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Tale til lederne af Europa-Parlamentets informationskontorer

Tale til lederne af Europa-Parlamentets informationskontorer den 11. februar 2012.

Good afternoon everyone. Many thanks for the invitation to join you at this lunch. I am pleased to be here today and provide you with some remarks on the Danish Presidency and what we want to achieve during our Presidency. I will also contribute a few thoughts on how we might improve the public standing of the European Union in Member States. That is your line of business, and it is an important line of business, not least if we try to look ahead.

Almost a month and a half has now past, since Denmark assumed the Presidency. For the seventh time by the way, since we became members back in 1973. I guess that you will agree with me that it is a very turbulent time in European politics right now and that the challenges facing the EU are serious and daunting.

You will probably also agree with me that we – as a consequence of the unprecedented nature of the current challenges – have to strengthen our common resolve and maximize our common efforts to solve them. And by “we” I mean the Member States, the Commission and the European-Parliament. Because the bottom line in all of this is that the debt crisis and Europe’s wider economic problems today in terms of rising unemployment and lacking competitiveness have not been caused by some mysterious force of nature beyond our grasp. Nor has it been caused by the rise of global players like China, India or Brazil.

No, our economic problems today are largely self-inflicted. Self-inflicted in the sense that we have lived beyond our means for too many years. Self-inflicted in the sense that we have not paid sufficient attention to various warning signs and alarm bells, and self-inflicted in the sense that we have not had the political courage to initiate structural reforms, when the situation called for it. And for this very reason – ladies and gentlemen – it is – fortunately – still within our own capacity to confront the challenges and overcome the root causes that pushed us into the current crisis. 

Let me say a few words on the fiscal compact that was agreed at the informal European Council 10 days ago. First of all, the fact that 25 sovereign European countries in the course of just two months managed to conclude a legally binding agreement with significant implications for fiscal policy, is a remarkable achievement.

Secondly, with regard to Denmark’s national position on the fiscal compact, then let me inform you that we will join the agreement to the widest extent possible for a non-euro country. And we will do it in full compliance with our opt-out from the euro.

Our national euro-opt out will continue to stand, until we decide to change it ourselves following a national referendum. Thirdly, the fiscal compact should be considered as an important step in the right direction and a necessary instrument in our toolbox. It should not be regarded as an all-embracing answer to the crisis. That would be unfair, naïve and wrong. We must acknowledge that the challenges facing Europe today go well beyond the burning issue of unsustainable levels of public debt in some Member States. The challenges are complex and multi-dimensional. There will be no quick fix and there will be no short cuts.

What is needed, however, is a sustained and broad-based effort to consolidate national budgets in combination with stronger efforts to boost economic growth and pave the way for more job creation. That is in nutshell, is also what the Member States have agreed to do through measures like the European Semester, the fiscal compact and the declaration on growth and jobs from the informal European Council.

In my view, there has only been scant attention in the press on this declaration despite the far-reaching nature of its content. The declaration says that Member States shall take the necessary measures to reduce income taxes, and it urges Member States to intensify their efforts to create more internships and apprenticeships for young people. It also calls on the Commission to allocate more EU-money for job training programs for young people, and it calls on Member States to increase the mutual recognition of diplomas and professional qualifications across the EU. These are all important, necessary and potentially growth-enhancing steps in the right direction.

The position of the Danish EU Presidency to this declaration is simple. It can be summed with these words: Come on, let’s turn words into deeds. Let’s begin implementing it right away, because time is not on our side. With almost 24 million unemployed European, including an appallingly high number of young people, the risk of inaction and prevarication is way too high compared to the potential economic gains of turning this growth-agenda into a practical reality. Not to mention our common political responsibility for current generation of Europeans as well as future generations of European citizens. This is not the time to be sitting on the fence and merely be hoping for the best.

But even though, Member States now embark at full speed on implementing a consolidation-agenda and a growth-agenda at the same time, I believe that the crisis facing us today goes beyond economic issues. It is also a crisis of confidence in the European project as such. A crisis of confidence in which an increasing number of Europeans cannot see the link between their daily life and the business that goes on in Brussels. In the newspapers and in the evening programmes on the TV, they watch their elected leaders jump in and out of black limousines in front of the entrance to the Council building, while austerity programmes now under way in many Member States are causing them severe hardship. Millions of Europeans are losing their jobs, getting their monthly pay check reduced or seeing their welfare benefits disappear, while politicians keep on talking at a seemingly endless stream of EU-meetings. Unfortunately, that is a widespread perception of the EU in many Member States today. And needless to say, such a perception has a negative bearing on people’s general view of the European project.

Consequently, it is my firm belief that the best way to counter this public perception is for the European Union to achieve concrete results that deliver tangible benefits to the daily life of Europe’s citizens. It is by improving and expanding the Single Market into the digital age that the EU can deliver such results. It is by channelling more EU funds to potential growth engines like research and education that the EU can deliver such results. And it is by strengthening budget discipline and helping Member States to implement structural reforms that it can deliver such results.

It is through concrete actions and tangible results that the European project will become able to claw back its public support in the 27 Member States. Therefore, I also warmly welcome of course the EU citizens’ initiative that will come into effect on April first. The initiative will allow one million EU-citizens to ask the Commission to present a proposal. It is an important step in the right direction. If handled with care and with an open mind, this initiative could become a key instrument in our efforts to strengthen the vital link between the 500 million or so EU-citizens and the European project which their politicians have constructed gradually since the Schuman-declaration 62 years ago.   

Because it is crucial that we during this turbulent time in European politics do not forget to tell the public, why we established the European Union in the first place. We must be clear and efficient in our communication with the public in Member States about the dream that lies behind the European project and why the European project in all its mind-boggling complexity matters to them. We must accelerate our communication to the public about the political results that are being achieved on regular basis here in Brussels. We must get beyond the well-intended platitudes and respectful dinner table-speeches about how wonderful the EU is. And the way to go about this – in my humble view at least –, the way to counter the prevailing perception of the European Union in many Member States today is to achieve concrete results that matter for the daily life of Europe’s citizens. It is by improving and expanding the Single Market into the digital age that the EU can deliver such results. It is by channelling more EU funds to potential growth engines like research, green technologies and education that the EU can deliver such results. And it is by strengthening budget discipline and helping Member States to implement structural reforms that it can deliver such results. It is through concrete actions and tangible results that the European project will be able to claw back its public support in the 27 Member States.

But ladies and gentlemen, it is, of course, you that are the true experts on how we go about communicating Europe to the European citizens. You experience the daily ups and downs and it is you that encounter first hand all the difficulties and obstacles, when trying to bring the people of Europe closer to the EU. Therefore, in humble acknowledgement of our respective roles here – you are the experts and I am the minister - let me by way of concluding return the ball to you. How do you view the possibilities for improving our public communication about the EU? What are the opportunities and what are the constraints? Over to you and thank you for your attention.