Mr Prime Minister,
On behalf of President Juncker, who is preparing the State of the Union Address that he will deliver tomorrow to this House, I am delighted to take part in this debate on the future of Europe in the presence of Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras. I had the opportunity to work closely with Prime Minister Tsipras over the last few years. Most recently, we had a very good exchange on Greece and the future of Europe when I visited Athens last June.
Before I turn to our debate, let me first express our deep sympathy and solidarity to those affected by the terrible forest fires in Greece. The Commission stands by your side and we must make sure such tragedy won't repeat.
Greece, its people and Greek civilisation have shaped Europe and its underlying values.
One can safely say that the Greeks invented democracy and above all they knew how to defend it when it was under threat. This allowed their country to join the European Union after enduring a terrible dictatorship, thus proving that the future belongs to those who have the courage not to succumb to resignation,the determination to face up to difficulties and take their fate into their own hands.
Yes, the future belongs to those who choose to be architects of history.
Greece is not only of historic importance to Europe, but it is also important to the future of Europe. It is impossible to imagine the future of Europe without Greece's contribution.
I am thinking in particular of its vital role in the stability of the Western Balkans, a region with a turbulent history which needs firm reassurance about the prospect of EU membership in order to avoid a repeat of the tragedies we witnessed in the 1990s.
And I would like once again to pay tribute to the courage and leadership of Prime Ministers Tsipras and Zaev, who have acted in a spirit of openness and compromise in order to break a long-standing deadlock that served the interests of neither country. They have set an example for the whole region and the wider world.
But I am also thinking of the future of our Economic and Monetary Union and the harsh lessons which, together, we had to learn from the crisis of the last ten years that has hit Greece so hard. Although others took a different view, the Commission has always believed that Greece has its rightful place in the euro area and I would like to pay tribute to the unprecedented efforts that have been made by the Greek people to maintain Greece's rightful place at the heart of the European Union.
This summer Greece has turned a new page. It has brought the stability programme to a successful close: it has put its public finances in order and even exceeded its budgetary targets. Its economy is on the rise: this year and next it is set to grow by 2%. Unemployment has already fallen sharply, although it is still unacceptably high. Over 100 000 new jobs have been created since the stability programme began.
The credit for this achievement is shared between the Greeks and their European partners. It is the product of Europe's recipe for success, which combines solidarity with responsibility.
Solidarity shown by the European partners has been unprecedented – both in terms of the financial assistance and in terms of support for reforms.
The people of Greece have been strong in taking their responsibility. Their efforts and sacrifices have laid the basis for this sustainable upturn.
These are solid foundations on which Greece can now build.
Yet, there are still economic challenges to overcome. The best investment that Greece can now make is to build confidence in its economy. That requires staying the course of responsible fiscal policies and reforms. This is the way to ensure a long-lasting economic growth and a constant improvement of living conditions for the Greek people. In such a case, I do not exclude that the Greek economy will surprise us on the upside.
When I see the courage and determination which the Greek people have already shown, I am confident that they will succeed.
And Greece can continue to rely on the solidarity from its European partners. In our Union responsibility and solidarity go hand in hand.
We proved as much when we drew lessons from the crisis and made our common currency more crisis-resistant.
In order to arm ourselves better to face future challenges, we must now take the necessary steps to complete our Economic and Monetary Union. The Commission's roadmap is clear, its agenda is well-known – this is an urgent priority for the autumn. We are finally making progress to complete our Banking Union and I trust we can also swiftly move forward towards a real Capital Markets Union.
The example of Greece shows that we can overcome problems when we join forces. The euro area has emerged from the crisis united and stronger, because we chose common European solutions.
As we look to the future of Europe, we must apply this spirit of finding common solutions to common challenges right across the board.
That is what being part of a Union means: working together to address the issues affecting us all.
Managing migration is one such common European challenge – it is not the responsibility of only one Member State or another.
This is why we stood side-by-side with Greece when it mattered the most. Thanks to the EU-Turkey Statement, arrivals are now down by 97% in the Eastern Mediterranean.
We backed that up with the financial means to match, with Greece receiving a total €1.6 billion of EU funds to address migration challenges.
And we set up a European Border and Coast Guard to make our borders more secure. We now have over 1 600 officers across Europe, including 662 officers in Greece, at the borders with Turkey, Albania and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.
The decisive action taken by the European Union has worked. But we can and must do more.
Together, it is time that Member States agreed on a long term solution covering all elements of migration, to help us balance solidarity and responsibility.
There would be no stronger or more tangible proof to Europeans that the Union will deliver on its promises and stay united on the things that matter the most.
And I believe that to do this we should look to the teachings of one Europe's and Greece's greatest minds, Aristotle.
He taught that virtue is the middle between extremes. That understanding and compassion are central to the way a society works. And that we are above all else all social beings.
In our long and often tragic history, we see the damage wrought when we lose sight of this humanism.
So the lesson for our future is simple. We must never lose sight of what binds us together. The values that we share. The living together in a society that we hold dear. And the compassion and solidarity that we show each other.
That is what our Union is built on. And that is what our future must be built on.