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Vice-President of the European Commission responsible for inter-institutional relations and administration
Back to the F(EU)ture: Lessons from Europe's past to help make a better future
At the public dialogue, Aula Magna, Old University/Valletta, Malta
31 January 2014
Ladies and Gentlemen
I want to take you back in time – to 1985 to be precise.
Because that was the year when the film 'Back to the Future' was released.
I'm sure you all know the story – a school kid travels back in time to 1955 and accidentally stops his parents from meeting. He has to get them back together to stop himself from never existing, then find a way back to the future. On the way, he learns a few lessons from the past that will help him when he does finally get back home.
Of course, it's just a fun film – but there are some lessons for us to learn as well.
Because I believe that Europe's future also depends on us learning the lessons of the past – without which we too may cease to exist!
Let's start by going back in time a little further - 100 years ago to the start of the First World War.
As we commemorate the start of the Great War throughout this year, I think it's important to remember not only the pain and suffering caused by this conflict and the one that followed just a generation later but also the lasting legacy of those world wars.
Because of course the roots of today's EU stem precisely from a desire to stop European nations – more specifically, France and Germany – from going to war to settle their differences.
This was the essence of what we now call the Schuman Declaration, made by France's foreign minister Robert Schuman on 9 May 1950, and which is viewed as the founding document of European unity.
In short, by sharing resources and access to them, European countries would have no more need to fight each other.
And of course it worked – the last 60 years or so since the creation of what is now the EU have been pretty much the longest period of peace that our continent has ever known!
Just think about that for a moment: almost three entire generations – your grandparents, your parents and you – have lived in a Europe where differences are settled round the meeting table and not on the battlefield, where freedoms forbidden to many for centuries are now taken almost for granted.
The significance of this achievement is, I think, usually underestimated – especially by most of us living here in Europe. But that of course is why the European Union was awarded the Nobel Peace prize in 2012 – to recognise what we have done together and to raise awareness of it.
You may remember that the theme song to Back to the Future is The Power of Love – and perhaps we could also think of this in some way as the theme song to the EU. I'm not suggesting that we make this the European anthem, although perhaps it would be easier to sing along to than Beethoven's 9th…
But a lot of what we have achieved over the last 60 years is indeed down in many ways to the power of love – or at least, the power of respect, cooperation and mutual appreciation – and the rejection of war as a means of settling scores.
I know it's sometimes hard these days to see much in the way of love when it comes to EU issues. The media often portrays the institutions in Brussels as being in constant conflict with Member States over everything, and even the institutions themselves are frequently seen as disagreeing with each other on many issues.
There is certainly an element of truth to this – but then that is inherent in the EU political system in the first place.
European level policy making is probably the most consensual in the world! Where else must agreement be found between a majority of 751 parliamentarians and among a majority of 28 Member States and then, frequently, among a majority of national parliamentarians in those Member States themselves!
It is a system that is built on debate and discussion, on compromise and consensus.
But what EU law making absolutely is not, despite its image in the press and elsewhere, is undemocratic.
Indeed, the complicated system we have put in place is there precisely because it is the most democratic way that we have found to proceed.
The institutions act as checks and balances on each other; most legislation must be approved by both national governments in the Council and by the European Parliament; national parliaments can have their say on each and every legislative proposal; impact assessments and consultations also allow the wider European public to get involved…
In short, Europe works best when we talk about the issues that divide us to find solutions that unite us.
And there are plenty of ways in which Europe works.
I've already mentioned the 60 years of peace as a major achievement, but there are plenty of people who consider the single market to be just as impressive.
A barrier-free market of more than 500m customers, with widely recognised and guaranteed standards and rights, benefiting companies and consumers alike – the single market is the lifeblood of the EU.
We still have some work to do before it is fully complete, but over the last 20 years the single market has been a driver of growth, jobs and prosperity for the whole EU. Cross-border trade between EU countries grew from €800 billion in 1992 to €2.8 trillion in 2011 in terms of the value of goods, while EU trade with the rest of the world tripled, from €500bn in 1992 to €1.5 trillion in 2011.
It's certainly true that the economic crisis of the last few years has been a difficult period for the EU. But we've taken swift and decisive action to address the economic problems caused by the global crisis, and as we slowly emerge from recession, the EU's economy is in far better shape to resist future crises.
Nor has it has damaged our standing on the world stage.
The EU remains the world's biggest economy, with a GDP per head of €25,000 for its 500 million consumers. And our share of global trade has remained constant, despite the rise of new economies such as China.
And we remain highly competitive: the latest scoreboard of the most competitive countries from the World Economic Forum shows that five of the top 10 nations are in Europe – and several are more competitive even than Europe's leading trading partners such as the US, Japan and China.
And that level of success is attractive to others – which is why we've seen an increase in the number of free trade agreements between the EU and other countries in recent years.
The ongoing talks with the US over the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, or TTIP, are proof positive of the attractiveness of Europe's business model.
And if a deal is reached, it could have global impact, not only in terms of business – we already trade goods and services worth €2 billion every day – but also in terms of future economic growth. It's predicted that the TTIP will mean an extra €545 for each European household – that's a €120 billion a year boost to the EU's GDP.
But Europe is not just about economic growth, important as that is.
There are many other freedoms and rights that are often overlooked or taken for granted: the right to live, work, retire, holiday, travel wherever we want, and mostly border-free; the rights to have your professional qualifications recognised wherever you studied, or the right to health and social protection.
These are tools that give Europe unique room to manoeuvre.
Take unemployment, for example. This is still a major concern for EU countries, with unemployment levels running at around 11% and we have adopted a number of measures designed to tackle this problem.
