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Toespraak van voorzitter Charles Michel tijdens de openingszitting van het Strategisch Forum van Bled

Met dank overgenomen van Europese Raad, gepubliceerd op woensdag 1 september 2021.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Dear friends,

It’s a great pleasure to be in Bled today. This forum is a key event for European debate. Thank you Prime Minister, and the Slovenian Presidency, for giving it added weight this year, a few months after the launch of the Conference on the Future of Europe, a European future which is inconceivable without the Western Balkans. And with whom we will be holding a summit in one month’s time. That’s why I’m so pleased to see many of our friends who are leaders of those countries.

Talking about the future of Europe can mean talking about what the EU should be in the not-too-distant future, its composition and its relationship with the entire European geographic area. It can mean talking about how it is organised and how it works. It can also mean contemplating how our Union should involve more our citizens. These are the questions behind the Conference on the Future of Europe. The European future I wish to discuss is our project of values and freedoms, our project of prosperity, and our project of influence.

European integration began with the Coal and Steel Community - a project for economic prosperity. Jean Monnet said from the outset that Europe ‘will not be made all at once, … [but] through concrete achievements which first create a de facto solidarity’. Solidarity between free and democratic countries that share the same values. These are the roots, but also the future of our Union.

And as our Union has taken shape, it has also become a project of influence. Our large single market has made us the biggest trader in the world and, in turn, the largest exporter of standards — known as the ‘Brussels effect’. Yet, the standard we propagate most successfully in our neighbourhood is democracy, fundamental values, and the rule of law. The lifeblood of our European Union.

This standard cannot be imposed — it is only meaningful and effective if it is chosen freely. But we must also clearly state that it is both the gateway to our Union and vital to its proper functioning. So what concrete steps are we taking to drive our Union forward?

Since 2019, we have been striving for prosperity through our strategy for the twin climate and digital transitions. We want to harness the full economic potential of protecting our planet and the new and infinite opportunity of the digital revolution. But this strategy is not just about prosperity. It is an integral part of our project, centred around human dignity and fulfilment based on respect for freedoms and diversity.

The goal of our climate transition is a sustainable model that respects the planet and humankind. It will unleash a paradigm shift that we cannot yet fully imagine. The “Fit for 55” legislative debate will be controversial, but it will open the door to this new era.

Our digital ambition also goes hand in hand with our focus on freedom, privacy, and human rights. We do not want a “Big Brother” society. Our citizens must be the masters of their private lives and their private data.

We launched our strategy for the twin transitions in 2019, before the COVID pandemic. And COVID has only doubled our resolve to implement this strategy. Today our climate and digital goals are more relevant than ever. So we do not need to invent an additional strategy for recovery - we already have one. And our aim for a more sustainable model and a more caring society is the best response to the extraordinary shock of COVID.

The pandemic struck at what we value most: our health, our families, our wellbeing. But it also reinforced the meaning and purpose of our Union - human dignity and solidarity. How we responded to the COVID crisis is also a lesson for the future. We made mistakes, but we also achieved great success. We reacted much more quickly than in previous crises. We suspended the Stability Pact and relaxed state-aid rules. We adopted a package of huge financial preventive measures. And especially, we agreed a multiannual budget together with a massive recovery fund financed by common European borrowing.

And let’s not forget, we decided to trust in science and research and today we are the world’s leading producers and exporters of vaccines. Through our common approach, we have given equal access to all Member States and to all our citizens. 70% of the EU’s adult population is now vaccinated.

And with 3 billion euros, we are the main contributor to Covax. Covax has delivered over 220 million doses in the world, and EU Member States have pledged to donate over 160 million doses in 2021. We are also leading efforts to build up manufacturing capacity globally, in Africa for example.

European influence will be our greatest challenge in the coming years -- Afghanistan has offered a stark demonstration. As a global economic and democratic power, can Europe be content with a situation where we are unable to ensure, unassisted, the evacuation of our citizens and those under threat because they have helped us? In my view, we do not need another such geopolitical event to grasp that the EU must strive for greater decision-making autonomy and greater capacity for action in the world.

The European Union has citizens to protect, interests to defend, and values and a rules-based international order to promote. And of course we cannot ignore strategic developments in the world. We do need more strategic autonomy because we want to be stronger and more influential, we want to have greater impact and we want to strengthen our alliances. Strong allies make for stronger alliances.

The world has become more interdependent. But while interdependence is a good thing, dependence is not. And working on our European strategic autonomy to exert greater influence requires work in three areas.

First, bolstering our economic power. For this, we must strengthen the Single Market and complete the Banking Union and the Capital Markets Union. Those topics will be on the agenda of our Euro Summit in December.

Second, we must reinforce our neighbourhood. That means prioritising the Western Balkans, the Eastern Partnership, and a major alliance with Africa. And connectivity should be a pillar of our engagement. Connectivity is not just infrastructure and networks -- it encompasses a wide range of ventures and policies that bring people and societies closer together.

We must shape and brand our own connectivity “offer” to neighbours and other like-minded partners. It should be anchored in our values and based on our extraordinary capacities - our financial resources, our reputation and credibility, and of course our regulatory power.

Finally, we must reflect, openly and clear-eyed, on a new stage in collective security and defence capabilities, especially in the wake of the Afghan crisis.

Our European Union is a project of values, prosperity, and influence. And COVID will not slow us down. On the contrary, it will galvanise our determination to innovate and to take bold decisions.

Let me end with one last thought. Our European Union is not a static union, it is dynamic. It is inspired by an idea bigger than itself.

We started with 6 Member States, and today we count 27. The European Union has always been enriched by those who wanted to join and eventually did so. Each enlargement made the Union better, brought us to where we are today and to who we are today -- a Union of ideas, of solidarity, of innovation, of diversity.

We know the European Union is important to the Western Balkans. But the Western Balkans are equally important to the EU. Together we can dream and build our European future for a better world.

Thank you.


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