General Politics

Speech at the European Council

Ladies and gentlemen,
Today the traditional Spring Summit dedicated to jobs and growth has been convened in Brussels. While the migration crisis gets more pressing by the day and we do have to come up with solutions urgently, let us not lose sight of the fact that the state of our economy fundamentally affects the lives and the well-being of our citizens, too. Boosting jobs and growth must be a priority for us.

After years of crisis, the European economy is slowly recovering. But it is an anemic recovery. Growth rates languish. Stock markets are nervous. The threat of deflation is still lingering. Unemployment, especially among the young, is still scandalously high: one in ten Europeans is looking for a job. The recovery remains uneven between and within countries. On top of that, dampened global growth prospects due to the financial and economic turmoil in a number of emerging countries are hurting exporters and industrial output is falling. Last week’s action by the ECB shows that Mario Draghi is not prepared to settle for “the new mediocre” – nor should we. What we should do is implement a smart growth strategy:

Firstly, close the investment gap. 300 billion Euros more would have to be invested annually to get back to pre-crisis levels. This gap significantly weakens our longer-term growth potential. Therefore, let us use the European Fund for Strategic Investments (EFSI) to maximum effect and support strategic projects. The European Investment Bank’s board of Directors announced that they will support nine further projects, which will bring the total number up to 54 with a total of 7.2 billion Euros spent. This is a good start – we should continue in that direction, with a strengthened focus on SMEs.

Secondly, implement the policy mix of investment, competitiveness, structural reform and fiscal responsibility as proposed in the 2016 Annual Growth Survey package: We must continue along these lines, with a specific stress on quality employment and inclusive measures. The European Parliament welcomed the increased attention to three employment-related indicators but wants to see them put on an equal footing with the other indicators.

Thirdly, harvest the benefits of digitisation. The digitisation of the economy provides both challenges and opportunities. Let us make sure our citizens benefit from the growth opportunities.

Fourthly, improve the implementation of the country-specific recommendations. For now, implementation remains poor. Clearly, we must better identify and clearly articulate priorities at European level so as to foster a genuine public debate and thereby increase ownership.
In this context, the European Parliament welcomes the recommendations on the economic policy of the euro area, which were for the first time proposed by the Commission six months ahead of the country-specific recommendations. This is an important step towards deepening policy coordination, a step which is in line with the Five Presidents’ Report and all relevant resolutions of the European Parliament. The debate held with the Presidents of the Commission and the Eurogroup was welcomed in the Parliament as a step in the right direction as it increased the attention given to the euro area as a whole. In the short-term we must start as soon as possible the work on the Inter-Institutional Agreement on the European Semester as foreseen in the Five Presidents’ Report.

Fifthly, address macroeconomic imbalances by coordinating efforts involving all the Member States and building on relevant reforms and investments. In this respect, internal demand is key.

Sixthly, fight tax avoidance, tax evasion and aggressive tax planning. The public purse loses billions in revenue each year due to these practices. This ongoing scandal undermines solidarity between and within countries and fair competition between companies. The European Parliament is very concerned that the once – more delayed adoption of the Financial Transaction Tax indicates a lack of political will to implement it. We promised this solidarity tax to our citizens and it is high time we deliver.

Seventhly, keep the borders open. Closing borders in the Schengen area permanently would come at a tremendous economic cost. Workers, businesses, everyone would pay a heavy price. Commuters would lose their work; companies their employees. Lorries would be stuck at the border for hours or days, effectively putting an end to the just-in-time economy. Not to mention the administrative costs linked to the reintroduction of border controls. A recent Bertelsmann study puts the costs of abolishing Schengen at up to 1,4 trillion Euros until the year 2025.

Eighthly, put money into the Youth Guarantee. It is alarming that after two successful years, so far there are no commitments for the Youth Employment Initiative for 2016. This means: no new projects which help put young people into jobs or training will be financed this year. Saying that youth employment is really a top priority for the EU is not enough. Words must be followed by action, and sometimes by money, too.

Ninthly, prevent a race to the bottom for taxation and social standards. Undercutting your neighbour will only increase overall inequalities and could ultimately harm economic growth. Therefore, the European Parliament welcomes the adoption of the Commission’s proposal on the revision of the Posting of Workers Directive. It is high-time to tackle the abuses and risks resulting of social dumping. We need to refocus the political agenda to include social issues. Therefore, when Prime Minister Löfven proposed in his speech in the European Parliament to host a Summit on Social Europe in Sweden next year it was received positively.

Tenthly, lay the basis for long-term growth now. The UK settlement has clarified that there will be no veto from a non-Eurozone Member State on the further integration of the Euro Area. This must be our wake-up call to finally correct the original imbalance of the Economic and Monetary Union. The very existence of our common currency is still under threat. What was urgent during the crisis still remains urgent today: After years of delay it is really high time we develop a genuine common economic policy with stronger convergence.

