Jan Zahradil's speech at the Brussels Summit: A Future for Europe
Europe stands at the crossroads.
How often have we heard this? I have been a member of the EP since 2004 and have heard this slogan countless times. It seems that we, in Europe, are almost always at some kind of crossroads. The question is: where to move from there? What is the right outcome? My experience tells me that we usually only hear one voice: if you are at a crossroads, go for “more and more Europe”, all the time, every time.
Firstly, there is a misconception with the slogan itself; by “more Europe” they of course mean "more EU”, despite the fact that these two terms are not identical. Europe is a whole civilisation, while the EU is just the organisational framework: a set of rules, an instrument - nothing more nothing less - and definitely not the first one in European history.
But ok then. We have people, parties, and politicians who demand “more EU” every chance they get. And as Newton’s fundamental rule of physics tells us, every action has a reaction. The more push there is for “more EU”, the more resistance forms against it. Therefore we also wind up hearing “no EU” in opposition to “more EU”. One extreme on one hand, produces another on the other hand.
Of course, I believe that none of us in this room wants “no EU”. I believe none of us wants the EU to be dismantled or destroyed or to collapse. We want it to prosper, to serve well, to deliver. But does that mean that we inevitably need “more Europe“? No way. We need neither of those two extremes. What we need is common sense in between these two extremes. We need to restore the balance. We need to find new EU paradigm.
Circumstances are changing. A few years ago who would have thought that Brexit would actually happen; that the social democratic parties across the continent would disintegrate; that a 39-year old former socialist finance minister would sweep the French presidential and parliamentary elections with a new party; that AfD would become the official opposition in Germany; or, that the Five Star Movement would get the largest number of votes and that the League would emerge as the main political force on the center-right in Italy.
And, what has been the response of the traditional European political establishment to these changes?
Twenty-thousand free Eurorail passes to foster European identity?
Really? Are you kidding me?
No, let’s be serious. I hope we will be serious here today. There are a lot of good things about European integration, but there are also many things that aren’t so good, and many others that are just downright bad. Probably the worst thing is to denounce every bit of criticism as heresy. Nevertheless we should not be shy to be critical. I can see at least three main areas in the EU that need a substantial change of attitude.
3. The Institutions
Regarding the Euro, there is no real economic reason why the Euro should be the only currency of the Single Market. In fact, the reason is only political. The Eurozone is kept alive by means of massive debt transfers in order to save a political project in which a lot of political capital has already been invested. But I believe the common currency should be made voluntary. The EU should become a multi-currency union. The member states outside the Eurozone must recognise that to secure the success of their currency, the Eurozone needs better governance and will need to make substantial institutional changes. At the same time, those inside the Eurozone will need to reassure those outside that they will not form a discriminatory voting block. It is essential that the EU institutions work equitably and impartially for both those inside and outside the common currency.
Regarding the Single Market: It is the indispensable core of the European Union and also the greatest success of integration. And, for the Single Market to function, there needs to be a common set of rules. But we must never accept the misconception that the rules of the Single Market require complete harmonisation of almost everything. Take for instance, the labour market or social insurance or pension systems or health care systems. Harmonisation of all that would require the countries to sacrifice their historical, social and cultural differences. The integrity of the Single Market does not need common regulations of wages, working hours, or working conditions. GDP per capita and purchasing power is very diverse in EU and will stay like this for decades. If you have a country with 150% GDP per capita (in EU average) and country with just 40%, you never bridge that gap using arbitrary measures. The same applies to taxation; the fight against tax evasion and tax paradises must not turn into a hidden attempt to harmonise or unify taxes. Tax competition is vital; it is an engine of economic growth and member states must remain in charge of their tax systems.
Regarding the EU budget, the EU doesn’t need a bigger budget, but rather a better-structured budget. The EU also doesn’t need any own resources or eurotax. States that tax their businesses and citizens. The EU is not a state. The EU budget needs new structure. Farm support is still the single largest item in the EU budget. We must recognise that it will take time to reform this support system; but, the first aim must be to change the incentives countries have to maximise their extractions from the common coffers. One proposal has been that the regulation of agricultural subsidies stay with the EU, while the cost of the farming support be devolved. Each country would be invoiced for the support paid to their own farmers, thus making it unprofitable for the governments to push for greater transfers.
There is a lot of talk of external EU borders protection. If we are serious about this, we must show so in our next financial framework and prepare sufficient financial sources to spend on security.
Regarding EU security architecture: Global influence is shifting right before our eyes. Islamic terrorism, Russia’s assertive policy and the changing international situation have once again breathed new life into the discussion about European security architecture. The concerns that Europe needs to be more operative and strategically self-sufficient have revealed a clash of views between states that support the strengthening of transatlantic security cooperation within the NATO framework and those that believe the EU should achieve foreign-policy and security autonomy and serve as a counterpart to the USA.
I believe that the military aspects of security and defence should rest squarely with NATO. There is a complementary role for the European Union to work alongside and in coordination with NATO to secure peace and fight terrorism. But, we must never permit the EU to become an alternative, competitor or challenger to NATO.
