Wien, 15. April 2008 Rede/Interview

"European Integration: The Benefits for Each Citizen" - Speech by State Secretary Hans Winkler (english only)

Clingendael - Netherlands Institute of International Relations

15. April 2008

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Dear Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is a great honour for me to be here today. What better place than this renowned institute to recall the merits of the European project? What better place than the Netherlands to focus on the concrete added value of European integration for the EU citizen?

Since joining the EU in 1995 Austria has always been a driving force for our common European project. At a time when nationalist tensions are threatening to re-emerge in our neighbourhood, the European Union is certainly the best guarantee for peace, stability and prosperity in Europe. On the world stage, we can only make Europe’s voice heard and defend our interests by speaking with one voice. The EU remains the most appropriate answer to globalisation. The EU is our chance to make best use of the chances of globalisation and of overcoming the problems that come along with it, be it in the economic, political or social field. This is particularly true for small and medium sized countries such as Austria. For us, standing alone would mean being subject to these forces without being able to influence them. Therefore, participating actively in the EU is our recipe to keep the ability to influence others and defend our people’s well-being.

The European project relies on a number of principles, such as solidarity, openness and a vision for the future, but also on the relinquishing of nationalism, the source of numerous conflicts on our continent. European integration is a constantly evolving process. The secret of its success is constant re-invention and adaptation to new circumstances and needs. By bringing together former enemies in this process, the EU is the most successful guaranty for peace our continent has ever seen. The EU has managed to find a peaceful way for neighbours to cooperate. It relies largely on harmoniously coordinating the policies of its member states, but integration, the famous Community method, gives it ‘extra soul’. Instead of looking for the lowest common denominator, here we have for the first time a model which can achieve much more than simply adding up the various components.

The European Union is a family of 27 countries and 490 million citizens, working together for peace and prosperity. Therefore European integration is a large project incorporating areas as diverse as economics, social policy, consumer protection, competition policy, monetary policy, cooperation in the area of internal affairs and justice, humanitarian aid, development cooperation, the Common Foreign and Security Policy, as well as European citizenship.

Whilst it may be easy for me to tell you about all of the EU’s great achievements in furthering integration on the continent and improving the lives of its citizens, these achievements may not always be apparent to the EU’s general citizen. It is important in our modern information technology society to inform our citizens as best as we can of the advantages that membership in the European Union brings them, as the EU cannot move forward in its drive for further integration without the full backing of its citizens.

One thing is clear: Ordinary people have other worries on their minds than what institutional changes the new Lisbon Treaty will bring.  To put it in a nutshell: what matters most to citizens is to find solutions for the problems they face in their everyday lives - in particular against the background of changes due to globalization.

In a way citizens expect the EU to provide them with a kind of insurance certificate for what I would call the “European way of life”. In my mind this is a wide concept which goes well beyond European preferences for certain pastimes or fashions: The European way of life stands for some of the most important achievements in European politics: peace and stability, the rule of law, human rights and the respect for minorities, solidarity, pluralism, non-discrimination, tolerance, equality of men an women, but also the aim of full employment, sustainable jobs, social security, healthcare, a healthy environment, education, security and last but not least the respect of diversity.

It may sound ironic, but it is still true: the European way of life is in fact outlined rather well by the very Lisbon Treaty that we find difficult to familiarise the citizens with. In fact, a great number of the new instruments in the Treaty are there to better defend our way of life.

Now, the list of achievements that Europe has brought to our citizens is long, but it has a tendency to go unmentioned. People seem to persistently undervalue these past achievements, so let me recall a number of the most important ones:

I have already mentioned the European way of Life. At the heart of it, there is of course the European Social Model and its latest instrument, “Flexicurity”. Flexicurity became an integral part of the European Social Model – and of the Lisbon Process - under the Austrian EU Presidency in 2006. It tries to combine competitiveness with the elements of the European Lifestyle model, including peace, social fairness, full employment, ensuring human rights, diversity and protection of a liveable environment. These elements are an important factor for maintaining the EU’s competitiveness.

Fostering interchange and cross-border and cross-cultural movements means you need rules for these encounters. To this end the EU is actively working on an anti- discrimination policy, in particular in the working environment.

The European Social Fund takes the other road by supporting equal opportunities for both, women and men, the enhancement of education and the creation of new jobs, as well as the enhancement of elder workers’ opportunities and possibilities. For the period of 2007 until 2013, Austria e.g. has a budget of 524 million Euro within the European Social Fund.

