Dear Ms Schmelzer, dear Dries, dear Ben and others, dear Sybrand, dear Ruth, senators and members of the House of Representatives and of the European Parliament, ladies and gentlemen,
I am glad to be here with you this afternoon. This is what one is always supposed to say on these occasions, but most people do not mean it. But this afternoon it is true because I really am happy to be here to deliver this Schmelzer lecture. I am especially happy because Ms Schmelzer has done us the honour of being here. This is the second time that I have been invited to give this lecture. If I am not mistaken, I am the only person to deliver it twice. Those who have done it only once must now be hoping that they too will get an opportunity to deliver it a second time. On the last occasion I was here, in 2007, Norbert Schmelzer was still with us. He died one year later. Norbert for me was a role model —someone you could look up to, someone who offered guidance, someone who always knew how to give European integration a deeper meaning in that he saw the European Union and its creation — the integration of a continent – in direct relation to European, and also Christian, values. So that is why I am glad to be here today.
When I was here in 2007, the world was very different to how it is now. We were full of optimism. It did not take much courage to support Europe, even though, after saying ‘No’ in 2005, many Dutch people found it hard to fully back Europe and the European Union. We are living in different times now. When I became President of the European Commission, it was already clear to me that we were living in a time of multiple crises. But I could not have imagined that it would become so serious, even though I raised the issue of refugee flows and migration in my address to the European Parliament at my hearing.
2007 was the year before the outbreak of the economic and financial crisis. Budgets were being brought under control, debt levels were coming down, unemployment was high though it had not reached current levels. That crisis, the financial and economic crisis, kept us on edge for years, particularly me, because I was unlucky enough to be President of the Eurogroup at the time.
We have not yet put that crisis behind us. But we have not been beaten by it because the countries of Europe, the Member States of the eurozone, found the strength to come together.
You will remember the issue of Greece. During the first half of last year we again came under extreme pressure to either prevent a Greek exit from the euro zone or speed it up. Some people were for, others against. I never wanted a Greek exit from the euro zone because slamming doors shut is not the way forward for Europe. And now we are plunged into other crises. The financial crisis did some good in that we were able to do two things: one, to remember the values — you spoke of Gaudium et Spes – that are the truly fundamental values of the European social market economy. One of the factors that brought about the crisis was because those primarily responsible disregarded the cardinal virtues of the social market economy. We know that now. Second, the crisis made us move forward with Economic and Monetary Union – something we had to do – so that today banks and the banking sector and the real economy are better prepared to withstand external shocks than they were in 2008, 2009 and 2010. Banking Union is making progress, though not as much as I would like. Banking supervision works. Everything we have achieved over the years is working well, although more must and will be done to complete Economic and Monetary Union.
It became clear to us in the aftermath of the crisis – and as I just said, the crisis is not yet fully over – that we needed to do more to address Europe's real issues. There is a virtuous triangle in European politics – as I explained to the European Parliament – consisting in the necessary consolidation of public finances. No one should think that public finances can be left to their own devices. Governments need to continue bringing down their deficits. Europe's deficit and debt levels are still too high. The virtuous triangle is the consolidation of public finances, growth, and jobs and investment. Investment was the issue I pushed at the beginning of this Commission's term of office; if we compare the investment levels of recent years with those of 2007, we see that investment, whether public or private, is still 15 % down compared to 2007. And this applies to every country. Even Europe's biggest economy, Germany, has a level of investment that is 52 % lower than in 1991. There is therefore an investment gap in Europe that we are trying to address with the Investment Plan, which could mobilise €315 billion in public investment. €61 billion have already been mobilised under the Investment Plan in just three months.
It is not enough for Europe to talk about budgetary policy, economic policy, fiscal policy and so on. One must also show people that the European Union is also responsible, together with the Member States, for growth and jobs. Many of our fellow citizens hear only negative news about Europe: cuts, cuts and more cuts - and it was important when the Commission took office to talk about growth and jobs as well. Because Europe's biggest problem remains weak, very weak economic growth and scandalously high unemployment. In the years to come, we will of course also be judged on how we have dealt with the refugee crisis. But we will also have to answer questions as to why we have not been able to get unemployment down. And so this is a major, ongoing issue, alongside everything else we have to do.
