BOOK PRESENTATION ‘Readjusting the Council Presidency. Belgian Leadership in the EU’ - Brussel, 23 januari 2012
Let me first of all say that I am very pleased to see that more than 20 scholars, with different backgrounds, and from different universities came together, reflected together and published together on a subject that kept us, politicians, assisted by an army of diplomats and civil servants, rather busy in the second half of 2010: the twelfth Belgian Presidency of the Council.
The book that is presented today is the result of a cooperative effort, just like the Belgian Presidency. And I hope that the book will be judged and reviewed as a success. Again: just like the Belgian Presidency.
But it’s not just me that calls the Presidency a success: from now on, if people ask me to assess the Belgian Presidency, I can simply refer to the conclusions of this academic study, which qualifies the Presidency as ‘a clear success’. You can imagine that I read these conclusions with much pleasure … and relief…
But there is something else that attracted my attention when I was walking through the book. I noticed that in several chapters the same words keep coming back: the words 'cooperative', ‘cooperation’, ‘cooperative approach’, ‘collaboration’,…
This shows that, in my opinion, the authors have perfectly grasped the spirit of our Presidency. All those involved felt, in a somewhat subjective way, that the Presidency was a collective effort. That now seems to be confirmed by objective research.
Indeed, our Presidency was all about cooperation: cooperation between the federal level and the regions and communities, cooperation between civil servants and politicians, between people working here, at the Permanent Representation (‘the PermRep at the centre’, as one author describes it) and diplomats in foreign postings abroad.
But also, and at least as important: cooperation between Belgium as a whole and the European institutions. All European institutions. Working together with the European Parliament, the European Commission, the newly created institutions of the European President and his team, as well as with the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and her people. And finally, working together with all Member States in the Council, not just with three or five bigger Member States.
This indeed, was, I think, our recipe for success. And as the authors put it, I do hope that some elements of this ‘model’ have been and will be followed by other rotating Presidencies, who will inevitably and rightly so add their national flavor. If we managed to accomplish that, then Belgium truly ‘led by example’, as the authors argue.
Since I only have 15 minutes, I will not go into the shifting role of the rotating Presidency. I deliberately use the word ‘shifting’, not ‘outphasing’ or ‘diminishing’. Because it is our experience that the role of the rotating Presidency ‘post-Lisbon’ remains crucial, though somewhat different, in the field of legislation. I am sure this will be discussed in depth in the panel debate.
I will not go into the list of achievements either. They are all mentioned and well described in the book. Personally, as former Minister of Foreign Affairs, I would just like to mention the creation of the External Action Service, which formally started its work on December 1, 2010 and which should as soon as possible realize its full potential.
Instead, I would just like to share some thoughts with you in my current capacity as Minister of Finance. The Minister of Finance, who, as you know, is deeply involved in European Affairs, mainly through ECOFIN and the Eurogroup. Indeed, the Eurogroup meets later this afternoon, which is the reason why I, unfortunately, can’t stay here for the debate.
When I look at the agenda of today’s Eurogroup meeting and tomorrow’s ECOFIN Council, I can’t help but notice how much progress has been made since the Belgian Presidency in the field of ‘economic governance’. Indeed, even though it might not always be the general perception: Europe has moved on dramatically in recent times!
During our Presidency, the ‘consolidation of the Stability Pact and economic governance’ was indeed one of our priorities, perhaps our main structural priority, and the book rightly devotes an entire chapter on this issue.
Why was it a priority? Because the 2008-2009 economic crisis had painfully unearthed some structural weaknesses in the design of the monetary union, which, let’s admit it – at the time of the Maastricht Treaty – was more a political project than an economic one.
The crisis had revealed once again that we urgently needed more economic integration, more convergence, more fiscal surveillance. And – paradoxically – the crisis also opened a window of opportunity to move in that direction. After all, as jean Monnet once said: ‘Europe will be forged in crises, and will be the sum of the solutions adopted for those crises’.
And that’s exactly what the Belgian Presidency wanted to do: to adopt, or at least, to contribute to the adoption of solutions. With some results. During the Belgian Presidency, the foundations were laid of a new, more solid architecture of economic governance, the European Semester was introduced, and several pieces of legislation on financial services supervision were adopted.
