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Inauguration address on the State of the Union and official opening of the new EPC premises

Europe / SPEECH
Herman Van Rompuy

Date: 10/09/2015

This is my first speech as President of the EPC. I consider it an honour to have been asked to assume this role.

This inauguration also marks the move of the EPC earlier this year from its premises in the Résidence Palace to the new ones in 14-16 rue du Trône, which includes the custom-built Conference Centre we are in at the moment. I am also officially naming the Max Kohnstamm room next door, which pays tribute to one of the founding fathers of the EPC, who was one of the key personalities instrumental in the creation of the European Union. Despite being interned during the 2nd World War, he was one of the key figures involved in the Schuman Plan, pushing for reconciliation and cooperation. His commitment to European integration despite his personal experiences should serve as an example to us in today’s uncertain world. 

We have enough reasons to be happy, to celebrate and to welcome the new working year. Certainly, we had a marvellous summer almost all over Europe. The autumn can be a beautiful season, too, especially for a haiku poet. Hopefully, not only for this rare species of poets!

But actually it was a very bad summer for humanity and the European cause. And it could be that autumn will not be any better. 

The Greek crisis lasted too long. Polarisation grew dangerously and both creditors and Greece reached an agreement not perceived as a traditional EU win-win compromise by anybody. The mix of responsibility and solidarity was only obtained at the very last minute. Both 'virtues’ were accepted reluctantly. And only because of the alternative: the abyss for Greece and its people.

A Grexit would have been the worst option for the Eurozone. Avoiding the worst is sometimes another way of doing the right thing! But all are convinced that this third bail-out is the last one. The future of Greece depends on the successful implementation of the MOU.

Let's hope that the new Greek government that will emerge after the elections will be stable and determined. 'Optimism is a moral duty'!

Even at the height of the crisis, the Eurozone and the common currency showed their robustness during these five months. Greece is a unique case, very different from all the other countries which were under a 'programme' or under pressure.  

But this robustness should not weaken our will to deepen EMU. Europe has the habit to take action and to make qualitative jumps when with the back against the wall. Hesitating and waiting creates a cost in terms of growth and jobs. We should avoid this. The proposed implementation calendar of the 5-presidents report – as a follow-up to my 4-presidents report – shows no urgency and is, I fear, not being taken seriously enough. We have to take urgent steps towards a Capital Markets Union, a commitment to structural reforms by all Member States and later on, a real fiscal capacity. On top of more responsibility and more solidarity, we will also need more shared sovereignty.

Personally, I would not create new institutions and new posts. We already have enough players. Some are thinking that you solve a problem by creating new jobs, trying to avoid working on the "fundamentals". We need more competitiveness, a real energy single market, the digital economy, innovation; we need more social cohesion and more jobs.

The ongoing economic recovery and a shift in the political agenda towards migration shouldn't prevent us from working on a genuine EMU. Otherwise we will fall in the trap of short-termism, the disease of modern politics.

Migration became the top priority this summer but it has been at the hard core of populism and extremism for more than twenty years. So it's not a new problem, but there was, until recently, not sufficient 'sense of urgency’. Even the human tragedies in the Mediterranean over the last years were apparently not sufficient to mobilise enough political energy to tackle the challenge. That is shameful.

The massive inflow of refugees over the last months has changed the dimension of the challenge, as well as altering perceptions dramatically. To a large extent, it is the result of the wars in Syria, Iraq and Libya. History will judge who is responsible for the loss of hundreds of thousands of lives, which could have been avoided. The UN Security Council was, and is, powerless. Let us hope that after the nuclear deal on Iran, the so-called big powers can find a solution for Syria and decide to combat barbarism together. The division in the Arab world also contributes heavily to overall instability. They need a Westphalian peace agreement as was reached in Europe after the terrible Thirty Years War (1648). These are the root causes of the problem. As long as the war lasts, people will flee to Europe, their northern neighbour.

More than ever we need a common foreign and defence policy, which is more than providing humanitarian aid to refugees in the camps in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey where four million people are living. It is in our interest.

These large displacements of population ("Völkerwanderung") around Syria – more than just migration – and its ramifications in Europe are felt in some countries as a threat to the stability of their societies. It shouldn't provoke a shift in our political landscape to the extremes, threatening the Union as such.

But the current situation strengthens the feeling of powerlessness of the political world. That's why it is so important not to mix up problems and solutions and to stay moderate in the political rhetoric. Words can be as important as deeds in these days. We have different phenomena:

  • the war refugees, who cannot return to a 'safe' country;
  • the free movement of EU-citizens (not "migrants");
  • the economic refugees, "Wirtschaftsflüchtlinge" for instance from Balkan countries and some African countries;
  • the fight against terrorism.

We also shouldn't mix up free movement, the Schengen zone and the Dublin Regulation. Some want to get rid of all three of them. They want a return to national borders; not only a 'fragmentation' of the Union but a dislocation or a falling apart of the EU.

We have to act to preserve the "acquis". This can only result in more common policies on asylum and migration, not less. A fair distribution of refugees is inevitable as the Commission rightly proposed, in June and yesterday. More than 300.000 people entered our continent in the first eight months of this year. The problem is qualitatively different compared to June. I hope that we can also overcome this crisis. Unfortunately, we often need a crisis in order to agree. But in this case the lives of human beings are at stake. If Ministers fail to agree next week, it will have to become ‘Chefsache’.