The Commission receives an unending stream of criticism from many countries, which is understandable: they need the Commission to be a scapegoat when they are unable to do what they promised their electorate. This I bear patiently but ever less meekly. This Commission has achieved a paradigm shift, something we made clear in the election campaign, including here in the Netherlands, namely that European policies, and therefore the European Commission, deal with the really important issues facing Europe: to be big on big things and small and modest on smaller things. That is what we are doing. When I say this in elections and to the European Parliament, I get a lot of applause. But when it comes to the nitty-gritty, I get a rather different reaction. Because everyone sitting in the European Parliament, every national minister, everyone involved in politics has a very precise idea of what Europe ought to be doing. And if you ask what Europe ought not to do, again everyone has their own point of view. If it is then carried out, however, what an outcry there is. Led by Frans Timmermans, the first Vice-President of the Commission, we have emblazoned ‘better regulation’ on our banner because we think that Europe cannot go on dealing with everyone and everything; it gets on people's nerves. We prescribe, we demand, we sanction, things that no one is interested in.
We have taken yet another decision – one I knew nothing about because the decision was taken by the Member States but the Commission will be blamed anyway – this time to lay down how fast Christmas candles should burn. With a perfect sense of timing, we published it in the Official Journal of the European Union in time for the third Sunday of Advent. I was very surprised and wondered 'Who was responsible for that?'. It is said it was a Commission decision. But in fact it was the 28 Member States, acting at the behest of the candle industry. Only the United Kingdom and the Netherlands abstained; the UK and the Netherlands are often in the same boat, which is sometimes a good thing, though not always.
Consequently, we painstakingly examined all the draft legislation before the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers and withdrew over 80 drafts so that now only around 400 still have to be dealt with. We have announced 23 new initiatives. This is significant in that previous Commissions launched an average of 130 initiatives a year. And not all initiatives ended where they were supposed to. It is important to show that 'being big on the big things and small on the smaller things' is not just a slogan but what we genuinely do it. 'Better regulation' is of course also a very popular subject in the Netherlands, and we take it seriously in Europe too. I had and still have the impression that the more we interfere in people's everyday lives, the greater the already very considerable distance becomes between European citizens and European policies, and thus also the European Commission. Big ideas require big plans.
I am not talking about the Juncker Plan, though it’s a great thing (and it’s not called the Juncker plan just because I named it so but because many people thought that nothing would become of it and then it would be good if it bore the name of someone who could be blamed, so that is why the Investment Plan is called the Juncker Plan); I am talking about other things. We are taking European Energy Union very seriously. Energy is a continental matter, which makes such heavy demands on solidarity as do other matters. Energy union will come about. The digital internal market is being vigorously promoted, because, in digital terms, Europe lags behind other parts of the world and we have to reduce this digital gap. Banking Union and Capital Markets Union is another matter. Capital markets union is of key importance and is also being tackled in a very focused fashion. We have submitted all these plans and I am very glad that the European Parliament has endorsed all the projects, just as I am overall very pleased that the Commission and the European Parliament have found a new way of engaging with one another. It has always surprised me how it is that the Commission and Parliament always manage to argue in public over every little thing, even though they are the two Community institutions that should be working hand-in-hand to fashion the future of Europe.
