Sassoli: The words of Robert Schuman never sounded as topical as they do today
‘Europe will not be made all at once, or according to a single plan. It will build on concrete achievements that create de facto solidarity.’
The words with which Robert Schuman began his declaration on 9 May 70 years ago have never sounded as topical as they do today. Solidarity, equality, equal opportunities for everyone, these were the words which ran like a thread through an address which laid the foundations for the construction of the future European Union.
And talking of solidarity, I must take this opportunity to thank all the NGOs and associations present, representing all those working to are help our citizens, whether they are Europeans or from elsewhere.
Out of the devastation of a terrible war which reduced its towns and cities to rubble and left deep wounds among its people, both physical and moral, Europe rose again, thanks to the political vision of great leaders.
Those leaders drew on simple ideas in order to put the European integration process on firm foundations. First and foremost, they wanted to create an area of peace and cooperation among nations which had fought one another throughout history.
The European Union is 70 years old and has been through difficult times. Most notably in recent years, the serious economic crisis of 2008, from which we emerged only after a major struggle; Brexit, which culminated in a Member State leaving the Union; and, now, a pandemic which is bringing the economies of the Member States and of Europe as a whole to their knees.
The current crisis is perhaps the most daunting we have faced, because it affects everyone, without exception, and has brought home to us even more clearly the extent to which we are now dependent on one another.
We are the world’s largest market, we have economies which are closely interconnected, and one country’s problems has repercussions for all the others.
This crisis is teaching us that when we start again, we must start again together. COVID has exposed as a delusion the belief that countries can be stronger alone. The exact opposite is true. The only thing that can save us and allow us to revive our economies and protect our citizens is in the awareness that we must walk together, faster than in the past. Without a common answer no one will be able to recover.
In these weeks, we have been able to take containment measures in some states on the basis of the experience gained by those hit first; we have experienced solidarity in action, because aid has come mainly from within Europe.
We have made available, from one country to another, hospitals, human resources, machinery and health equipment, partly thanks to the great work done by civil protection services.
European citizens expect a lot of Europe, and we will have to live up to their expectations.
Our work is just beginning. We will need to be able to mobilise huge volumes of resources so that an economy which has come to a halt can be kick-started. And we will need to do so quickly, because citizens and businesses cannot wait.
We have a great responsibility to shoulder in the months and years to come. We must protect Europe and its borders from external interference, because at the moment we are very vulnerable and we need to protect and defend our common heritage — in the areas of culture, industry and tourism — and the assets of individual states against speculative and predatory attacks. Let's face it: we don't want Europe to be a bought up, because if we lose our assets we could become subordinate and compromise our wellbeing.
It has been a long road from the Europe of Six to today’s Union of 27. Europe still sets an example, to judge by the efforts being made by Balkan countries such as Albania and North Macedonia to meet the criteria laid down as part of the accession process.
The political message is very clear. Europe is seen as an economic and democratic model which is worth banking on and the accession of the countries of the Western Balkans will mean that the political and the geographical Europe match exactly.
The economic and financial crisis has led to rising unemployment and widening inequality both between and within nations. The recovery must embrace young people and women, who are likely to bear the full brunt of the crisis and who need comprehensive, practical support. We do not want to see hard won gains for women in society compromised or reversed.
Today, we face a major challenge: launching a plan for the recovery of the European economy which is commensurate with the catastrophic spiral generated by this crisis.
The Spring Economic Forecast presented this week by the European Commission paints a picture of 27 Member States in dire need of assistance, although the exact nature of the assistance they need varies.
The European Parliament is ready to play its part in drawing up the plan. In particular, we are ready to negotiate on a new proposal for a multiannual budget of a size needed to address the current crisis. We are ready to negotiate on a recovery instrument that draws on real resources to put the European economy back on its feet by focusing on investment.
These are the two pillars we need to underpin the new Europe, so that it takes on an ever more central role in the fight against climate change, but at the same time is capable of devising policies that guarantee employment, growth and greater social cohesion. Environmental challenges and social challenges are two sides of the same coin. Indeed, the former can only be overcome if we put the task of reducing inequalities at the centre of our political action.