Ladies and gentlemen,
the EU and Turkey are key partners. Our partnership must be built on mutual trust and straight-talking. Overall, the restarting of the accession process with Turkey is a positive development. Our dialogue with Turkey has intensified on a wide range of topics. Let us use this opportunity wisely.

That being said, the accession path and the refugee crisis need to be dealt with separately.

Turkey won’t get any discounts on media freedom and minority protection, the separation of powers or the rule of law. As many of you have also done, I have raised the strong concerns of the European Parliament regarding media freedom in the country. This concerns in particular the alarming measures against the newspapers such as Zaman and Cumhuriyet, against TV channels such as Bugun TV and Samanyolu TV, as well as against individual journalists such as Can Dündar and Erdem Gül just to name a few. We also strongly condemn the verbal and physical attacks, and the increasing use of defamation and anti-terror legislation against journalists and academics. Pursuing criminal activities is legitimate. Turning critical press into the mouthpiece of the government is not. These may be thorny issues, but they are non-negotiable issues if Turkey does not want to lose its European perspective.

At last week’s meeting of the EU with Turkey we have for the first time in quite a while seen the will to find a common solution. If all sides now display the sufficient political will to implement these common solutions, the proposal of last Monday may well prove to have been a game-changer.

In the European Parliament there is across party political lines no doubt that the implementation of the measures has to happen in full respect of fundamental rights and international legal requirements.

As I said at the beginning, Turkey and the EU are key partners. And we need a partnership, not a dependence on Turkey. We cannot and should not “outsource” our problems to Turkey. But we have a shared interest in tackling smugglers and traffickers, and we can only fight them effectively through close cooperation. The European Parliament welcomes the fact that the pre-agreement reached on 7 March is a direct attack on their criminal model.
Please allow me to state the Parliament’s position on three of the key issues arising from last week’s statement.

First issue: visa free travel. The acceleration foreseen is certainly ambitious. The European Parliament as a co-legislator is ready to play a constructive role. But there are two pre-conditions:
For one, there can be no shortcuts to our parliamentary procedures. It is no small decision. We will ensure full scrutiny, examine the proposal carefully and address all legitimate concerns.
Let’s be clear: the final decision lies between the European Parliament and your Justice and Home Affairs Ministers in the Council. We ask the European Council to hold itself out of legislative detail.
Second condition: To act in due time, we need a Commission proposal which is only possible after the Turkish side has adopted a large number of reforms as part of the Visa Liberalisation Dialogue.
The EU’s visa liberalisation benchmarks are clearly set out – there are 72 necessary measures organised in five thematic blocks – and we welcome President Juncker’s confirmation that, during the night of last Monday, the benchmarks did not change in the slightest. This means that Turkey must make further progress on document security, migration management, public order and security, fundamental rights and readmission. Let us not forget that we have other such dialogues ongoing, for example with Georgia, Ukraine and Kosovo, and we need to send the message that everyone is treated fairly.

Second issue: returns to Turkey and resettlement to the EU. You agreed that all new irregular migrants crossing from Turkey into the Greek islands would be returned to Turkey in full compliance with European and international law. The European Parliament does not jump to conclusions on this, but rather waits to see the small print. We need to know:
• how precisely Turkey fulfils the conditions set by our own legislation for Greece to be able to declare it a “safe third country”.
• How far asylum applicants can nevertheless argue that Turkey is not safe in their individual case.
• And once Syrians and non-Syrians are returned, what guarantees they have as to their non-refoulement.
The European Parliament trusts that the early concerns expressed last Tuesday in the European Parliament in its plenary debate and by UN High Commissioner Grandi were in the meantime fully addressed.

The corresponding commitment you made to resettle refugees from Turkey to the EU will encourage legal and safe routes. It builds on last year’s decisions on relocation and resettlement and in particular the distribution key contained therein. This distribution key is a fair and objective basis also for this new sharing of responsibility: As you know it is based on the size of the population of each Member State, its total GDP, the average number of asylum applications per one million inhabitants over the previous five years, and the unemployment rate.

The situation at the Greek border with FYROM is dire – men, women and children surviving in tents scattered across the mud. Thousands of people are waiting at the border, even if accommodation may be available elsewhere in Greece, waiting to see what will happen. The European Parliament calls on you to send those people a message of hope by accelerating relocations from Greece to your countries.

Third issue: funding. The European Parliament welcomes the creation of an Emergency Assistance instrument for crises within the European Union. This is urgently needed to support refugees, in particular those stranded along what was until recently referred to as the Western Balkans route. On 14 April, the European Parliament plans to adopt the corresponding Amending Budget. It is a pity that the other institutions repeatedly side-line the Parliament on crucial budgetary issues, even though we have demonstrated time and again that we can combine speed with democratic scrutiny.

