Maroš ŠEFČOVIČ Vice-President of the European Commission -Responsible for Interinstitutional Relations and Administration “Slovakia in the EU” gives seminar for Slovak journalists in Bratislava, 25 October.
“Slovakia in the EU”
Ladies and gentlemen,
We are in the middle of the biggest challenge that the European Union has ever faced. And we have to act forcefully if we do not want to become the centre of a global crisis. It is obvious that the sovereign debt crisis absorbs much of our attention, and I will obviously address our response to it.
But I would also like to share with you my experience as Commissioner and my view on what state the EU is generally in. In fact, it has been almost two years now that the Treaty of Lisbon is in force and I have been looking after its implementation since I took up office.
From the start we hailed the Lisbon Treaty for bringing improvements in three areas: It would make the EU more democratic, more efficient with a greater capacity to act, and more united and stronger in its external action. Have these improvements materialised?
First, the Lisbon Treaty has without doubt strengthened democracy. Co-decision between the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers was extended to almost all policy areas.
Just to give you an example: one month ago, the European Parliament and the Council reached agreement on the package of six legal acts on economic governance. Two of those acts are based on new Treaty provisions (Article 136). Indeed,, the European Parliament would have had much less to say under the old rules. In the end, Parliament had a decisive role in keeping the level of ambition of what the Commission had initially proposed. Against the reticence of many Member States it was the European Parliament that ensured a stronger Stability and Growth Pact with more rigorous enforcement as well as a convincing system of avoiding macroeconomic imbalances and competitiveness gaps between the Euro area countries.
Therefore, I can only say that nobody should underestimate the impact of his or her vote in the European elections.
In parallel, the national parliaments participate more and more in EU policy-making. This is done through the subsidiarity control mechanism foreseen in the Treaty, but maybe even more importantly through a very lively exchange of views and political dialogue between the Commission and the national parliaments. The number of opinions the Commission has received of national parliaments – whether on subsidiarity or content – has risen constantly over time. We have already received 400 this year alone.
In addition, The Treaty of Lisbon introduced a whole new dimension of participatory democracy to the European Union: The European Citizens’ Initiative.
With one million signatures from seven countries, citizens will have the possibility to set a point on the EU agenda by suggesting that the Commission propose new EU legislation. A clear procedure has been laid down in the Regulation on the citizens’ initiative, which will ensure that the instrument is credible and not abused while at the same remaining easy to use and understandable for citizens. Initiatives can be presented as of April next year.
The second advantage of the Lisbon Treaty is increased capacity to act. Although changes do not always come over night we can observe it in the way decisions are made in the Council of ministers and with regard to new policy initiatives.
The capacity of the Council has been increased, notably through the extension of qualified majority voting, even if the Council still prefers to find consensus where possible. The chance of a vote changes the logic of negotiations and motivates national representatives to engage more actively in finding a suitable agreement. The Council has perhaps been the institution where the enlargement of the Union to 27 has had more impact on its work; so increased qualified majority voting was vital for its effectiveness.
The sovereign debt crisis has also shown the benefits of having a permanent President of the European Council to ensure consistency and coherence; rather than the prime minister of the rotating Presidency doing this as a part-time job. The close cooperation of Commission President Barroso and President Van Rompuy, and their work in the background have heavily contributed to finding consensus on the difficult decisions that the European Heads of State and Government had to take on the Euro so far.
In terms of policy, let me give you the example of trade policy. With the Lisbon Treaty the foreign direct investment has also become exclusive EU competence. We can now build on our economic strength to defend the interests of our businesses abroad together. EU investment agreements will benefit everybody, and in particular the smaller Member States.
Another example is a new legal framework for criminal legislation including comprehensive judicial control by the European Court of Justice. Two very concrete steps have already been taken with the Directives on the right of the defendant to information in criminal proceedings and on the right to translation and interpretation.
The Lisbon Treaty has changed the whole context and dynamic of how the EU interacts with the world. Given the level of ambition, I see the challenges, but also much progress.
Catherine Ashton is now firmly established as the High Representative of the Union, she coordinates the work of the Council of Foreign Affairs Ministers that she chairs, and as Vice-President of the Commission she coordinates external policies. With such a tremendous new job description, new ways of working have been established over time.
The new EU External Action Service has been made operational in record time.
Recent events, particularly in our Mediterranean neighbourhood were a baptism of fire. In close co-operation with the European Commission and the Member States, the EEAS has hit the ground running in a fast moving environment, and it is actually up to the challenge.
First results are showing. For example, the EU plays a leading role in post-conflict support in North Africa following the Arab Spring as both a policy and donor coordinator. We have put together a credible package to support the transition to democracy and strengthened market economies, and we have a clear division of work with the UN and other international organisations.
In conclusion on the Lisbon Treaty: Yes we can already see how we can use the new instruments for the sake of more democracy, more efficiency and a better defence of our values and interests in the world.