Europe has a serious social problem: we need to reduce distances. The distances between the north and the south, east and west, between the centre and the periphery, are too great. Reducing distances is essential if we are to address the common challenges facing us.
A major effort will have to be made to strengthen the welfare state. We are not starting from scratch. Think of the millions of unemployed people in the United States who have been made redundant overnight and have no health insurance. Here in Europe, public health is essential to the well-being of society, a precious asset that we must defend and build on. We must further strengthen our social model, so we don’t leave anyone behind.
Today was the day on which, drawing on the work done in previous months, we were to have launched the Conference on the Future of Europe. That initiative was to have sketched out the shape of the new Europe. That was Parliament’s ambition for this legislative term and we do not want to see it come to nothing.
However, we find ourselves in a situation we could never even have imagined just two months ago. We can say that the COVID crisis has marked the real start of the debate on the Future of Europe, since the future of the European project, of the union which the Schuman Declaration advocated as the permanent driver of our integration process, will itself hinge on the decisions we take in the coming months on how to exit this emergency. Europe is shaped by difficulties, by the crises that help countries and public opinion understand just how necessary their unity is.
It is in times of hardship that we must find the courage and the resources to make a new start. Now it is our generation that is being asked to summon up the same courage as the Founding Fathers, to focus on the common future of that project, which so many the world over view as an example of peace, solidarity and prosperity.
Although there have at times been uncertainties, backward steps and even mistakes, we have managed in these 70 years to construct an edifice that we must now protect. It is founded on EU law, respect for democracy and our values, and measures to safeguard the freedoms of EU citizens. EU law is the strongest protector of our liberty.
Respect for EU law means respect for judicial bodies, and first and foremost the Court of Justice, whose decisions are binding on everyone and which everyone must pledge to uphold.
If there is one thing that this health crisis has shown our citizens it is that Europe already has a great resource. That great resource is its civil society, I am talking about the women, men, boys and girls who have rolled up their sleeves and offered to help those in need. And with them, our young people, who in these difficult months have been the bedrock of our families and the providers of solidarity, helping ensure cohesion, closeness, friendship, bonds of extraordinary humanity.
These are people who have put the common interest above all else and have had the courage to place themselves at the service of others. These people, both Europeans and non-Europeans, both in mainland Europe and in the sea where many people continue to die. 70 years ago we said never again to war, 70 years on we must say never again to dying from hunger or dying in the Mediterranean.
And it is people and civil society which are the driving force behind the European project. Only by adopting a bottom-up approach can we reform the Union in a way that puts the interests of its citizens centre-stage.
Our task is to revive the principle of participatory democracy laid down in the Treaty, so that citizens’ organisations and associations can play a greater part in the decision-making process and make policy-makers more aware of the bodies which have the ear of the people and so create the fairer, inclusive Europe based on solidarity which Robert Schuman imagined on 9 May 1950.
These are the values on which Europe must base its recovery.
It is essential, from the peak of this crisis, that we launch a far-reaching process of reflection on the future of Europe, in the form of a conference which listens to a range of views and which also offers an opportunity to tailor and upgrade the tools we use, making them more fit to address other daunting challenges.
Democracy is not outmoded, but it must be modernised so that it continues to be a means of improving people’s lives.
Our conference must thrive on intense grassroots discussion and not become mired in academic, or purely institutional, debate.
The aim must be to reform democracy. We must do this by deploying the tools needed for rapid decision making. The right of veto in the European decision-making process is an anachronism, as this crisis and the need to take urgent and timely measures has made only too clear.
On this day, I would say to the Presidents of the other EU institutions that I hope that in 70 years’ time people can say of us all that, taking their lead from Schuman, Adenauer, De Gasperi, Monnet and Spaak, other politicians addressed daunting challenges with courage ... they had the strength not to give in to conformity and instead strengthened the most extraordinary political venture of the modern age.
Dear European compatriots, long live democracy, and long live Europe!