Concerning further financing of the Facility for Refugees in Turkey, I would like to insist that while Parliament welcomes such initiatives, any extra money must be “fresh money” because of your decision to have very narrow flexibility within the Multiannual Financial Framework. The EU budget is not some sort of magic box providing endless resources. And let’s not forget the most urgent thing which is to make the already agreed three billion euros available directly on the ground in particular to the many vulnerable refugees living outside the camp structures.

Those are the Parliament’s three main points in relation to last week’s proposal. But let’s not for a moment imagine that the arrangement reached with Turkey can somehow replace a genuine EU migration and asylum policy! It cannot. Other routes will be tried – and are already being tried – and the migratory pressure remains intense. We need a solid European framework for the years and decades to come.
• We need an ambitious overhaul of the Dublin Regulation with an in-built responsibility-sharing mechanism. This revision has been postponed for too long. We hope that the Commission will finally get moving after Easter.
• The promised advances in the field of Legal Migration are still awaited.
• And in a few weeks, your Ministers and our negotiating team will together be hammering out the details of the European Coast and Border Guard. As the Commission rightly argues in its Roadmap “Back to Schengen”, Member States should already now start the necessary preparations to make it operational immediately after the legislative framework is agreed: by preparing the mandatory pooling of resources; by increasing support for Frontex joint operations and rapid border interventions. And Frontex should take preparatory steps to ensure that the European Border and Coast Guard can immediately after its creation conduct the first vulnerability test.
Let’s not lose sight of our strategic objectives, despite the necessary crisis management.

Ladies and gentlemen,
These past months Turkey has suffered devastating terrorist attacks killing and wounding civilians. In the name of the European Parliament I would like to offer our condolences to the families of the victims and the Turkish authorities. We firmly condemn all terrorist attacks. The PKK is on the EU list of terrorist organisations. This issue is not up for discussion.

Yet, the European Union and an overwhelming majority of members in the European Parliament, from across the political spectrum, are truly concerned about the deteriorating situation in the South-East of the country. The increasing tension and violence in the South-East further destabilises an already turbulent region. The spiral of violence has to be broken, the democratic Kurdish expression preserved, and the peace process restarted.

I raised these concerns with the Turkish Prime Minister and informed him that we plan to send an official delegation of the European Parliament on the request of several political groups, and defended the full independence of the Parliament’s Standing rapporteur on Turkey. Over the last 20 years Turkey and the European Parliament have built a long standing working relationship and it is important that this continues in mutual trust and respect.

Ladies and gentlemen,
This morning I had an exchange with the King of Jordan on the situation in his country. Jordan, a country with a population of almost eight million, is currently hosting 1.4 million Syrian refugees, more than half of them are children. While neighbouring Lebanon has offered shelter to an estimated 1.5 million refugees. With a population of 4.4 million, Lebanon is now hosting the world’s largest number of refugees per capita – one out of four inhabitants is a refugee. What a display of generosity and human decency! Yet, both countries have reached their limits. Nine in ten refugees there live under the poverty line. Half of the children do not go to school. This situation is untenable and both the government of Jordan and the government of Lebanon are set on improving the situation on the ground through a long-term national crisis response plan. The objective of this plan is to offer refugees a life in dignity without creating disadvantages for the local population. It is about creating opportunities for all by combining solidarity with pragmatism. Concretely, this involves structural reforms, modernising labour regulations, guaranteeing access to public services, offering education to all children and training for all young adults. Without doubt, this is a commendable initiative. But Jordan and Lebanon can’t do it on their own. They need and deserve our support. Through technical assistance, foreign investment, trade liberalisation and market access we can help improve the economic outlook in these countries. And improving the economic prospects is the best way to decrease the need for humanitarian assistance and foster the integration of refugees in their host societies. In the name of the European Parliament I appeal to you to fulfill the pledges you made at the London Donor’s Conference in February. It is high time we enable the refugees to build their own future.

Ladies and gentlemen,
During the Solidarnosc years, the Polish people fought bravely for democracy and the rule of law, sparking a democratic revolution in Central and Eastern Europe. This has benefited all of us, especially my country. Without doubt, we need a strong and democratic Poland in the EU. Therefore, we are especially concerned about recent developments in Poland.

The Venice Commission opinion strongly criticises the Polish government’s proposed changes to the Constitutional Tribunal. An independent constitutional court is part and parcel of a system of checks and balances. The current situation means that these checks and balances are now in limbo. On behalf of the European Parliament, we call on the Polish government to find a way out of the current impasse and engage in an inclusive debate to fix the shortcomings of the latest reforms.

The European Parliament now counts on the European Commission to continue the dialogue under the Rule-of-Law-Mechanism and verify the full implementation of the recommendations of the Venice Commission by the Polish government.

Thank you for your attention.