Key Note Address by Foreign Minister Michael Spindelegger at the event celebrating the 20th anniversary of the Austrian Society for European Politics
Check against Delivery
Ladies and Gentlemen,
It is with great pleasure, President Liebscher, that I deliver the key note address at this very special celebration here today.
Indeed, it is more than appropriate to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Austrian Society for European Politics, highlighting and appreciating what you have achieved over these last two decades. Let me take this opportunity to pay special thanks to your staff for their commitment throughout these years.
It is a particular pleasure to welcome the Society’s founding father and honorary president, former Federal Minister Peter Jankowitsch, and representatives of all institutions that support the Austrian Society for European Politics here today.
The Austrian Society for European Politics also makes a valuable contribution to my work as Minister for European Affairs.
Through your commitment to providing information services and organising PR activities you contribute to raising people’s awareness of the EU, be it through studies, surveys, information events, meetings or discussions. An important factor in this context is the large number of outreach activities you have launched, directed particularly at schoolchildren and students.
Indeed, the collection and analysis of facts on the European Union’s activities and their objective communication, without embellishing or sugar-coating matters and clearly addressing deficits, seems to be a rather difficult exercise in our country. Especially in the last few years, we have had to witness how emotionally charged and distorted communication of some of this information can be.
But also in terms of content, such objective “EU communication” is a difficult discipline. The topics are often complex and controversial and, quite honestly, some are really difficult to explain in simple terms.
I therefore thank the Austrian Society for European Politics that it provides a forum for ongoing dialogue and raises people’s awareness of the EU by providing valuable information. We, the Foreign Ministry and the Austrian Society for European Politics cooperate closely in this respect. With the travelling exhibition the “EU and YOU” we put together with the Commission, for instance, we have already reached thousands of schoolchildren. Experts from my ministry contribute to events, discussions and teacher training activities and we are pleased to continue this fruitful cooperation.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Austria joined the European Union almost 17 years ago. Over these past 17 years both our country and our continent have seen some highly dynamic developments: twelve new members joined the EU, the majority of these are former Eastern Block countries and many of them are our direct neighbours. Now they are our equal partners in the European Union, national borders have been opened up within the Union – an enormous advantage for Austrian business and industry.
In the course of these 17 years, the Union’s founding treaties were also subject to three substantial amendments (the Treaties of Amsterdam, Nice and Lisbon). The euro was introduced, the Schengen area expanded – even to include non-EU Member States like Switzerland, for instance. Cooperation in the field of justice and home affairs was re-organised across borders and put on a new footing. The Union’s common foreign policy was improved – to name but a few of the many changes we have seen take place.
These developments were demanding and required a lot of understanding and flexibility on the part of our fellow-Austrians. For some, these changes may have seemed too far-reaching and came too fast.
Let me stress that we take people’s concerns and fears very seriously and that they are taken into account.
At the same time, however, we have taken forward-looking, courageous and future-oriented decisions for our country. During our two successful Council Presidencies (in 1998 and 2006) we clearly demonstrated that Austria can easily stand any comparison with larger Member States. Today, Austria is stronger, more stable and more self-confident than in the mid-90s. And this is precisely what our compatriots expect from their politicians.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Today, we are again faced with major new challenges:
A global financial and debt crisis holds the European Union and its Member States in its grip. The eurozone is struggling with massive problems. Not a day passes without yet more bad news hitting the headlines from rating agencies and stock markets. The European Union is struggling to live up to its role in the world.
Against this background some have even called for leaving the EU or forcing others to leave. But such a step would prove a grave mistake. It is absolutely erroneous to believe that the debt crisis would come to a sudden end or would simply pass by if we were to split up the eurozone and thus the EU into different groups. Or that we Austrians would find salvation by returning to the Schilling. Not only are such calls misleading but they are dangerous too!
Of course, we have seen and experienced new challenges in recent months – and of course we have to respond by developing new solutions. It is now up to us, to become active, to act in forward-looking ways and to take appropriate strategic decisions.
While we continue on our consistent consolidation course in order totackle today’s challenges we have to make plans for the future.
This means that we must undertake every effort to get our own budget policy back on track. Occasionally this may require taking drastic steps. Hence, I am convinced that there is no option but to enshrine a debt brake in our federal constitution.
At European level, its time to take stock, to undertake evaluations and take the necessary decisions that will put us on track for the future. I am convinced that this is the appropriate moment for further developing the European Union – to ensure we have a faster and better response ready should we be faced with another such crisis.
