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Overcoming the impasse
Debate in Brussels between Community institutions and youth
The economic crisis and problems of public debt; the French presidential elections and the legislative elections in Greece (6 May); the political crisis in the Netherlands (lack of agreement in the government about the austerity plan to keep the national deficit under control); the instability of the Czech government; competition in global markets; the falls registered on stock exchanges; the referendum in Ireland for the ratification of the “Fiscal Compact” (31 May); the balance of power between the EU and member states; the Lisbon Treaty: these are just some of the issues that are now dominating the political agenda in Europe and that formed the backdrop to the conference on “Europe in crisis: the challenges of winning citizens’ trust”, held at the seat of the European Parliament in Brussels on 24 April.
Responses to citizens. The conference, attended by 400 youths from all over Europe and followed by thousands of others linked by internet and Twitter, was addressed by the EU Ombudsman, the Greek jurist Nikiforos Diamandouros, the President of the EP, the German Martin Schulz, the President of the European Commission, the Portuguese José Manuel Barroso, and Danish Premier Helle Thorning-Schmidt, current President of the EU Council of Ministers. Not least among the issues addressed – raised by the young themselves – was that of the “irresponsibility of the markets and of some governments” allegedly “at the origin of the crisis”. Discussion then focused on the “indispensable role” of the EU in “giving responses to citizens in a phase of global crisis”. The need was underlined to bring “the voice of citizens” “to the heart of integration”. “European integration – said José Manuel Barroso – must be based on mutual trust”, between citizens, member states and EU institutions. “Eurobarometer surveys show that in many member states more people believe that the EU is better placed to help get Europe out of its crisis than national governments or parliaments. So we need to re-position trust at the centre of the Union, sharing it with citizens, and opposing the growing risks” of nationalism, or xenophobia. About the crisis Barroso observed: “We have paid a high price for the irresponsibility of the financial sector and of some governments which have indebted themselves to an excessive degree”, jeopardizing economic stability and the “future of the euro”. Barroso recognized the EU’s “problems of communication”, which can only be overcome, he said, by closer rapport with citizens.
Work, immigration… On the Union’s multiannual budget the President of the Executive commented: “The EU budget is an investment tool. Only 7% of the funds at our disposal are spent on administrative costs. In reality we must remember that EU funds are allocated not to Brussels, but to investments that directly benefit Europeans through regional development, agricultural policy, research, infrastructures and training”. The four speakers at the conference all observed, each in his own way, that “Europe is needed”, that it “is able to produce results for citizens’ daily life” and that “today we cannot do without the EU”. Martin Schulz declared that united Europe is a “gift” for today’s generation. Peace, democracy, and economic development can – in his view – conduce to the process of integration, and this “should never be forgotten. The fact that at times we forget it disturbs me”. The President of the EP, addressing the many youngsters present at the Parliament in Brussels, tackled some economic issues, the responses to unemployment, and the multiannual budget of the EU27. “We are faced by great challenges that we cannot tackle alone. Take for example the problem of immigration; we must seek European responses to common problems”, said Schulz, perhaps in response to the latest statements of French President Sarkozy. Immediately after he declared: “We need the courage to defend democracy, which cannot be at the service of the markets, rather it is democracy that should lay down the rules”.
The Union of results. “What is the alternative to European integration?”, asked Schulz. “Let’s try to think what would happen if the EU did not exist, if each country were to act alone” in response to global competitors. There are, he said, some priorities on which we should focus at the EU level: the distribution and balance of power between EU and member states, budget discipline, which ought not to “prevail” over actions for growth; employment policies; participative democracy and the need to fill the gap between EU and citizens. Danish Premier Helle Thorning-Schmidt also insisted “on the results that Europe must achieve to demonstrate its utility to citizens and member states”. For his part the European Ombudsman (who protects the interests of citizens vis-à-vis the EU administration), Nikiforos Diamandourus, reaffirmed the duty to “place the citizen at the centre of the European project”, while recognizing that the EU “is an open and transparent house”, as regards access to documents and directives.