CEPS - Europe, back on track: toespraak van minister Didier Reynders

As Minister for Foreign Affairs, I meet regularly with young students to talk about Europe. They ask many questions, about their future jobs or the Erasmus program. But also how Europe stands vis-à-vis the other big powers : could Europe protect us from a third world war, asked one student recently.

A few weeks ago, talking at the Brussels day’s, a participant, who remembered Brussels in 1945, made an angry comment at the end of my presentation: I had not mentioned that Europe was the guarantee for peace, and that not so long ago, this continent was at war.

But one question came back on all those occasions, independently of the age of the participants: “What are the values that Europe stands for today?”

I believe those questions reflect the expectations of our citizens, and are all good reasons to explain why Europe is needed.

We can answer those expectations by working on three tracks: stick to our values, bring concrete results to citizens and make the EU a global player.

First: what are the values we stand for, and how do we defend them?

Being a member of the European Union is not a geographical fact, but a political choice. It implies, among other aspects, the full respect for fundamental rights and for the principles of the rule of law. Those have to be respected at all levels. But the debates we have seen around legislations in Hungary, the current situation in Poland or issues arising around anti-terror legislations – to quote only 3 examples – demonstrate it is a difficult topic.

Those discussions are often divisive and demonstrate that the European Union might not have all the necessary tools to react to those challenges, that can arise in any of our countries. This is a weak point of the EU.

It is the reason why I suggested, two years ago,  to develop a regular peer review mechanism among Member States, allowing all of us, like we have for economic criterias, to analyze the situation in each of our countries. We do it for candidate countries, but after the accession, we don’t have a mechanism to discuss those political criterias anymore. It is very strange to have mechanisms at the United Nations and in other fora, and not within the European Union.

Rule of law and fundamental rights lie at the foundation of our Union, explain and justify all other policies. How can we imagine a functioning internal market if we do not trust each other’s judicial systems? How can we promote Rule of law worldwide if we can’t discuss them amongst us?.

2. The EU has to deliver

My second point relates to the short and medium-term where the agenda is clear: it is our task to keep watch on concrete results in favour of the daily life of every citizen. We have witnessed difficult elections in many European countries, with a rise of populist and extremist parties – but I don’t believe we have won yet. So we need to deliver, not by changing the Treaties, but by acting concretely.

It is a well-known point, but still not achieved: the completion of the internal market, which celebrates its 25th birthday this year. We need to progress on the deepening of the economic and monetary union, but also on a real social and fiscal policy. We need to progress all together but, if needed, with the Eurogroup – we will see.

This brings me to a point I have been advocating for many years: to move from unanimity to qualified majority. Was the United Kingdom the only country opposing this move? We will know soon.  

In order to work towards the well-being of our citizens, we need to recall that we have an open economy in Europe. The EU is an open economy, which benefits from open borders. But there are real concerns of our citizens (see Mercosur now, CETA before), that we need to address. We also need to protect our high standards – environmental and social – international trade should not be seen as opposing international norms on labour. I have discussed these issues with the World Trade organization and the International Labour Organization, I believe they should work together on this.

The EU also has to deliver on security issues. If we want to move towards a strong defense policy, we need to work on its industrial base. Without a real industrial defense policy, it will be difficult to develop a strong defense policy. It is time to have an European pillar in NATO.

Let me touch a word on migration, On managing migration, we have made good progress on the external side, in partnership with third countries.  But we all know how divisive the reform of the Dublin system is within the European Union. We will however need to find solutions.

Without those concrete progress, it will be difficult to convince citizens there is an ‘European dream’ – so let’s go back to the values and deliver. With all Member States if possible, with less if needed. Actually, it is already the case now.

3. The EU must be able to answer to global challenges

Now, what do I answer to the student asking me how the EU stands vis-à-vis the other big powers?

I tell him that we need, more than ever, a strong and united Europe defending the core principles of multilateralism and international law.

The European Union is a global player in trade and development cooperation. But we still don’t always have a strong EU position – because we are not able to speak with one voice.

We should be able to speak with one voice and organize better our external representation – because then we are successful (fight against climate change for example, or the nuclear agreement with Iran). Belgium has always been in favour of a strong European foreign policy, and we demonstrate that concretely in our day-to-day cooperation with the European external action service and the High Representative. Those are not only words, this is the way the Belgian diplomacy works.

On defense, PESCO is one of the tools to progress. But to take another example, we do not have to move towards an European army in order to progress – look at the integrated marine between Belgium and the Netherlands.

All those elements allow the European Union to develop a real comprehensive approach, linking development, defense and diplomacy – look at the Sahel region for example, where the European Union is a key player, and where we developed a comprehensive approach. Because security is not only about weapons, it is much broader, and encompasses, for example, fighting climate change, poverty and working towards the  Sustainable development goals. It is in order to defend this vision and promote consensus that Belgium is candidate for a non-permanent seat at the United nations security Council.

Migration is a key challenge that will remain with us for decades to come (see the demographics in Africa) – it is about solidarity and responsibility, and touches upon development, solidarity, human rights, economic development and cohesion of our societies. If we want to have our say in the Global Compact discussions, we also need to move on that topic within the European Union.

Finally, the way we communicate about Europe towards our citizens is also crucial.

Politics should identify with Europe. ‘Brussels’ is not the European Union. We, all together, are the European Union. There can’t be a split, where negative decisions are always coming from Brussels and positive decisions are national ones.

So, the goals are clear, the expectations of our citizens too. We need to stick to our values, deliver, be very concrete and play a real role as a global player in the world. This is essential if we want to avoid bad surprises at the next elections, and move forward.

I thank you.