Speech by President Sassoli at the Jacques Delors Institute
Ladies and gentlemen,
It is a great honour for me to address this audience at the Jacques Delors Institute. I am delighted to do so in the presence of my friend Enrico Letta. You are lucky to have him as President.
That great statesman Jacques Delors, one of the three Honorary Citizens of Europe, along with Jean Monnet and Helmut Kohl, is a source of inspiration for my political endeavours, and those of the European Parliament, just as he guides yours.
During his 10 years heading up the Commission, from 1985 to 1995, he reinvented Europe. He is one of those individuals who made it possible for Europe to take on the challenges of a world that changed more in those 10 years than it had done in the previous three decades.
At a time when the Community was in the process of establishing the single market, the geopolitical momentum was provided by the fall of the Berlin Wall, the 30th anniversary of which has very recently been celebrated. It turned the post-war world upside-down - for the better, we hoped at the time. It represented the triumph of democracy, liberalism and multilateralism. But all too soon we were confronted with other realities. The transition also brought its share of tragedies.
We must bear in mind that, at the time, Europe was conspicuously powerless in the face of what was the bloodiest conflict since the Second World War: the war in the former Yugoslavia. The European Community did not then have the wherewithal to deal with such crises on its borders.
In spite of that - or because of that - the leaders of the day realised that Europe had to be both reunited and strengthened. Jacques Delors had the vision and the courage to conduct simultaneously, with them, the initial discussions with a view to enlargement and to strengthening the institutions. And the undertaking was a success. What, otherwise, would Europe be today?
Putting these events in context makes us realise that enlargement was an opportunity to be seized. It brought stability to the continent; it spread prosperity far and wide. The institutional changes that have shaped the present-day Union, and have made it politically stronger, were also decided on at that time.
However, the Europe of today is very different from what it was when Jacques Delors was Commission President. The world today is not what it was in 1995. Given the challenges that that poses, we - Europe’s policymakers - must rediscover Jacques Delors’ vision, courage and ambition. Collectively, we must step up to the plate.
In what is a time of sweeping change, in an ever faster moving world that is forcing us to be more and more adaptable, we must take inspiration from the vision that Jacques Delors had. Europe’s leaders of the day gave him their backing. Today it is for us - the policymakers in Europe’s institutions: Commission, Parliament and Council - to lay the foundations of tomorrow’s Europe.
Europe as it is today - despite its problems - is strong, both economically and socially, and is highly developed. It is a haven of peace that its neighbours look to as a model. It is able to manage major crises in its neighbourhood, such as in the Sahel, although it is still at risk from others, such as in the Middle East. However, the world around us is changing more and more quickly - a process that is bringing with it a development model that is very technological, but not always very democratic. Inequality is growing sharply. Our social model may continue to safeguard the most vulnerable, but it is a fragile model.
In May this year, more than half of Europe’s citizens went to the polls to elect their Members of the European Parliament. Europe is said to have been suffering for years from a glaring democratic deficit. There are endless protestations that the Brussels bureaucratic machine pays no heed to citizens’ concerns. However, the turnout was 51%. Young people, in particular, played a more active role on election day and during the campaign.
That does not mean that all the problems have been resolved; what it does mean is that citizens realise that Europe is part of the solution. Naturally, as convinced Europeans, we can but be delighted at that. As policymakers, we must get down to work and meet those expectations. Yet another failure to meet them would simply give a further boost to the populists; and there are already too many of them.
We must bear in mind that today’s Europe emerged from the devastation caused by the Second World War, after what had been one of the worst tragedies in its history. It was able to accommodate countries that had waged war against each other for centuries. After the Berlin Wall came down, it successfully incorporated countries emerging from the communist system - peacefully and calmly - by satisfying citizens’ desire for freedom and democracy.
Incredibly, however, the demon we thought had vanished - anti-Semitism - has re-emerged in Europe. We almost succumbed once; we must not allow the poison to take hold a second time.
As you are aware, the European Parliament has quickly set to work. The first thing it did was elect the new Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen.
In its very first weeks in office, Parliament showed that circumstances are different from those of five years ago. The higher turnout has given it a fresh boost and a new look. A clear majority of its Members - 61% - are new; they are younger, on average, and there are more women, which is good news. Parliament is also more divided. Whereas, during the last term, the two biggest groups had a relatively comfortable majority between them, agreement between three or four groups is now needed. Parliament must therefore look to build consensus on the basis of a greater willingness to compromise.
Parliament demonstrated that as early as in July. While some political groups were disappointed at the failure of the ‘Spitzenkandidat’ process, others viewed it as a weakening of Parliament to the benefit of the Member States and their institutional powers. I am sorry to have to tell them that they were too quick to jump to that conclusion.
