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20 years of the European Policy Centre

Europe / SPEECH
Herman Van Rompuy

Date: 13/10/2016

EPC President Herman Van Rompuy's speech on the occasion of the EPC's 20th anniversary

The world and Europe of 1996 are completely different from those of today. It is a commonplace, but even a commonplace can be true!

The first ten years were for the Union very successful: the enlargement and the creation of the euro. The EU became a dominant player on the continent and the euro brought stability and growth.

The second decade were “anni horribiles”. A succession of crises at very short notice. The polycrisis is the name that Janis and Fabian gave to this phenomenon. Trust was shaken in the pillars of our socio-economic system (banks and currencies), and in the way our society and our civilization were evolving (terrorism; massive migration). Brexit came on top of all this, adding instability to instability. Many are asking themselves: what is next? The unthinkable can become reality. Fear is paralyzing our societies – taking its toll on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. Fear and reason never have been a great match.

Fearful people tend to forget positive evolutions:

  • The rescue of the euro and the return to financial stability
  • The creation of 5 million jobs between 2014-2016
  • The stemming of irregular migration coming from the Middle East via Turkey
  • The vital role of the EU in the climate deal at the COP21 conference in Paris
  • The results in the fight against international tax fraud, evasion and tax dumping, illustrated also by the recent actions taken by the Commission

The loss of trust in national and international policy makers is so important, since it makes political volatility, polarisation, “enemy-thinking”, nationalism and even racism possible. It is changing our societies. Individualism was already on the rise before 1996. It created the cultural precondition for folding back on oneself.

A victim of all this was and is the European idea, because its identity was not yet deeply rooted. The EU is a young entity compared to many Member States. But the crisis of the European idea is part of a broader problem, touching upon our democracies and our societies. As I mentioned, the US is moving towards a crisis with a lot of similarities and convergences.

The answers that should be given are multifaceted. The aim is the reconciliation of many citizens with i.a. the European Union.

This reconciliation is based on results in key areas of daily worries: jobs, terrorism, migration, inequalities, climate change, and unfair competition. “The Europe of results”. One of the mistakes we shouldn’t make is to focus only on security and omit the economy and employment, this is really short-termism!

The same near-sightedness prevents many from the deepening of our EMU and our single market, in old and new domains: energy, digital and capital markets, industry and military industry. We must continue to promote private and public investments at a national and European level. Without a return to higher investment levels, “secular stagnation” or very low potential economic growth are looming just behind the corner. We can do better than the 1.5% BBP-growth of the last year! We have to, if we want a stronger base for our welfare state.

But we have to look further than growth figures:

  • Inequalities are also rising in Western Europe, although the level is less worrisome than in the Anglo-Saxon world. The victims of change are becoming more numerous. The lower middle class is already now a target for populists.
  • Those who have a job are not certain to keep it for long. Job insecurity is a by-product of economic changes, but it shouldn’t be considered as collateral damage. Empowering younger and older people, and the involvement of workers will be key for the acceptance of a social market economy. Let us not forget that the so called right-wing populists have a left-wing socio-economic agenda. They are right-wing on identity and security issues. “It’s the economy, stupid” is not completely true anymore!

Combating polarization, aggressiveness, and hate whilst promoting values, dialogue, moderation, compromise and compassion is key in the counter offensive to restore cohesion and integration, stability and hope. We need “a revolution of the moderates” and a belief in “living together”. The former French Prime Minister Alain Juppé calls it in a provocative way “a happy identity”, as a political objective (“une identité heureuse”). Europe is an integral part is of this endeavour.

New ambitions for the Union have to seek the balance between ethical idealism and political realism. I would avoid ideological debates about the “community method” and “intergouvernementalism”, between “more or less” Europe, about new institutions or new functions. Let us avoid rivalry among EU institutions or the role of persons. In times of deep crisis, we have to focus on the essence. History will only remember our results, not the road towards it. History forgets personal legacies.

Our Founding Fathers were pragmatist with strong convictions. “Le salon de l’horloge” in the Quai d’Orsay is still a pilgrimage worth!

I want to add some comments on current evolutions. Let me summarise:

  • On Brexit

After 23 June some said “we leave the Union but not Europe”. But by eventually leaving the single market, rejecting a customs union, only aiming at a FTA between the EU(27) and a third country (UK!) , you are leaving Europe! This was not the will of 48% of the British people and not even of many among the 52% of the leave-voters. A democracy is more than the will of a narrow majority.

  • On migration

Even if we acknowledge that there are limits on generosity, I often missed during the last 12 months the humane dimension of the tragedy of the exodus. In public statements, the dead body of the 2-year old Aylan, and Omran sitting on that chair in Aleppo, were quickly forgotten. I am happy of course that we avoided the drowning of new victims between Greece and Turkey. And I pay tribute to the Italian navy and others who save lives every day. But the questions remain: are we doing enough to prevent all the tragedies? Did we do enough as the EU to avoid instability and war, and to restore peace in our neighbourhood?

  • On referenda

It never appeases society. A “yes” or “no” polarizes and reinforces enemy-thinking. One never has a rational debate. It’s always about emotions, passions and sometimes even hate. A referendum gives answers to questions never held. We created parliaments for weighing the pro and the cons in a serene way. Referenda is not about more democracy, but about a lack of political courage and leadership.

  • On “Brussels bashing”

It is incoherent because all the major decisions are taken unanimously. Brussels is not a stranger. In some way “We are Brussels”. Therefore ‘Brussels bashing’ is not a signal of strength but of weakness. You shouldn’t be surprised that people take leaders’ words seriously and become euro-negative. Rhetoric is an integral part of politics. You can only change things by results and language.

Once there were groups of countries to support Europe as the Benelux, now we have groups to weaken it or to criticise it.

But, notwithstanding all of those disappointing evolutions, I remain a man of hope because an overwhelming majority in the Europe of the 27 (and maybe even a majority in Britain today) don’t want to give up EU-membership. They are sceptical about the results of EU-policies and those of their national governments, but they are not sceptical about the EU itself.

We are at a crossroads. When people become afraid of “space” (as the EU is), it shows they are longing for a “place” that protects them, one where they feel “at ease and at home”.

In the Brexit-referendum, mostly older people wanted their “home” back — the nostalgia of “the good old days”. Young people voted overwhelmingly for Remain, knowing that the old world would not return. The first group are the - according to Thomas Friedman - “wall” people, ready to build walls in order to prevent others from coming in. The others are “web” people, embracing globalisation with its pro’s and its cons.

 We have to find a way to alleviate the tension between space and place, between web and wall. We have to bridge the distance.  We need to address the worries of our younger and older citizens, by giving them better protection in many respects: correcting the market economy by tackling unemployment, illegal migration, climate change, huge inequalities and unfair competition, and by providing physical security. We need a new version of the social market economy at the European and even at the global level. We need a new social contract, a new consensus. We need more social harmony and less polarisation. More moderation and less aggressiveness. This, I repeat, at the European and at the global level. We need countervailing powers to correct the brutal forces of the markets – the financial crisis was a warning shot. Much is at stake, but it is still doable.

We can build on this through our action. We have to reconquer the trust of our fellow Europeans, to show them our will to go forward, to inspire them. We must turn fear into hope. Life equates hope. Only people of hope can change things. Europe needs change and hope.

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