Members of the European Parliament,
Thank you for inviting me here today; the timing is right. Even if the G8 Summit in Heiligendamm is giving us, as holders of the G8 Presidency, a great deal of work at the present time, we are well aware that the next Summit meeting – the European Council – is less than 14 days away. And this is a decisive event for the future of Europe.
I can assure you that we, the EU Presidency, are doing all we can to create the conditions for a successful Summit. Never in my political life have I held as many bilateral talks with my European colleagues as I have in the last few weeks. And others in the Federal Government – right up to the Chancellor – are doing the same.
Just two and a half months ago, in Berlin, Brussels and all over Europe, we celebrated 50 years of European union. We had every reason to do so. The EU is a model which has brought great success. Many in the world envy us for it. And some in Europe would say that if the EU had only managed to ensure peace and stability on the continent for half a century, this would be cause enough for celebrations. But in reality, the EU stands for much more: for open borders, for an internal market of almost 500 million people. And it can rightly say that it has helped regions in Europe which were once deprived to achieve prosperity.
But we also know that all this is no automatic process and no guarantee for the next 50 years!
On 25 March itself, we could see that the tasks ahead of us would be anything but straightforward. The aim is no less than to create a renewed basis for the EU's work; to establish a new treaty framework which allows us to remain effective in the world of the 21st century and an enlarged Union.
Laying the ground for successful treaty reform – this will be the main topic of the upcoming European Council on 21/22 June.
Expectations for the upcoming Summit are high, and we would be wise not to raise them further. "The real can never equal the imagined, for it is easy to form ideals but very difficult to realize them". That is how Balthasar Gracian put it back in the 17th century. It is thus in our own interests to look at things realistically.
Nevertheless, I am optimistic. Has the EU not shown, in the last few months in particular, that it is quite able to take resolute action when the Member States and the European institutions are willing? I could mention the groundbreaking decisions taken on climate and energy at the last Spring Summit, which will serve, among other things, as benchmarks for the G8 Summit in Heiligendamm.
Or look at two concrete projects in the area of European legislation: the recently adopted regulation on roaming charges and the creation of a Single European Payment Area. The advantages for European consumers are clear to see, and the European Parliament played a decisive role in both.
This goes to show what can be achieved when we in Europe show the appropriate political will and the readiness to compromise, something which is always necessary.
Concrete policies which serve the people of Europe, responsible and forward-looking action vis-à-vis the outside world – this is also part of the "philosophy" of the upcoming European Council, and applies to issues outside the "major" topic of the constitution, too.
Take migration policy, for example. It is right to look for joint approaches with North African transit countries, but European migration policy should be limited to strengthening Frontex and toughening up coastguards in the partner countries.
The assistance we give to transit countries must take a variety of forms, and stabilizing regions of origin remains a task to which we must devote more attention politically. The fact that European interior and labour ministers have arranged joint talks is to be very much welcomed.
Another area of justice and home affairs of great importance – to people in the new Member States in particular – is the extension of freedom of travel within the EU. This is why we intend to bring forward preparations for enlarging the Schengen area in such a way that the process can be completed in 2008.
As for external relations, the Presidency will present a report to the European Council on the further development of the European Neighbourhood Policy. It is in interests of all of us to bind our southern and eastern neighbours as closely as possible to the EU, and we hope to achieve this through increased sectoral cooperation – for example in the field of energy and transport –, through allowing countries to participate in the internal market in exchange for adopting parts of EU legislation, and through intensive exchange in education and culture.
I am also particularly pleased about the new Strategy on Central Asia, which we hope to adopt at the European Council. With this strategy, Europe is finally turning its attention to a region which we have neglected for far too long. It is true that cooperation with the countries of this region is not always easy. We know, for example, about difficulties in the area of human rights.
Nevertheless, it is – and this is my firm belief – high time we extended our ties with the countries of Central Asia, and not only in the economic sphere. These countries stand, to mention just one other factor, for a moderate form of Islam. We thus want to move quickly in drawing up concrete offers of cooperation in the area of culture and education, too.
One question – this I mentioned at the beginning – will be of particular importance to the success or non-success of the Summit: Will we manage to lay the ground for successful treaty reform in the EU?
The European Parliament has been of great support to the Presidency in this issue, for which I would like to thank you. A further example of this is the report by Enrique Barón Crespo and Elmar Brok adopted yesterday. In this document, you have managed to strike a fine balance between pushing for a positive and ambitious result and maintaining the necessary realism without which an agreement cannot be reached.
You are all aware of the starting position: A clear majority of the Member States have ratified the Constitutional Treaty, but referenda in two countries resulted in a "no" vote.
The negative votes in France and the Netherlands highlight fears which by no means exist only in these countries, and we must take these fears seriously. And I am pleased to see – in the European Parliament, too – a readiness to take account of the difficulties which some countries have had in ratifying the treaty.
Nevertheless, the majority of people in Europe – and numerous surveys indicate this – are not opposed to Europe. They want an effective and efficient EU which concentrates on fundamental issues, an EU which finds real solutions to the problems which it addresses.
The Constitutional Convention and the Intergovernmental Conference which followed – the European Parliament was fully involved in this work – agreed on amendments to the existing treaties which would bring major steps forward in this direction, steps which would remove many of the factors for which the EU is criticized today.
And our consultations in our capacity as Presidency have shown that a clear majority of the Member States want to keep the institutional package agreed back then because it makes the EU more democratic, more transparent and more effective. Re-negotiation is, for the great majority, not a viable proposition.
Important steps forward were also agreed for individual policy areas at that time. These concern first and foremost the EU's external relations, the area of justice and home affairs, and energy policy. There is broad consensus that these measures should be preserved. At the same time, there is a great deal of readiness to consider modifications, where these could be useful. Of particular interest are the areas of climate protection and energy solidarity – both fields to which people attach great importance.
The Charter of Fundamental Rights likewise represents an important step forward. The great majority of the Member States are in agreement with the European Parliament that we should hold firm to the legally binding character of the Charter, without allowing an extension of EU competences at the expense of the Member States.
Our consultations have also shown that the Member States are ready to consider how even greater account could be taken of the subsidiarity principle, how the competences of the EU and the Member States could be defined even more precisely, and if it might not be possible to do away with terms and symbols which could cause people to fear that the nation-state is being compromised or that Europe may be turning into a "super state".
As holder of the Presidency, our role is to mediate. We want a result which is acceptable to all Member States and, of course, to the European Parliament. To this end, we are working energetically with all concerned to reach joint solutions.
I have the impression that everyone is taking the commitment entered into in the Berlin Declaration very seriously, namely to place the EU on a renewed basis before the European Parliament elections in 2009. There is a great deal of readiness to cooperate. There is a new sense of dynamism. And it seems to me that the pathway to a solution is gradually taking shape, at the end of which an agreement may be reached.
Of course, we have some way to go yet. But we still have two weeks until the European Council, and we will use these to hold further intensive consultations at all levels. An opportunity for an agreement has presented itself, and if we do not seize this now, there may not be another for some time.
Of vital importance will be the common political will to reach an agreement. "Europe – succeeding together" – it was bearing this motto that we began our Presidency. I am confident that we can end it in the same spirit.