Admittedly, compromises are now more difficult to achieve. That is part of the political give and take involved in constituting a parliament, and it also had an impact on the procedure for approving Ms von der Leyen’s candidacy. Although nominated by all the Member States, she secured only a narrow majority in Parliament, having been forced to modify her programme at the behest of the political groups. She then had to make further changes, the upshot being that the College of Commissioners was elected by a more comfortable majority the day before yesterday.
Once again, therefore, the hearings process prompted the Commission to make adjustments to its programme. MEPs expressed their misgivings about, or even their objections to, certain candidates and to the content of certain portfolios. In so doing, they were responding to the public calls for greater transparency and probity. Parliament exercised its powers in a responsible and democratic manner, in keeping with its procedures. It is telling that, like the turnout in the European elections, media interest in the hearings increased significantly. Between 10 September and 10 October, the hearings were the subject of more than 9000 media reports: 2400 articles appeared in 73% of Europe’s written and online publications, and coverage was provided by 59% of Europe’s television channels.
Far from weakening the Commission and Parliament, the process strengthened these institutions’ democratic legitimacy. It triggered a very positive and constructive dialogue between Parliament and the Commission. By contrast, the instructions issued to their MEPs by some Member States did not have the desired effect.
While it is true that the new Commission President was not one of the Spitzenkandidaten, MEPs did secure significant modifications to the Commission’s programme for the next five years. Parliament showed that the political impetus would come from within its ranks. What it formally lost in June it won back in the course of the autumn.
The series of constitutive procedures revealed Parliament to be a mature and genuinely ‘Community’ institution. It is at the heart of European democracy and sets the political agenda. It acts transparently and responsibly.
For years, the Member States have consistently sought to undermine the Commission, the supranational institution par excellence. The current Parliament is the institution which defends Europe’s colours, honouring diversity while building majorities which serve the interests of all EU citizens. And it will do this – indeed it is already doing this – in conjunction with a strong Commission which can take decisive action. The Commission is strong because it will work with Parliament, and we hope with the Member States, to meet EU citizens’ expectations.
The stakes are very high, the democratic stakes first and foremost. Populist movements and tendencies are gaining public support and their ideas are becoming dangerously widespread. Parliament is feeling the impact of these developments. The pro-European groups must stand united, not to safeguard the established order, but to address the challenges of the future. At European level, just like in the Member States, the choice is not just between political programmes. The choice concerns the society we want to live in, the future we want to have. We know that some parties in power are turning away from our ideas of democracy and civil liberties, and we can already see this happening in too many countries.
We must grasp the nature of the fears which are driving our fellow citizens into the arms of these parties. We must meet their expectations, address the challenges ahead. The problems facing us are manifold: climate change, technological challenges and crises on our borders which are having an impact on our migration policy, but also the unprecedented ageing of our population. To put it more bluntly, our task is to save the European social model dear to the heart of Jacques Delors.
As I have already said, inequalities are widening and this trend is playing into the hands of the populists. We cannot tolerate a situation in which so many of our fellow citizens are being left behind. These inequalities are not just economic and social, however. They are also geographical or cultural. In Europe a number of parallel worlds are taking shape which stand in opposition to one another: the centre and the periphery, urban and rural areas, those who have access to services, to education and to travel which broadens the mind and those who don’t. We need a new approach to inclusion.
Media attention is often focused on those of our fellow citizens who are opposed to the European idea. The spotlight needs to shift to the thousands who, by means of what they do every day, give practical expression to the ideal of solidarity and the European social model of which we are so proud. I am thinking in particular of the volunteers running the Restos du Cœur who I met during my last visit to Paris, in October. It is the sum of their commitment which makes Europe great.
Let me take this opportunity to point out once again that, like many associations, the Restos du Cœur receive significant support from the Fund for European Aid for the Most Deprived, an idea first mooted by Jacques Delors. I take great pleasure in saying here today that Parliament continues to fight for this fund.
Young people in our countries are reminding us of the urgent need for climate action. Many of them are very determined and their commitment to this issue should make us proud. They are reminding us that our development model must change. It is too damaging and too exclusive. The Green New Deal will be a focal point of the work of the new Commission, and that is a good thing. On 11 December, at an extraordinary sitting, the Commission will present a series of proposals to Parliament.