Each European Citizen has the right to live, work and study in each member state. Free movement of workers is a fundamental right which permits nationals of one EU Member State to work in another Member State under the same conditions as that Member State’s own citizens. This is an important instrument to make sure people can develop their skills in the best possible way.

Some exceptions to this general rule have become necessary, though, with the accession of the twelve new Member States in 2004 and 2007: with a view to avoid imbalances in their labour markets some “old” Member States have imposed – and mostly - already eased restrictions on workers coming from areas with substantial unemployment and much lower pay.

Another very important improvement is the education of our youth. Very many young Europeans profit from the opportunity to study in another Member State – and more importantly, to have their credits and diplomas recognised all across Europe.

Erasmus is certainly one of Europe’s most frequently used programmes. It facilitates the emergence of a new generation of Europeans, who live the “European Spirit”. Over 2 million students have already made use of this European success story.

Let me also mention that the EU does not only promote student mobility: the Comenius programme seeks to develop exchanges and co-operation between schools in different countries and the Leonardo da Vinci programme focuses on teaching and training teachers in the vocational field. In doing so, it bolsters the competitiveness of the European labour market by helping EU citizens acquire new skills, knowledge and qualifications in European countries outside their home country. The Grundtvig programme promotes lifelong learning and updating of knowledge. This is essential to help workers adapt to changes in the labour market and society

Consumer protection is also a big topic in the European Economic and Social System. Since the year 2007 an EU-wide network with 26 centres for consumer protection ensures that the rights of the EU’s 490 million consumers are upheld. One example is air travel where, thanks to EU rules, airlines have to look after passengers and pay compensation if their journeys are disrupted. Speaking of flights, the EU has given the consumer more choice in inter-European air travel by deregulating the European market. Prices have dropped and many jobs have been created. Furthermore, the EU blacklist of unsafe airlines protects consumers from potentially dangerous airlines.

Another example of EU consumer protection are mobile phone roaming fees within the EEA, which have been brought down substantially by EU rules and have saved the European traveller a lot of money. 

The European Union is now concentrating its efforts on making the whole food chain as safe as possible through what it calls the “farm to fork” approach. This gives European consumers an informed choice about what they are eating and leads to a sustainable production cycle.   

The European Union is uniquely placed to provide a united response to diseases and epidemics. The EU’s expertise in areas such as food safety, public health and research allows it to tackle threats posed to both human and animal health. Let me also mention that the European Health Insurance Card, introduced in 2004, gives peace of mind to over 50 million people, by making sure that they get adequate treatment anywhere in the EU. It can be used in over 30 countries and is totally free. This card is yet another example of what is possible on an EU level to benefit its citizens.

The EU seeks to be an area of freedom, security and justice. To achieve this, the EU helps combat cross boarder crime through EU-wide information exchange via EUROPOL. A similar system now applies to the EU customs authorities to fight drugs and weapons trafficking.

The Schengen Treaties have finally made it possible to pass most EU borders without passport checks and lengthy files. The Schengen Information System enables the quick information of boarder guards on the EU’s outer borders, who are responsible for checking persons entering the Schengen space. I am glad to say that the opening of the borders in December 2007 is now widely accepted in Austria, since evidence shows that no real disadvantages have so far occurred.

The Member States also work to harmonise their legal systems. The mutual recognition of court decisions, the approximation of laws and the practical application – for example the European Arrest Warrant - are steps in this direction.

Let me now move on to one of the EU’s greatest success stories, its enlargement. From a six-country common market in 1957, the EU has grown into the 27-country Union today. This enlargement is to everybody’s benefit – as long as new members are ready to meet the conditions for accession and the EU is ready to fit them. Apart from providing specific technical and financial aid to the candidate countries, the EU also provides them with a vision for their future and an anchor of stability. Programmes for helping them include PHARE, ISPA and Sapard. Together with the accession process these ensure that accession countries meet the EU’s high standards on joining. Already this process benefits the citizens of the accession countries, whose standard of living is increased through various EU funds that support projects from infrastructure to good governance.

It must not be forgotten, of course, that EU enlargement also brings many benefits to the citizens of the old Member States. Apart from creating prosperity, democracy and stability on the continent, which surely is in every citizen’s interest, we benefit from increased trade and higher levels of employment. Austria has been one of the EU countries to benefit most from the recent enlargement. It has created 150,000 additional jobs in the country, increased Austria’s investments and exports into the region – Austria’s export volumes surpassed the 100 billion Euro mark in 2006 – and has contributed to an additional economic growth of ½%-1% per year. Enlargement can surely only be seen as a benefit to our citizens.