Regarding migration: The greatest migration wave since WWII has highlighted differences amongst member states, causing a new East-West divide to appear across the whole EU, alongside the existing North-South Eurozone divide. The old member states demand the new member states to bear their share of the consequences of the former failed policies threatening otherwise to review EU funding for those countries. This clearly shows that identity and solidarity derived from the interests of a non-existent European nation are pure illusions. The migration crisis has demonstrated the shortcomings of the current arrangements for asylum and migration policy and the ineffectiveness of EU tools in this area. Member states that fulfilled their commitments as far as the protection of EU external borders were concerned preferred to use national rather than EU instruments.
A functional asylum and migration policy necessitates that individual member states maintain their power to define the rules of asylum procedures and demands imposed on immigrants, as these issues directly impact their security and social cohesion.
In asylum policy, the EU should instead play a coordinating role. This concerns the quota system, i.e. the redistribution of migrants. As it stands, not only is the system dysfunctional but it also poses a security risk. A functional Schengen system must provide freedom of legal movement for the citizens of member states as a priority and the rules for awarding visas and asylum must remain in member states’ powers. This does not preclude cooperation on the protection of the EU external borders, police and intelligence cooperation etc.
Regarding terrorism: The streets, squares and public places of cities in Spain, UK, France, Belgium, Germany and elsewhere have recently become targets of fanatics, mostly driven by religious hatred towards the entire Western civilisation. Let’s be very clear; for too long we allowed the creation of parallel societies in Europe. We didn't acknowledge radicalisation and the downright defiance of our common values among some migrant communities and diasporas in Europe. We believe in religious freedom, but religious freedom does not stand above rule of law, our constitutional order and civil liberties. In our society we believe in equality of every citizen, regardless of their race, religion, social class, sex, gender, sexuality or cultural background, but with equal rights come equal duties towards society as a whole. Ideas and views don't have rights, individuals have rights. And anybody who comes to Europe is expected to respect our laws and our rules in full, no exceptions.
Brexit embodies the democratic and institutional crisis in the EU. For the first time in the history of European integration, a member state has decided to give up its EU membership. The decision made by UK citizens has clearly shown that the so-called “ever closer union” is no longer advantageous, and hence not sustainable for all member states. I travel a lot and I can tell you, whenever being asked about Brexit - be it in Asia, Africa, America - my feeling is that the EU image was damage by it, regardless what people in Brussels think. Because if you have a club and one of your strongest and most successful members leaves this club, then those looking at it from outside inevitably start to ask “what’s wrong with that club”?
However, too many functionaries in the institutions and too many elected representatives of the old establishment parties are invested in the concept of an “ever closer union”. Even Mr. Macron, who is perceived as a reformist, if you look at his ideas more closely, still continues along the old pathway.
Many years ago, at the Convention on the Future of Europe, in Laeken in 2001, the Heads of States and Governments recognised that the accumulation of legislation at the European level had become unwieldy and inefficient. They promised to institute changes that would enable power to flow back to Member States, not just away from them. This commitment has gone unfulfilled for 16 years.
We must ensure that Brussels actually delivers on this promise and effects real change.
Rules and regulations need to become less intrusive and powers must be devolved back to the nation states, and when possible, to regions, municipalities and individuals. To that end we need to thoroughly review the competences of the institutions and to examine what competences can be returned to the nation states.
The gap between the EU institutions and the different peoples of Europe has been growing constantly for decades. Many voters feel that the EU has been heading in the wrong direction for a long time. With the ever-increasing powers to interfere in the national life of the member states, citizens wonder if their representatives have had a sufficient say in all the endless rules and regulations. Many have come to view EU decisions as something that is done to them rather than for them.
It’s time to say that there is no sigle European demos. And therefore, there is no need to further strengthen the role and powers of EU institutions such as the Commission and Parliament. They’ve got already enough.
To ensure the democratic legitimacy of the system we need to give the national parliaments a significantly stronger role and renew our democratic accountability.
A stronger role for national parliaments and commensurably less power for the European Parliament will instil more respect of the will of the people in the European Council.
A decent start to secure a larger role for national parliaments and safeguard accountability would be to strengthen the ‘yellow card’ procedure and institute a ‘red card’ procedure.
You know, I grew up and lived the first 26 years of my life in a communist Czechoslovakia. And I still remember that strange feeling of overwhelming hypocrisy of that regime, where reality was one thing and the way that reality was officially described was another completely different thing. That is something I feel quite often while dealing with EU matters.
And make no mistake; I’m not saying that the European Union is comparable in any way to the Soviet one. Such comparisons are ridiculous.
Nor am I saying that the European Union limits freedoms or oppresses its citizens like the communist dictatorships did. No, not at all.
What I’m saying is that there is a similarity between the sentiment of Eastern European societies, then and our societies now:
The feeling that there is a discrepancy between the overarching societal ideology as it is expressed by the political elite and the daily experience of the electorate;
The feeling that there is a divergence of interests between the bureaucracy and those that pay the taxes and obey the rules;
The feeling that there is a difference between what journalists describe and what regular citizens perceive as the truth in their daily lives.
This must stop.
Many ancient civilisations collapsed when their internal complexity surpassed the limits of sustainability, when their creative energies were aimed in the wrong direction and too many of their resources were spent on their internal operation. Let’s not fall into that trap once again.
We do not want a Europe that is paralysed by a dysfunctional EU and we do not want a dysfunctional EU paralysed by its efforts to be something that it cannot be. We need the EU to be a flexible, useful, ready-for-action instrument that fits the Europe of the 21st century.
I hope this conference will contribute to it.