I am the first Commission President to have been elected by the European Parliament, after we came up with the idea of choosing a leading candidate for the party lists. I have to believe that I was put into office by the people of Europe. I know so. Only the people themselves don’t know this; so we need to ensure that this method of selecting the Commission President – top candidate in a continent-wide election, Parliament approval – that this method does not disappear again. Because the European Council, shocked by the result of the first election, decided in June 2014 that for 2019 the way in which the European Commission President is appointed had to be reconsidered. And when 28 governments put their thinking caps on, the virtue of the outcome is not a God-given certainty and therefore every democrat needs to make sure that things remain as they are. There are quite a few former ministers here. And though it used not to be the case, sound common sense now follows what governments are doing, except that governments are far quicker. Thus sound common sense (which is not evenly spread across Europe anyway), does not fully succeed in getting through to the centres of government.
I am therefore very glad about the effective cooperation which the Parliament and the Commission have managed to achieve in the first twelve months of the new Commission, and I am very much of the view that the European Parliament wrongly comes in for criticism (often in the Netherlands too). People do not really understand the role of the European Parliament: it is a European legislator comparable with national parliaments and deserves the same degree of respect as national parliaments. I said, in a moment of autobiographical weakness, that the new Commission (people only refer to the new Commission although it is already old and already has its first wrinkles) would be a political Commission because I had the impression, and still do, that the European project is increasingly seen as a problem rather than a solution. And that is precisely because we very often approach the continent's problems in a bureaucratic and technocratic manner. I have tried to change this by reinventing the Vice-Presidents of the European Commission and by giving them specific remits: for example, Frans Timmermans in the field of 'better regulation'.
These Vice-Presidents all come from small countries just as the Commission President comes from a small country - a Grand Duchy but a small country nonetheless. This is important because Commissioners and Vice-Presidents from smaller countries have different views on what needs to be done in Europe from the 'know-it-all's who arrive in Brussels from larger countries. And this really works very well. I took care to ensure that fully mature and experienced professional politicians became Commissioners (not the way it once used to be, when the people sent to Brussels were those for whom no place could be found at home), but former Prime Ministers, four in all, and former Foreign and Finance Ministers so that in the Commission too, there is an overall understanding for the state of affairs and constraints facing the Member States. Many of those here today have, for their sins, attended Council meetings as national ministers. Now they are Commissioners, they understand better what they can propose and what they had better not propose because some governments would promptly object. To this extent, we are a political Commission in terms of our composition but also in the way we conduct political business in the Commission.
I said earlier that the Commission often comes in for a lot of criticism – we all used to be keen critics, though I am not quite so keen now; but that’s the way things are. What is not acceptable, though, is constantly seeking to take the Commission, the European Union’s executive arm, down a peg or two. Brussels does this, Brussels does that – Brussels is always doing something. And Brussels is always to blame for the dreadful state of the world. Brussels is to blame for a lot of things. But Brussels is not just 28 Commissioners. Brussels is also 28 governments. And it is quite impossible to dictate Europe’s direction against the will of the national governments and Member States. So when people say Brussels, they in fact mean themselves. The finger pointed at Brussels actually points to those who are always going on about Brussels, Brussels, Brussels. Yes, Brussels gets a lot of things wrong. But Brussels also does a lot of things right that governments would get wrong if Brussels weren’t there. So it does not help at all when people hurl criticisms of all sorts at the Commission, as the Italian Prime Minister has been doing these last few months; as the Polish government is doing; as the Finnish Foreign Minister did, when he said the Commission should not busy itself with the observance of fundamental rights in Poland, that was not Europe’s business but purely a matter for the Poles themselves – although the Treaty clearly calls on the Commission to watch over this kind of thing.
