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6 July 2016
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Speech by Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico in the European Parliament

Dear Mr President of the European Parliament, Martin,

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Please, let me begin with a simple statement. The European Union is an extraordinary and unique project. It has brought peace, prosperity and security to a continent that has suffered from centuries of hatred and bloody wars between European nations. It was born on the ruins of two brutal wars with tens of millions of lost lives. Please, let us never forget it! The world has yet to witness a similar successful integration experiment. Everybody is envious of our project and many are trying to imitate it, but to no avail. I am very happy that Slovakia can be part of it.

The European Union has brought many benefits to Slovakia – during the 12 years of our membership we have become stronger economically, socially and geopolitically. It is a great honour for Slovakia that for the next six months – for the very first time in its history – it can contribute to events in the Union and contribute to its progress more than ever before.

It is vital to start a discussion on how to make the Union better and more efficient for all of us. The EU is for its citizens and must be built by its citizens. The outcome of the UK referendum proves this. One of Union's key members decided to part company with it. Brexit does not only express the attitude of UK people, it is a reflection of the failure of the EU to communicate understandably its tangible benefits to its citizens. This gives us a clear signal that the European Union must be more open to criticism. It has to become more flexible, less bureaucratic and more perceptive to diversity. The EU has to get rid of its characteristic elitism and its obscureness for ordinary people who perceive it as distant and too far removed from their daily problems.

The current Presidency is not merely the first ever for Slovakia. It is the first ever Presidency that will have to face the first breakaway of a Member State from the EU. That is one reason why we will take an active and responsible stand when it comes to dealing with the future of EU-UK relations. This topic will dominate our Presidency. We want the negotiations to be as constructive as possible and to maintain the equilibrium of all who are concerned by the UK leaving the EU. It is not necessary to rush things, because the process requires a certain amount of time. However, we should not delay it, otherwise it will lead to different misinterpretations and an uneasiness that won't enhance the EU's credibility. Moreover, people living in the UK and in the EU deserve to know what Brexit will mean for them in practice.

The road to political decision-taking in such a complex European area is, from the historical and cultural perspective, not a straightforward one. Unfortunately, we have reached a phase when we need to overcome fear. Fear of our citizens related to migration due to possible loss of cultural identity, fear of terrorism related to doubts on security and fear of economic problems which might lead to the loss of jobs and the inability to take care of one's family in a dignified manner. But we must also overcome our fear – which is the fear of political leaders who are afraid that they won't be able to deal with the current crisis. And I guess that this is what our citizens fear the most. That is one reason why they are quickly losing trust in the EU.

Fear is the worst motivating force since it can tend to activate centrifugal forces within the EU and thus contribute to its fragmentation. It also tends to undermine its institutional core and our European values and ideals. Fear is also reflected in the current rise in popularity of extremist and nationalist tendencies in Europe that offer simple and radical solutions.

Although we believe that Europe has been absorbed by the Europessimism, this is not entirely the truth. Surveys show that citizens in the majority of the Member States feel positive about their EU membership. This means that they still believe in the European project.

That is one reason why the EU, although it is not perfect, still has a meaning and, especially, it does not have an alternative. However, it needs a new investment incentive, new job opportunities and, above all, new trust! This is what citizens want. Therefore, it is our intention during the Presidency to focus on better use of financial instruments. The EU budget for 2017 has to be flexible and balanced. It needs to reflect the EU priorities and respond to challenges that we are facing or might be facing. As part of the mid-term review of the 2014-2020 Multiannual Financial Framework, it is necessary to create the right conditions for investments to have greater added value. Building the Capital Markets Union and completing the Economic and Monetary Union and the Banking Union may contribute to restoring trust in the economic power of the EU.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Unity and solidarity are the prerequisites for meaningful functioning of the Union. Given the great variety of European nations, we cannot rely on the mechanical administrative assessment of problems. None of the current and future aspects of the crisis can be resolved by uncoordinated individual national measures. No Member State has enough power to do this. We need a joint European approach and a visionary process.

That is why we cannot focus merely on crisis management, we also need to give our citizens a long-term vision of the Union's functioning and set up.