We need a change of course. We have to embark on a new European economic policy course that is again centred on the European Commission as its central governing body.
A great deal has already been achieved. By setting up the European Stability Mechanism (ESM), developing the growth strategy, strengthening economic policy coordination and stepping-up the Stability and Growth Pact we have indeed gone some way to setting the wheels in motion.
Let me make it clear, this “more of Europe” I am referring to is not a one-way-road to Europe. Europe works best when its underlying idea and concepts are shaped and put into practice at all levels, with everybody contributing to it. This is why we have to examine which regulatory content is better located at the national level. The idea is to set the overall directional targets at the European level and to leave the detailed implementation to the Member States. In some areas the EU will definitely have to hand back some competencies – and the Treaty of Lisbon provides for the relevant instruments.
The question now is: what kind of future-oriented decisions do we still have to take in order to emerge strengthened and better protected from this crisis?
Let me briefly outline the decisions I’m talking about:
1. We require a strengthened “community method”
I am absolutely opposed to a directorate of certain Member States that wish to take decisions on all other states’ behalf. We must remain a Union composed of Member States with equal rights and a common legal basis.
Austria has always advocated the community method in which the European Commission assumes a central role. That’s because the Commission sees the bigger picture and is the only body that is not biased by national interests. The Union’s founding fathers thus acted wisely by conferring the monopoly of initiative for European legislation on the Commission. Put more simply, the Commission is in fact our most important ally in Europe.
2. We require leaner EU bodies
No doubt, the EU Member States must continue to be able to shape the EU and its policies. They are the masters of the treaties. They contribute to shaping the Union through their presence in the Council, the European Parliament and other bodies and agencies. This principle does not necessarily have to mean that all Member States should be permanently represented in all EU bodies. As a result of the increase to 27 and – following Croatia’s accession – to 28 members, the principle of one Commissioner per Member State will soon be stretched to its limit.
The question I am thus putting up for discussion is whether 28 “ministers” with equal rights will really be able to contribute in an optimal way towards streamlining EU policies and increasing their efficiency and coherence. Naturally, the same also holds true for other EU bodies.
3. We require EU bodies that are more efficient
The Treaty of Lisbon has simplified procedures in the EU. Today, the principles of unanimity and special regulations are only applied in exceptional cases. Let me be very clear about that: it is important that these exceptions be maintained. But they have ceased to act as insurmountable barriers. Nobody forbids us to join forces in this respect. And we should seek to use all the opportunities available.
Technically speaking this might indeed be tantamount to relinquishing sovereignty. But if the trade-off is more safety and increased stability, such a step is definitely in the interest of all Austrians.
4. No fear of necessary amendments to the Treaty
Against the background of the dramatic situation caused by the current crisis, it should not come as any surprise that the discussion about a potential amendment to the Treaty is taking higher priority.
Just the thought of it reminds many of us of the almost 10 year long genesis of the Treaty of Lisbon and at first glance many would shy away from re-opening the Treaty. I too, believe that it is important that the consequences of such a move be very carefully considered in advance. Before undertaking amendments we should require proof of their expedience.
However, amendments to the Treaty are no substitute for ongoing crisis management. But in my view it would amount to negligence if we refrained from subjecting our common legal bases to a dynamic adaptation process. Please don’t get me wrong, I am not referring to a wholesale change of the EU Treaty – we have already been through that in adopting the Treaty of Lisbon. What I have in mind is rather a targeted reform.
In this specific case, an amendment to the Treaty would result in more firmly enshrining the Member States’ budgetary obligations in the Treaty and introducing rights that enable the EU to intervene and take action should such obligations be permanently violated.
The goal is to make sure that crises such as the current one will not even develop. So we have to establish a corrective mechanism to be applied at a very early stage when states first start to struggle. Such a system would enable greater safety and stability.
This is particularly relevant with a view to current deliberations on creating so-called “stability bonds” or euro bonds.
Austria has made its position very clear: one day such bonds may probably offer added value for all euro countries - today, however, this is certainly not the case. I therefore regard the deliberations currently being undertaken by the Commission as an interesting and ambitious contribution to the ongoing discussion. They may well act like the famous “carrot” for some members and trigger further reforms in those countries that would particularly benefit from such bonds, thus contributing to further consolidating the Economic and Monetary Union.