These include new EU-wide programmes for developing apprenticeships and for promoting cross-border job recruitment via the Eures network: there are more than 2m unfilled vacancies in the European job market, and making it easier to find work across borders will certainly help us to tackle the unemployment issue.
Europe is also the best placed to provide the framework for reforming education systems to ensure that future generations have the right skills to match the job market's needs.
These are elements within the EU's 10-year growth strategy, known as Europe 2020.
That strategy also reinforces Europe's commitment to seek growth not at any cost but in a responsible and sustainable way.
That's why the EU is the world's leading advocate in the fight against climate change: we’ve just proposed setting new targets for cutting EU greenhouse gases by 40% by 2030 and boosting the share of renewables in the energy mix to 27% by the same time.
The EU has undoubtedly helped make Europe a cleaner, greener and safer place to live , through measures as diverse as restricting emissions from cars to protecting wildlife species and land – measures that once again are often taken for granted.
But if Europe works so well in so many different ways, why do so few citizens really seem to understand this?
Well, there are many reasons for that, but let me touch on just a couple.
First, one of the reasons is along the lines of what I mentioned earlier – it's a complex, time-consuming and opaque decision-making process that often bears little or no resemblance to the way decisions are taken in national governments.
European decision making is not taught widely in schools or universities; it is unlikely to be a major topic of conversation at the dinner table or around the water cooler! How can we possibly hope to explain the successes of Europe to citizens if they can't see beyond the jargon and bureaucracy?
But there is another reason why there is a lack of understanding about Europe's successes, and one I think that is particularly important to resolve in this European Parliament election year.
It's what I like to call the 'Brusselisation of failure and the nationalisation of success'.
How many times have we seen headlines in the press about national governments defending their positions and forcing 'Europe' to toe the line; how many times have we seen politicians coming out Council meetings denouncing 'Europe' for introducing proposals to which they themselves have just agreed?
In most EU countries, there is a clear distinction between 'national' and 'European' politics, as if the two had no connection whatsoever.
In the film Back to the Future, when Marty McFly accidently stops his parents meeting, he puts his own life at risk; he is the author of his own destiny.
There is this same direct link, this same cause and effect, in EU policy making as well.
Decisions are not taken 'by Brussels'; they may be taken IN Brussels, but they are taken by the co-legislators – by MEPs and national governments.
Rules are not forced undemocratically onto Member States without allowing them a say; they are agreed by Parliament and Council, both made up essentially of democratically elected representatives.
Of course, the rules mean that not every decision requires and absolute majority of Member States to agree – so there are always going to be cases when countries will feel that their interests are not being met by legislation that they voted against.
But this is the essence of every democratic system.
There is nothing wrong with continuing to discuss and debate, with continuing to fight a specific corner.
But this should never be at the expense of 'Europe', by setting European Member States and institutions against each other, by effectively undermining the democratic system that has been in place for decades in order simply to get your own way.
There is nothing wrong, of course, with looking for ways to improve what we do and how we do it.
In the film, Marty finds that his actions in 1955 have changed things for the better in 1985.
And that's what we need to do more of at the EU level – find ways together, through interaction and cooperation, of making changes for the better.
It's through getting involved that this happens – if there is one lesson our past should teach us it's that change can and should be made through working with each other rather than against.
This will be the challenge for us all, as European politics does indeed become more of a water cooler topic in the months leading up to the elections in May. How we succeed in our collective efforts to highlight the success, pinpoint the areas for change and address how best to carry out those improvements could have a profound impact on the success of the elections.
Not just in terms of turnout – which is always disappointingly low for European elections, perhaps precisely because of the fact that many citizens do not see the EU as relevant or interested, as I've already discussed – but also in terms of the make-up of the new Parliament.
One of the more obvious results of the lack of interest in and understanding of the EU has been the growth in the number of political parties that see the EU as irrelevant at best or downright dangerous at worst.
Support for these parties has risen steadily over the last few years, partially because of the economic crisis, but also because of a general lack of faith in the ability of 'Europe' to respond to the big questions with the right answers – and because people naturally find it easier to vote against something than for it!
There is a real chance that in some countries, these Eurosceptic or Europhobic parties could become the biggest delegations in the European parliaments - and while they are unlikely to be the dominant overall force among MEPs, they could certainly have a far louder voice in the next parliament.
Don't get me wrong – I am not at all saying that this voice should not be heard, or that citizens should not have the democratic right to vote for whichever party they wish.
In the film, Marty's time machine car needs a boost from a bolt of lightning to give it the energy it needs to travel back to the future, and Europe periodically needs boosts of energy in the same way.
In other words, the success of the European project depends on the willingness of its constituent members to drive it forward.
Willingness does not always mean support of course – it is possible (and indeed common) to support Europe as a project while at the same time disagreeing with the way in which it is being constructed – that's what democracy is all about.
But these anti-EU voices are a real spanner in the works of the EU; they don't necessarily cause it to break down, but they do slow down the momentum.
That's why we have to do more to shout about the successes that we've achieved together, to accept that 'Brussels' is not just the Commission, or the institutions or some vague, undefined threat to national sovereignty, as it is often portrayed.
We are ALL Brussels – we all have a say in what is decided
Through the parties we vote for in general elections, in European elections, in local and regional elections; through the governments and administrations that those parties form; through the representatives that they then nominate to the Commission or to the other European institutions or to European affairs committees within their national parliament…
But also through public consultations or hearings, through stakeholder conferences and meetings, through petitions to the European Parliament or through the European Citizens' Initiative (where a million or more European citizens can put issues that concern them directly onto the EU policy agenda).
Like Marty McFly, we all have a direct impact on our own future. And like Marty we have to assume that responsibility and work together for a better future for us all.
Thank you for your attention