But look at where we stand now. In a relatively short time (short to European standards) a six-storey house has been built on the foundations we laid, the so-called ‘six-pack’. As we speak, two additional storeys are now under construction. And next to it, but hopefully closely attached to it, an additional, more compact building is close to being finished, the so-called ‘Fiscal Compact’.
Together, these instruments serve the same purpose: to strengthen the Eurozone by correcting some of its initial weaknesses.
We should be clear: this is what we all wanted. All 27 Member States, at the highest level, as well as the European Parliament, approved the six-pack and endorsed the European Semester. Now is the time for implementation, not for putting this architecture into question.
Let me once again quote Jean Monnet: ‘Quand vous êtes dans l’orage, il faut le traverser, et surtout ne pas changer de direction. C’est le seul moyen d’en sortir bien’. Indeed: prophetic words!
Of course, the six-pack, the country-specific recommendations, and the other elements of this new architecture - elements which focus predominantly on budgetary consolidation - will not suffice to get Europe back on track.
We also need growth. Barroso said it very clearly last week in Strasbourg: ‘Our response cannot only be about discipline and sanctions (…) Yes, stability is indispensable, but we also need growth’.
This is not a new idea. This is not a revolutionary idea. I said it several times before, and so did Herman van Rompuy, who decided to convene an informal European Council on Growth later this month.
But we can’t stress enough that ‘more Europe’ is about 1. more discipline, 2. more convergence and 3. more growth. Reducing Europe to a ‘budgetary Leviathan’ alone might pay off politically in the short term, but in the longer term it will lead us nowhere.
Some might say: “this threefold objective, this ‘tripod’ is internally contradictory”. “How can Europe create growth at the same time when it is strangling Member States’ budgets?”. I will not deny that reconciling these objectives is, in my view, indeed the key challenge for our Union.
Is the EU up for it? I would say YES, not only because ‘optimism is a moral duty’ – as Popper said – but also because it is an economic necessity. There is still much untapped potential in the EU, and I believe that progress is being made to realize that potential.
Let me just give two examples. Two examples that are directly related to two achievements of the Belgian Presidency.
The first is the Union patent. At the end of the Presidency, Belgium reached an agreement on the use of enhanced cooperation in the field of patent legislation, a file that had been blocked for 30 years. The authors of the book label this ‘perhaps the most surprising development in which the Belgian Presidency played a key role’.
At this very moment, a bit more than a year later, a final agreement on the patent is within reach, precisely in the year in which the single market – which brought so much growth - will celebrate its 20th anniversary. This is only one measure, and – important in times of budgetary restraint - a largely budgetary-neutral one. Several other measures are on the table, e.g. in the Single Market Act.
A second example is the very ambitious Free Trade Agreement between the European Union and South Korea, on which agreement was reached during our Presidency. Isn’t there a huge untapped growth potential in the field of foreign trade, mainly with the emerging (or in the meantime ‘emerged’) economies, or with our Transatlantic partners? It’s clear that progress in this field would also contribute to growth, and again: in a budgetary-neutral way.
There are undoubtedly many more examples to illustrate my point that Europe should not just be a ‘budgetary Leviathan’, but also a contemporary ‘Demeter’, the Goddess of Growth in ancient mythology. Besides, it is no coincidence that Demeter was considered ‘man’s best friend’. If we want public opinion to continue to embrace our European project, Europe will have to demonstrate that it can continue to deliver growth, as it has always done, and – I am convinced – will continue to do.
And let me add: not just growth, but sustainable growth. ‘Sustainability’ was an important buzzword during our Presidency. Think about the Eurovignette Directive, another file which we unblocked, or the Energy Efficency Directive which is currently under discussion. A directive which will, once agreed, encourage Member States to use energy more efficiently at all stages of the energy chain.
I mention this because I am also Minister of Sustainable Development. And in that capacity, I am strongly convinced that in this field, in the field of sustainable development, the Belgian government can and should - at the national level - lead by example. Just like it did one year and a half ago in Europe. But this is another story, and perhaps – who knows – a topic for another book.
I thank you
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