We now face a crisis – the refugee crisis – that we never thought would beset us. On taking office, the Commission devoted considerable space to the issue of migration, because we already sensed – sensed rather than knew – that something was coming. Anyone who has kept a careful eye on the world situation, anyone with a real concern for Africa rather than just talking about Africa, anyone who has observed the veritable exodus under way there over the years – there are 60 million refugees in Africa, 60 million of them – must have known something was coming. That it would happen on such a scale, in such concentration – that we never imagined. But that something was coming, quite literally – that we did know. As early as May last year, the Commission therefore put forward proposals – European proposals: namely that the refugees should be shared out – relocated – across all the Member States of the Union. The Council of Ministers approved the scheme last autumn. And the Member States – though not all of them – are refusing to implement their own decisions. It is the first time this kind of thing has happened in the European Union, for the Council to adopt legislation and then decide a few days later not to apply it. Here, we, the Commission will not back down from calling on the Member States to do what they have themselves decided. I know that it will not be easy. Because what is needed is not just for the Member States to be prepared to take in refugees – which they are increasingly willing to do, though not yet to the extent required. The refugees themselves must also be prepared to accept the invitation. What bothers me in particular – and we see it every day – is when refugees in Greece and Italy, especially Greece, simply choose where they want to go themselves. The refugees in Greece all say: Germany, Germany, Germany. That cannot go on. As a result, some countries have to bear a very heavy burden: Germany, Sweden, and the Netherlands too – last year the Netherlands took in 57,000 refugees. That is twice as many as the year before. And this year the number will not be any lower unless we frame our policy to prevent it from happening. So we will have to focus hard on this issue all the time, making it clear to refugees – above all the genuine ones, not the economic migrants but the genuine asylum seekers who make their way to Europe to escape from war and violence – that it is not up to them to decide where to go, that it is up to the governments to decide where to assign them a home. Luxembourg was the first country to start implementing the decision. The Luxembourg government publicly announced in Greece that 30 refugees could come to Luxembourg. But no one wanted to go. It was like searching for a needle in a haystack to find 30 who were prepared to board a plane to Luxembourg – as if Luxembourg were the poorhouse of Europe. It is a very real problem and the message needs to be brought home again and again. It makes me weep to see the images that assail us. But it also has to be realised that the broad picture is not just black and white – yes, governments must do more, but refugees must also be cooperative.
We urgently need to strengthen the protection of our external borders, as is currently being done. On 15 December, the Commission tabled a comprehensive proposal for protecting the EU's external borders and coastlines, which governments approved in principle, although they are now having trouble implementing the decision. Council Working Groups, some 20 in total, are being held in which national representatives are saying precisely the opposite of what was backed by their heads of government at the European Council, which is holding up any real progress. However, if we fail to better protect our external borders, especially the border between Greece and Turkey, we will never manage to overcome the crisis. This is why, in Turkey and at its border with Greece, we have to bring the flow of refugees heading from Turkey to Greece, and then onwards to northern Europe under control.
In the waters between Greece and Turkey, we now have NATO ships, although the exact demarcation is a subject of heated debate between the two NATO countries. NATO is helping, a fact which is proving difficult given Turkey’s reluctance to allow these ships into its waters. Nevertheless, we are managing to resolve the issue. Yesterday, Greece also began sending back refugees to Turkey – a fact which many are unaware of. Just yesterday, 308 refugees were returned. Although only a small number, this is the first time the readmission agreement between Greece and Turkey has actually been implemented.
With Turkey, we have agreed a Joint Action Plan, at a cost of €3 billion to Europeans. This is not €3 billion which will be handed over to Turkey, but €3 billion which will fund projects to help Syrian refugees in Turkey. We will be building schools and hospitals. There are hundreds of thousands of Syrian children currently living in Turkey who are not going to school despite being of school age. If we fail to manage the issue of helping children, in particular orphaned children, a lost generation will emerge. We cannot allow that. We must remain active on this front, as we currently are. Next week will see projects worth a total of €300 million getting under way, and over the coming years we will see more of the same if the need is still there.
Yesterday, the Commission agreed a €700 million emergency aid programme for Greece and other countries. However, the focus will be predominantly on Greece, given the large-scale humanitarian crisis beginning to unfold there – indeed, for many, it already exists. That is because Europe is not acting like it should. It is because there is not enough Union in the European Union and not enough Europe in the European Union, with Member States thinking that the refugee crisis can be solved by working alone, as nations. But only a European response can solve a Europe-wide problem that has been imported to Europe from other parts of the globe. Isolated national action, although sometimes understandable, in not welcome because when one country secures its own borders, this (a) does not solve the refugee problem and (b) will destroy the internal market completely.