In the end, we are a Union based on rules. Violating these rules is dangerous. Even if we are aware of the fact that some of those regulations are conceived for ‘normal’ times with other levels of migration, and that they thus need to be complemented with new provisions.

Even more, we are a Union of values. We have open, pluralistic societies, already now culturally heterogeneous. We shouldn’t have any nostalgia to the ‘world of yesterday’. Our values make our Union unique: political democracy, the rule of law, non-discrimination, freedom of speech and freedom of religion. There is no place for doubts on this acquis.

Looking at the images and pictures of refugees, dead or alive - people who had until a few years ago a normal life- one wonders in what a surrealistic world we are living, on our own soil, under our watch. Far from our well organised, streamlined daily living. Others are disturbing our egocentric world. The faces of refugees constitute an ethical appeal of the first degree.

A lot of European citizens showed recently that they are not insensitive to this desperate plea.

These desperate war refugees will continue to try, via land or by crossing the sea, to come to Europe. No fences, no national border controls, nor lower social benefits will discourage them to move. Only peace can stop war refugees.

Free movement of EU citizens is different from these flows of refugees or from economic migration. Overall, it has a positive economic impact. Clearly, abuse has to be eliminated by national and European legislation. But in the end, free movement is one of the great achievements of the EU.

Economic migration poses different challenges. Africa will have two billion inhabitants in 2060 and four billion by the end of this century. GDP growth per capita is very uneven but with a growth of 2 % on average, the gap with our living standards will remain 'attractive'. We need a comprehensive policy vis-à-vis Africa and in cooperation with the Africans.

We have to face these new realities. Migration is part of human history. In some way we are all the descendants of migrants. Many of our parents and grand-parents were war refugees in the two world wars. We tend to forget this in a postmodern society.

We have to act in order to preserve the basic values and foundations of our Union and the stability of our societies. I hope that there is not a deficit of leadership. It can be as harmful as a democratic deficit.

I also hope that migration and the confusion around this theme will not be misused in the campaign on UK membership of the Union. The rational arguments – especially the economic and historical (peace!) ones –are very strong. But the emotional discourse can take the upper hand. Migration would then divide our Union dramatically, even if Britain is not a member of the Eurozone or of Schengen.

Keeping the Union together has to be a top priority for the upcoming months. A stand-alone nation is not a solution for any problem. Not for terrorism, migration, climate change or economic growth. A stand-alone makes a country irrelevant in the global economy and on the world stage. Brexit would threaten the very existence of the UK and encourage separatists elsewhere in Europe. I am still convinced that reason will prevail at the end, but we have to support reason, through negotiating a positive outcome.

We shouldn't forget the economy. "It's the economy, stupid" is true, but it is not the whole political truth. In the nineties, populist and extremist parties were quite strong in Western Europe in the midst of rather strong economic growth. But the economic agenda remains important. QE of the ECB and its impact on the exchange rate of the euro, the announcement of the Juncker Investment Plan, structural reforms, fiscal flexibility and the free fall of oil prices were helpful and are delivering results.

But regaining competitiveness on world markets is still a major challenge. And ‘secular stagnation’ is a critical threat. In an aging society we tend to save too much but invest and innovate too little, even in our strongest economies. The fact that the BRICS are in trouble shouldn’t make us complacent. It simply shows that there are no ‘economic models’, no 'miracles'. At the end of the day it is the real economy that counts, not artificial credit-fuelled growth.

Focusing on the real economy must also be about respecting the Sustainable Development Goals but quite a number of our member states are lagging behind in the implementation of these goals. We have to make the EU economy more sustainable by promoting policies such as the development of the circular economy. We also have to address climate change. The COP21 Climate Conference in Paris is prepared by the EU (our climate package decided by the EC in October 2014, my last one!), by China and the USA. One can feel that there is a political will to make progress, even if we need a lot more to reach the 2 degree ceiling for global warming.

A think tank like the EPC must contribute to solutions. It can ‘advise, warn and encourage’, always in the spirit of taking the European project forward. We are not living in times of a new 'grand design' but in times where we have to salvage the fundamentals of our Union: we fought, and are still fighting, to maintain the Eurozone, to keep our club of nations together, to preserve the rights of EU citizens, to maintain the social and societal coherence of our societies. We can only succeed if we transcend defensive behaviour and dare to take new paths of more responsibility, more solidarity, more shared sovereignty.

A key word in our 'New Pact for Europe' is “fragmentation”. Our societies inside each country are fragmented due to fear, inequalities, unemployment and our Union itself is too fragmented – even our common market – because it takes courage and leadership to go beyond national and corporatist interests. As I said, fragmentation is manageable. Dislocation, the EU falling apart, isn't.

A think tank has the responsibility to speak. 'Speaking for Europe' is our motto. That's what the EPC will continue to do.

In office, I very much appreciated the work of the EPC: I was almost a daily reader of its publications. I am confident that the EPC will continue to deliver its mission: to foster European integration through analysis and debate. I am looking forward to being involved in this important endeavour in the coming years.

Let me end with a haiku:

A tank full of thoughts

Always striving for Europe

Worry and hope

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