The EU’s action, however, does not stop at Europe’s borders. The EU provides emergency assistance to millions of the world’s poorest people, and is today the biggest donor of international aid worldwide. This has only been possible through European integration and a pooling of all our efforts in helping develop the world’s poorer countries. You may ask how this benefits the European citizen. In a globalized world, exporting peace and stability is the most efficient way of ensuring a safer and peaceful future for Europe.

Of course, the EU also invests substantial amounts closer to home, in its own regions. Some critics claim that Europe is just one huge remote federal bureaucracy. This is a long way from the truth. Europe is as much about strengthening solidarity as it is about creating an internal market. Over the last 50 years the EU has provided massive financial and political support to Europe’s regions, especially the poorer ones. Europe’s regional policies aim to improve the economic and social prospects of all citizens, in particular those living in our poorer regions.

Greater equality means greater cohesion for Europe as a whole. Nowadays, a third of the European budget is spent on boosting economic performance and competitiveness in its regions. This is done through ‘instruments’, such as the ‘European Regional Development Fund’, which has provided poorer regions with billions of euros to improve job prospects and help local businesses. Another fund, the ‘Cohesion Fund’ is used to finance transport and environmental initiatives in Europe’s less well-off regions. These activities are especially important in an enlarged Europe, where it is often the newcomers that need this kind of help most.

The European Union brings together people to work in projects that cement cultural, economic and social relationships across regional and national borders. Hundreds of projects funded jointly by the EU and the Member States prove this: for example, millions of euros are now being spent to improve transport links and infrastructure that will bring previously isolated places on the Iberian peninsula closer to the rest of Europe. Another example is the ‘Alpeuregio Initiative’ which has brought Alpine regions in Italy and Austria together to improve their economic performance. These are but a few examples of Europe’s successes in the regions and for its citizens there.

No speech on European integration would of course be complete without mentioning economic and monetary integration. To many citizens the European Monetary Union (EMU) – apart of course from the Euro coins and notes in his pockets - may just appear as a set of rules and regulations for economists. There may be an element of truth in that, but EMU brings stability to Europe’s economy, businesses and citizens and ultimately jobs and wealth. The European Central Bank helps put a cap on the current global price inflation. It also promotes integrated and transparent markets, i.e. makes prices more transparent and encourages more competition and lower prices for Europe’s consumers. With low and stable inflation, businesses can make longer-term plans and invest more with lower risks – encouraging trade, growth and more jobs in the process.

A key feature of EMU is the clear commitment to sustainable national budgets. Since EMU was launched, interest rates and - as a result - mortgage rates for new homes have fallen to historic lows. Reduced interest repayments on national debt also mean more of taxpayers’ money can be spent on hospitals, social security and infrastructure.

The EU is also actively involved in protecting the environment, from successfully protecting plant and animal species through the Natura 2000 Network – with over 20 000 sites Europe-wide currently listed -, to monitoring fishing catches and safeguarding fragile coastlines through projects such as POP&C (Pollution Prevention and Control). All of this action could not be done by one nation alone.

The European Union Emission Trading Scheme (ETS) is a new innovative scheme to help fight climate change. Global warming is a threat to us all – and rising sea levels in particular to this country - but through ETS – the biggest multinational environmental trading scheme in the world - Europe can reduce the amount of greenhouse gases emitted.

The EU’s Eco-label gives manufacturers a chance to show their ‘green’ inner self. The Eco-label assists the European citizen in making an informed choice about the products that he or she purchases, enabling them to lighten their carbon footprint.

Under REACH, European companies must assess and manage any risks arising from the chemicals they manufacture, import or use. These controls help protect humans and the environment from dangerous chemical substances while maintaining Europe’s competitive edge in the chemicals industry.

The European Commission’s ‘White Paper for a Community Strategy’ sets the goal of doubling the share of renewable energy used in Europe by 2010. The European Parliament has called for even more ambitious targets for 2020.

These are all examples for effective actions against climate change that are possible only through closer cooperation a European level. It is evident that one country alone could not have achieved.

Ladies and gentlemen,

the examples I have given are merely a few of the many advantages closer cooperation and European integration bring to the EU’s citizens. I am sure that you will agree that there is a lot of concrete added value for all our citizens, but we have to make all that much more visible to our citizens. We have to show that the EU is working to address people’s worries. Europe can make and makes a difference. The dark side of globalisation is not some kind of inescapable fate. Targeted joint efforts will allow Europeans to make profit and positive effects out of the opportunities provided by globalisation.

Thank you very much for your attention!