizens, namely those who are suffering the most; and
ethos, preserving our European values of freedom, justice and solidarity.
I thank the Greek Presidency, and I thank you for your attention.