At the end of the day, however, much depends on how far we and our leaders have the courage to go. Externally, in an increasingly competitive and uncertain world we risk losing influence – both as individual countries and as a group, unless we can act more coherently. Internally, we risk a deep crisis in the real economy unless we take our interdependence seriously and continue taking bold steps to resolve the sovereign debt crisis, complement the monetary union with an economic union, and strengthen our competitiveness, which is what I want to concentrate on now.
The European Union is at a crucial turning point. Joint efforts of the Member States and the EU institutions are needed to restore growth and resolve the debt crisis. While the EU needs to step up efforts on common projects such as the internal market, the Member States must deliver on their commitments with respect to public finance and structural reforms.
Last year, the EU agreed a common economic agenda, the Europe 2020 strategy. It sets out clear priorities and targets at EU and national level to boost smart, sustainable and inclusive growth, while promoting sustainable public finances. They are translated into concrete measures in seven EU flagship initiatives, for example on a resource efficient Europe, or employment.
At the beginning of each year the Commission sets priority actions in its Annual Growth Survey, which are translated into national programmes submitted by Member States in spring. The Euro area countries and six further Member States have even made additional commitments in the Euro+ Pact.
This process is integrated with economic surveillance through the European Semester: The Commission and the Council assess the national plans for budgetary, macroeconomic and structural policies simultaneously. The Council – based on Commission analysis and proposals – issues country-specific recommendations, highlighting areas for further action. Member States have committed to incorporate these into national budgets and economic policies for the following year.
Our growth strategy relies first and foremost on determined action at Member State level. Member States must now demonstrate that they are serious about the commitments made on restoring public finances and implementing growth enhancing reforms under the Europe 2020 Strategy.
At the end of September, the President outlined in his state of the Union speech before the European Parliament a clear strategy for the EU. On 12 October, the Commission presented a roadmap outlining the comprehensive response that is needed to restore confidence in the Euro area and the European Union as a whole. This response is designed to break the vicious circle between doubts over the sustainability of sovereign debt, the stability of the banking system and the European Union’s growth prospects’.
The Commission has outlined five areas of action that are interdependent and need to be implemented together and as quickly as possible.
- Give a decisive clear response to the problems of Greece;
- Enhance the euro area’s backstops against the crisis;
- Make a coordinated effort to strengthen the banking system including through recapitalisation;
- Frontload stability and growth-enhancing policies and;
- Build a more robust and integrated economic governance.
With Europe 2020, the European Semester, the 6-pack of economic governance legislation and the roadmap for stability and growth we have identified reform priorities in the right policy framework.
Looking ahead, the Commission is currently developing its proposals for 2012. So, very concretely, what can you expect in the coming year?
Based on the political guidelines presented by President Barroso in 2009 the annual Commission Work Programme is one of the most important expressions of the right of initiative of the College as it provides political steer and direction for all the main initiatives and challenges to be addressed. It sets out what the Commission sees as the EU’s priorities, and communicates this to other institutions and to the public at large.
The Work Programme needs to offer the right framework for the EU institutions to build a solid consensus on where Europe should concentrate its attention. The programme therefore identifies a limited number of strategic and priority initiatives.
As announced by President Barroso in his state of the Union speech the Work Programme will be built around a number of main areas:
- A Union of stability and responsibility: An economic governance framework conducive to growth
- A Union of growth and solidarity: realise the full potential of the single market for growth and jobs; Equip people with the right skills for the jobs of today and tomorrow; guide to the gradual transition towards a safe and sustainable low-carbon resource efficient Europe and ensure an open and secure Europe for its citizens.
- Giving the EU an effective voice in the wider world
Preparations are well under way. The work programme will be adopted by the Commission on 15 November following a structured dialogue with the European Parliament.
An important driving force shaping the 2012 work programme is the Europe 2020 strategy. Last year the Commission has undertaken intensive efforts to drive forward the overall Europe 2020 framework including the seven flagship initiatives. Drawing on the flagships, next year’s work programme will include many concrete proposals moving the reform process forward at European level. In the Commission’s view we should give particular emphasis to growth-enhancing measures.
Finally, let me recall that in parallel to these efforts on the elaboration of the work programme, the Commission is currently finalising the sector specific proposals for the next multiannual financial framework. Some are already on the table. These programmes, which provide targeted support to research and innovation, regional development, infrastructure, employment – many of the key drivers of our economy – are among the key tools for enhancing growth at European level. Reaching agreement on these proposals will be a top priority for next year. It is the clear ambition of the Commission that resources should be spent where they ensure real European added value and contribute to achieving our political objectives, thus generating synergies, while alleviating national budgets.
Once adopted the initiatives that I have mentioned will contribute to the objective of reenergizing the European economy and establish the basis for long term sustainability
The current crisis gives a sense of fragility of the EU. But I wanted to recall that we are a highly integrated, democratic and strong Union that is unique in the world. We should be proud of it. I am convinced that a stronger sense of interdependence is also developing and that the way out of the crisis will lead through more and not less Europe.
Thank you for your attention.