People need to know that there are 1.7 million cross-border commuters in Europe. People need to know that 52.4 million cross-border freight transport operations occur each year in Europe. People need to know that it costs €53 when a lorry has to wait at a border for 30 minutes. Knowing how many lorries in the Netherlands travel between Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands every day, you can soon work out how much this costs. The internal market will not survive the refugee crisis if we do not manage to secure our external borders jointly and if we do not move away from this senseless policy of countries doing whatever they want, without any thought for the impact of their actions on the neighbouring Member States.
It is regrettable that border access has been restricted by Austria, as this basically closes the border between two Schengen countries. Doing so has nothing to do with protecting our external borders. When, much to my disliking, Hungary built a fence along its border with Serbia and Croatia, this could be called external border protection given that those countries are not part of Schengen. It is not the ideal form of protection, but so be it. However, by closing the border once more between two Schengen countries, we are slowly but surely destroying the European internal market and everything associated with it. Consequently, we must resist this kind of thing vigorously.
We could talk for hours about the refugee crisis. That is indeed what our heads of government have been doing for the last six months and will be doing again next Monday, when talks will finally be held with Turkey. I would like to thank you, Léon, for saying that without Turkey, there is no solution to the crisis. Turkey is certainly a difficult partner. I could also talk for hours about human rights, press freedom and similar issues in Turkey. However, on the matter of stemming the flow of refugees, Turkey is the European Union’s most important partner – although in principle I am not in favour of pushing back the flow since it is my view, based on the Christian values adhered to in the European Union, that we are duty-bound to offer a new home to those fleeing war and violence.
What has become of us? The richest continent in the world, with 500 million inhabitants, and yet to say from the outset that we would be unable to accept one or two million refugees. Talking to the King of Jordan and the Lebanese Prime Minister, as I do on a regular basis, leaves me feeling ashamed. Jordan, a country with 8-9 million inhabitants, has taken over 630 000 refugees from Syria, a figure which excludes the 500 000 Palestinian refugees. In Lebanon, 25 % of the population are refugees, newly arrived from Syria. And we, as Europeans, say we can’t manage. What must the others think of us? This is ‘reputation damage’ we are inflicting on ourselves: people around the world who have always looked at Europe with great hope are suddenly discovering that we are mired in our own egoism, unable to agree with one another in order to tackle the refugee crisis decently.
I am therefore urging Member State governments to resist those ideas which are springing up everywhere: for example, the idea of taking national measures after the end of an EU Presidency. This is not the road we should be going down in Europe. Likewise, we must not trivialise the refugee crisis. This is why I have said that there are also obligations for refugees. We need to see the overall picture, look at everything that is happening, with a sense of solidarity. And given that the mass migration will continue, we need a permanent distribution mechanism between the 28 Member States of the European Union.
We are currently living in a time of referenda. Mr Orbán, the Hungarian Prime Minister, is holding a referendum on the basis for distributing refugees between all 28 countries. And these referenda seem to be contagious. The United Kingdom will be holding its referendum on 23 June – although that cannot possibly go badly because it is also Luxembourg’s National Holiday. All will be fine. The Hungarians will be holding their referendum, and then the Dutch, with the good experience of referenda which there is here, will be holding theirs on 6 April. I will not be interfering. I once said it would be a bad idea to vote ‘no’ and was, in turn, savaged by the Dutch press, as if to say no one ever has the right to talk about matters concerning the Dutch people. Seen the other way round, this would mean that the Dutch no longer have the right to talk about matters affecting other people, which, if it were the case, would leave the Dutch newspapers half-empty. In this respect, I'll say it loud and clear: having one’s say without coming across like a schoolmaster is pointless. I have not come to the Netherlands to say: listen here; you should do this and that. This is not how things are done, most certainly not in the Netherlands.