Europe must turn these challenges into opportunities. We have the skills to do this. What we need are the resources. Now that the Commission has taken office, one of our first tasks must be to negotiate the Multiannual Financial Framework and the programmes which go with it. Parliament stands by its call for the Union budget to be increased to the equivalent of 1.3% of EU GNI. To that end, Parliament is not just calling for an increase in Member State contributions. We want more own resources. In addition to providing budgetary breathing space, this represents a step towards closer European integration.
This is not an argument over figures. It is about giving ourselves the resources we need to meet the challenges of the future, to adapt our economy to climate change, to the digital revolution and to artificial intelligence, and to safeguard and modernise the arrangements through which we express solidarity, both inside and outside the European Union.
All these issues are linked. By taking determined political and budgetary measures, we can modernise our economy along ‘greener’ lines, making sure that everyone feels protected by the safety net of a just transition. No-one here needs reminding that the yellow vest revolt was sparked by an eco-tax. Despite the excellent political intentions behind the move, it merely served to exacerbate a sense of injustice among people who felt that they were being treated as second-class citizens. Much more support will have to be given to large sections of society during the transition. Although the European Union is in the process of setting up a Just Transition Fund endowed with sufficient new resources, this in itself will not be enough: all our policies must be rethought.
Parliament will be keeping a close eye on these developments. As you can imagine, our assembly will not be easily intimidated by threats or blackmail. We played a constructive role in drawing up the Commission’s programme, and now we want the resources to implement it. I have already told the Heads of State and Government that they need to ask themselves one question: who would be willing to take the blame should the von der Leyen Commission fail in its task? It will not be Parliament!
If Europe is to face up to these many challenges, it must be sure that its working methods are not being called into question. I read with great interest this week the Franco-German non-paper on the Conference on the Future of Europe.
Parliament has also set up a working group to consider this matter. In January it will adopt a resolution setting out its main proposals. Without wishing to anticipate the outcome, I can say that a consensus has already been reached on a number of matters, such as the ‘Spitzenkandidat’ (‘lead candidate’) system, cross-border lists, a common electoral law and the use of all the possibilities offered by the Treaty, including the ‘passerelle’ clauses.
We are also awaiting the reaction of the other Member States to the Franco-German initiative, which they will give at the forthcoming European Council on 12 and 13 December, and the Commission communication to be issued on 18 December. In a few weeks’ time, the three institutions will thus be ready to start work on their joint task.
We have resolved with Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and Council President Charles Michel that no time and effort and effort will be spared in making the Conference a success. France and Germany have drawn up an ambitious agenda that meets public expectations, focusing on policies and not just institutions, I am very glad to say. As far as we are concerned, institutional concerns are inextricably bound up with the debate on policies.
Public input will be essential to that debate on policies. With that aim in view, Parliament is willing to make its resources available. We have offices in all the Member States which played a very active role in the election campaign. However, the Franco-German proposal makes no mention of Parliament as the main institution representing the people. Let me stress that throughout the process the European Parliament will be ensuring that its national counterparts are fully involved.
Ladies and gentlemen, Europe is not an abstract concept. It is made up of flesh-and-blood Europeans. It is time we put to bed the all too commonly held notion that Europe pays no heed to the interests of its citizens, that it is a fortress in Brussels. The future of our fellow citizens, men, women and children, and not statistics, must be central to our policy-making and must be the focus of the Conference on the Future of Europe.
What is more, we cannot ignore the fact that our Union still exerts a pull. For us, this should be a source of pride rather than dread. The small group of countries knocking on our door are making considerable reform efforts. We cannot ask them to make such efforts, we cannot set criteria they must meet, only to back down at the moment of truth. Our credibility is at stake.
Parliament's position is very clear. While we are critical of these countries, we want to continue working with them and, above all, have confidence in them, in particular in their young people. As I mentioned at the beginning of my speech, our predecessors showed us that enlargement and closer integration are not mutually exclusive. That principle still applies today!
Europe can only be strong if it resists the temptation to close ranks, and if it sets an example to the world. Let our strength be a source of pride not fear, and let us turn it to account in the best way possible. Europe’s strength lies not in laying down the law, but in offering guidance, particularly when it comes to writing the rules of globalisation to help its partners achieve the highest democratic and environmental standards and the highest degree of economic and social fairness. We must continue to be the continent that champions multilateralism and is ready to fight for an open and tolerant world in which every individual can express themselves freely and assert their rights.
I should like to conclude by reiterating that the new Parliament is not dysfunctional or unmanageable, as some commentators would have us believe. It is simply demonstrating a healthy measure of democratic vitality. We are now engaged in the process of building working majorities. This process of compromise is nothing new. As the 18th-century philosopher d'Alembert put it, ‘the opening of a parliament is a moment which should command our attention’. As President of one such institution, I can only confirm that!