Let me start by wishing you all a Happy New Year. This will be a crucial year for Romania and for Europe. The Romanian Presidency will have the task of guiding the work of the Council of the Union in the months leading up to the European elections and the emergence of new leaders of our institutions at a time when public calls for a more effective Europe are becoming ever more insistent.
Romania has always looked towards Europe. More than 2000 years ago, our Roman ancestors arrived here after crossing the Danube and building a bridge the like of which the world had never seen. Their deeds changed the course of history in this part of Europe. Your beautiful country owes its very name to the strong influence of the Romans, which can still be heard today in your language.
These common roots have created natural ties of affinity I have come to know and appreciate the Romanian people over several decades. I know how hard-working, determined, open and generous they are. These qualities have been repeatedly put to the most rigorous of tests at the difficult moments in your history and they have emerged strengthened.
These same qualities, I am sure, will make the Romanian Presidency a success.
A far-reaching and rapid process of change is taking place all around us. The technological revolution, a global market in which firms and capital move from one country to another, uncontrolled migration, tensions at our borders, terrorism and global warming are developments which many Europeans find frightening. A Union which is often unable to come up with effective responses has been helpless to prevent populist movements and the desire to take refuge behind national borders from gaining ground.
Yet today more than ever, in the face of competition from giants such as China, Russia, the United States and India, we need a strong Europe to defend the interests of half a billion Europeans.
It is essential, therefore, that we all work together to create a Europe which is more responsive to the needs of its citizens, which is capable of reassuring them and solving their problems. That is why I particularly approve of the motto chosen for the Romanian Presidency: ‘Cohesion, a shared European value’, which bears witness to the resolve to ensure that no-one is left behind.
I was inspired by the vision for post-World War II Europe by the great diplomat, Grigore Gafencu: “There is only one Europe! Even if its body is mutilated and quartered, the European ideal is inseparable. Europe cannot rise from the ashes in the West, if it dies in the East. There is no other place where the call for Europe is answered more strongly than in eastern European countries. The ideal of European unity is a pledge for peace and, therefore, freedom, for half a continent.”
When we talk about the strength of a united Europe, these are not just empty words. For us as citizens, that strength represents, for the first time in history, a guarantee that we can live freely and peacefully together.
That strength is the antithesis of violence and national interest. It is founded on shared values, on democracy, on the rule of law, on a profound commitment to individual dignity and freedom.
Europe must give itself the means to act. It is essential that the EU’s next Multiannual Financial Framework should be policy-driven, reflect citizens’ priorities for an efficient Europe. It would be a grave error to make cuts in the cohesion funds and in farm spending. We want a budget which boosts investment in the real economy. We want to develop modern European infrastructure, invest much more in research and innovation and support the real drivers of the economy, small and medium-sized firms. If Europe is to be competitive, we need to take a much more ambitious approach. We need to set aside more resources to foster the energy transition and the circular economy, both of which are essential to the future of our planet.
The European Parliament has adopted a draft budget commensurate with those priorities.
The Romanian Presidency must promote this idea of cohesion and solidarity. Each Member State must create opportunities for youth in their countries. We are here to lift barriers between older and newer Members States.
More solidarity in the next EU budget also means that it isn’t a one-way street. I would like to thank Romania for agreeing to take in some of the asylum seekers who have landed in other EU countries. It is an example to follow.
The principle of solidarity has also underpinned the assistance provided to Romania in the Schengen Area accession process. For some years now, Romania has met the technical accession criteria. The European Parliament has always supported the idea of Romania’s membership of the Schengen Area. I should like to urge Member States which are blocking the accession process to rethink their stance. The accession of Romania and Bulgaria to the Schengen Area will enhance the security of all the countries in Europe and I hope that it will take place under your presidency.
The Brexit vote, trade wars, citizens’ protests and the emergence of nationalist movements leave us no choice but to review the course to be taken.
Since the start of my term of office, I have welcomed to Parliament 14 European heads of state and government in order to discuss with MEPs what needs to be done to change Europe. I should like to thank you, President Iohannis, for your valuable contribution.
Romania must play a central role in shaping a new Europe. It is the essence of the Sibiu summit that will take place on 9 May.
The onus is on us to make real progress. We need progress on the overhaul of the Dublin Regulation, which can no longer wait; on establishing a fairer internal market in which everyone - including web giants - pays taxes and plays by the rules; on an ambitious digital agenda; on completing the Banking Union; on establishing effective and democratic economic governance; on creating a level playing field for open and fair trade.
We must also safeguard the right of our citizens to vote freely in the forthcoming European elections, by guaranteeing that the election campaign is not distorted by fake news designed to manipulate the voters.
To borrow from the philosopher Emil Cioran, there is no need to be afraid of the enormity of what is possible. The road ahead will be difficult, but the Romanian people are not alone. For the first time, Romania will take on the responsibility of guiding the work of the Council of the European Union. Romania will be up to the challenge!
You can count on the full support of the European Parliament, and on my support.
With the centenary of the unification of Romania only a few weeks behind us, I should like to remind you of a piece of traditional Romanian folk wisdom: ‘alone we are weak, together we are strong!’
Let’s get it done!