It is no laughing matter, however. If the Dutch vote ‘no’, Europe will have a problem. That problem is destabilisation. We need to bear this in mind, because Ukraine expects Europe to stick to what was agreed. We should not fall into the trap of thinking that this is about Ukraine joining the EU. Many Dutch people I talk to in Brussels – ordinary people, not Commission officials – make that mistake. In reality, it is about trade and trade agreements. I can hardly imagine an old, successful trading nation like the Netherlands rejecting a trade agreement with a country, like Ukraine, that is so important for European stability. So let me repeat: we need to explain to people that it is not about EU accession. Ukraine will not join the EU during my term of office. In any case, I have said – rather bluntly – that there will be no new members over the next five years, because I do not believe any of the countries in waiting will fulfil the conditions in that time frame.
We have rushed things in the past when it comes to enlargement. I am also guilty, because I thought it was an historic event and that we had to reunite European history and geography. Hence the accession of the ‘new’ Member States (in 2004). In some cases, though, we jumped the gun, and we will not make the same mistake again. Ukraine will certainly not join the EU in the next 20 to 25 years. Nor will it join NATO, Secretary-General. I actually wanted to talk about the Dutch referendum, not lecture the Ukrainians, but I know many Dutch people are very worried that this will be the first step to Ukraine joining the EU. But we can definitely say that is not the case. I would therefore be happy if the Dutch voted ‘yes’, because it is about the Dutch, Europe and the other parts of Europe. Everybody who goes to the polls will be a statesman and should ask themselves what the final outcome would be if everybody else voted like them. I know the Dutch are practical people, and I expect them to vote ‘yes’ rather than ‘no’, because the last ‘no’ caused a lot of headaches in Europe. Luxembourg held the Council Presidency at the time, and now a Luxembourger is in the Commission President’s chair, and I do not want to have to go through that again.
Just a word on ‘Brexit’ – though without really saying anything, as I have resolved never to say much on the frequent occasions when I talk about it, since it would not be fitting for a Commission President to interfere in the British referendum campaign. The Commission is even more unpopular in the UK than in other countries, and it is quite an achievement to be unpopular in the UK. Everything a Commission President or the Commission says to the UK has unintended consequences. I would only say that the Prime Minister obtained as much as he could and the other 27 leaders gave as much as they could. It is a fair deal for the UK and for the other Member States. I would be very happy if we could consign the issue to confines of history as quickly as possible, because if it drags on for years, everything will go wrong in Europe. That is why there can be no renegotiation with the British, whom I am otherwise very fond of, after a ‘no’ vote. Not just because the Prime Minister voted against me as Commission President, but also because this time he was extremely glad we were able to help him sort out his problem, a problem of his own making.
When talking about Europe, we should not forget why, after the Second World War, the States of Europe decided not to repeat the crass errors of the last century. And the people returning home from the front and the concentration camps at the end of the war did not complain about the tasks that lay ahead as much as we do today. When I compare my life with my father’s it is clear to me that we are very fortunate. We grew up in bright sunshine, while others still have to live in darkness. Our fathers and grandfathers knew nothing but rain, thunderstorms and hail. So what is at stake is still the same. Verdun – 100 years ago. Verdun is a poignant story, because of the terrible things that happened there, but also because, at the end of the 1920s, young people from Germany and France shook hands on its battlefields. Then 10 years later it all started again – peace can never be taken for granted. Anyone who thinks peace is everlasting could not be more wrong. War is again being waged in Europe. When there was talk of war in Europe a couple of years ago, people laughed it off. No one is laughing any more after the events in Ukraine and Crimea. And we had no cause to laugh because 20 years ago war was raging in Bosnia, Kosovo and throughout the Balkans, which remains a highly complicated and sensitive region of Europe. That is why we must not lose sight of the Western Balkans when it comes to the refugee question.
So, I think that Europe will always benefit if we constantly remind people that it is a great project for peace. Those who do not believe in Europe, doubt it, or are exasperated by it should visit the graves of our wars.