Such common bonds can, however, only be established some way down the line – and we have not arrived there yet.
As matters stand, I consider that imposing stricter conditions in the observation of Economic and Monetary Union regulations would be in our national interest and create added value for Austria.
5. We need to strengthen the EU’s external profile
Let me stress this in my capacity as Foreign Minister and Minister for European Affairs:
We live in increasingly networked and interlinked systems. The world has become smaller. From the Austrian point of view it is therefore much more efficient to manage international developments jointly rather than confronting them alone.
It is thus in our own interest that all EU Member States bundle their forces and speak with one voice – both in their contacts with third countries and within international organisations. Such a joint approach will not only add weight to our common convictions, in the fields of human rights or climate protection for instance, but also strengthen our position in the field of trade or on security and defence issues.
Experience has shown that the only result achieved by 27 Member States defending 27 different views is a European cacophony – with nobody listening or even taking us seriously in the international context.
6. Another important issue is that we have to be more specific about what Europe stands for: Europe isn’t just about freedom – its about safety and security too
The European integration project has changed our continent in fundamental ways – no other political project has ever had such an impact. The opportunities offered by the EU enable a new way for countries to interact, they have not only influenced the way we coexist but also influence citizens’ everyday lives.
Just think about how much the creation of the Internal Market and the guaranteed four freedoms have changed and improved our lives. Free movement of people, goods, capital and services – freedoms many of use on a daily basis.
We Austrians also benefit from the freedom we have enjoyed since the introduction of the euro. All this has become part of our every day life in Europe.
Nowadays, some dismiss the Union’s role as a guarantor of peace as being outdated or no longer of any relevance. I do not share their view: even in today’s world, peace can definitely not be taken for granted – we only have to look back a few years to our neighbours’ history in the Balkans.
For me Europe is indeed based on a much wider concept of peace. Today’s understanding of peace is no longer limited to the mere observation of truce. The concept of peace goes far beyond that and includes particularly economic and social peace in Europe – with the Union as its guarantor. By joining forces we will also find it easier to guarantee economic and social peace instead of each member endeavouring to protect and safeguard it alone.
I believe that the time is ripe for Europe to continue building on the - indubitably - huge achievements of the Internal Market and its Four Freedoms. While guaranteeing our citizens these four established freedoms we should at the same time work towards guaranteeing what we’ll call the “four pillars of safety and security”:
These four pillars are:
1. Stability. Especially with respect to currency and economic issues.
2. Prosperity. Enabled by a dynamic business and working environment.
3. Sustainability. Marked by a responsible approach to the environment across national borders.
4. Peace. Guaranteed by a strong EU that protects its citizens and ensures that they live in peace.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Before coming to the end of my address I would just like to refer to a concept I mentioned at the very beginning – the need for objective awareness-raising and information activities.
According to a 2011 Eurobarometer survey, the Austrians’ trust in the EU has picked up again, recently rising by 6%.
Austrians expect the EU to play a stronger role in regulating and monitoring the global financial markets. Nevertheless, the EU approval rate in Austria is, as we all know, far below the level seen at the time of our accession.
The Federal Government is aware of citizens’ scepticism towards the European project. Austrians tend to be sceptical in many other areas, this isn’t particularly alarming.
But in order to continue successfully on our positive pro-European course towards “more of Europe“, it is, however, essential to focus on improving the way in which we present and explain our line of approach to citizens.
In cooperation with many Austrian partners, such as the Austrian Society for European Politics, the social partners, the European Commission representation and many others, we therefore strive to pro-actively inform and raise citizens’ awareness of the EU.
Direct contacts and outreach activities are pivotal in this respect. Important tools in this context are the gradual implementation of Europe committees in the province diets, the network of EU municipal councillors and cooperation activities with schools or my EU Listening Tours, for instance.
The Treaty of Lisbon has placed a stronger focus on closeness to citizens, increasing transparency and giving citizens a stronger voice, but its potential has, however, not yet been tapped to the full. I have therefore made it a major concern of mine to make sure that citizens can form an objective and informed opinion on EU issues and make full use of having their say and the opportunities to get involved, participate in and contribute to the Union.
My day-to-day experience clearly shows that there is a huge interest in objective information and dialogue on EU matters. The work carried out by the Austrian Society for European Politics is particularly relevant in this context. May I conclude by thanking you again for your valuable contribution and commitment.
Thank you for your attention.