The migration crisis proves this point as well. Although the opinions of individual Member States on migration policy differ, there are currently a large number of common constructive solutions that can move the agenda forward. Our Presidency will focus on these solutions – on achieving long-term comprehensive solutions. Our main priorities are protecting the EU's external borders, improving the security and functioning of the Schengen area and eradicating the causes of migration. The European Border and Coast Guard should be 'born' during our Presidency. At the same time, we have to work closely with third countries, particularly with countries of transit and origin. Besides, the migration crisis is not a seasonal regional matter, but a generational global problem that requires a global solution. It is therefore necessary for the EU to speak at the UN summit in September with a common and coordinated voice and speak very strongly and clearly.

Of course, we cannot look only inwards, we must fix our eyes on the outside – on the global position of the EU. The EU's global vision for the next period should be ensured by the new EU Global Strategy on Foreign and Security Policy. The European Union must work towards turning our relations with our neighbours and remote allies into a pillar of the Union's stability and prosperity. In terms of the Eastern Partnership, we must put the emphasis on reforms, the implementation of Association Agreements and visa liberalisation. At the same time, we must enhance the resilience of our neighbours when it comes to external threats. The unresolved crisis in Ukraine serves as a constant reminder of this. In the southern region we must make efforts to contribute to finding a diplomatic solution to long-term conflicts and crises in the region. It is our experience that the enlargement policy is one of the most effective tools of transformation at hand. Traditionally, it leads to enhanced security and stability – both in the EU and in the neighbouring countries. We aim to enhance the credibility of the process and thus mobilise support in the Member States and candidate countries.   

On top of that, it is necessary to continue the tradition of protecting the stability and prosperity of the Union by means of strengthening trade links with the global partners. During our Presidency we aim to contribute, in cooperation with the European Commission, to successful negotiations on Free Trade Agreements with the USA, Canada and potentially other countries.                                            

Ladies and Gentlemen,

We all agree that the European Union needs a new vision. A vision being based on the strengths of the Union and on the elimination of its weaknesses. A vision the citizens of the European Union can identify with. A vision which sensitively takes into account history and diversity as well as real possibilities and the capacities of each Member State.

Slovakia welcomes the fact that its initiative to organise an informal summit of Heads of State or Government of 27 EU Member States to be held on 16 September 2016 in Bratislava has been accepted and broadly supported. The summit will provide an excellent opportunity to discuss this vision. Current discussions indicate that expectations are high for the summit, which will no doubt mark the culmination of the Slovak Presidency. Although we can define the topics the leaders have to talk about, we cannot underestimate anything and we must use the next two months to prepare for the summit thoroughly, so as to make sure that it’s not merely an improvised exercise and an end in itself. I want to assure you that the summit to be held in Bratislava will be organised and prepared in cooperation with the European institutions. At the same time, the Slovak Presidency hopes that the summit’s conclusions will provide a sufficient counterweight to offset extreme views on the EU’s functioning. We must honestly admit that there are opinions that excessive criticism of our common European policies would only prove Eurosceptics and EU detractors right. Having said that, it would be utterly counter-productive and literally deleterious for the European vision if the summit to be held on 16 September 2016 in Bratislava were to be concluded with a statement that everything is fine, but people just don't understand us. We know that this is not the case. Such a conclusion would only fuel more referendum movements and fragmentation of the EU, leading to enormous consequences. On the other hand, we have to take a critical stand when it comes to reflecting on the need for fundamental reforms, institutional changes, even a change to the EU's founding treaties.

Slovakia has always been one of the greatest supporters of the EU project, although our confidence in the EU has also diminished in the wake of the financial and economic crisis, migration crisis and other difficulties. Extremists and lay anti-Europeans abuse this situation. Nevertheless, our confidence in the EU is still among the greatest of any Member State and my government wants to strengthen it. Today's generation of people in their twenties, thirties and forties take peace, a common market, free movement of goods, capital, services and persons in particular, for granted. The fact that there is a public perception of some facets of the EU’s functioning that is not positive, and even negative, whether this is merited or not, does not necessarily mean that we should renounce all institutions, rules and policies based on common values which have led to these great historical achievements. In our first common response to the wave of Euroscepticism we must try harder to explain the meaning, substance and real achievements of the European integration project. We must quickly distinguish the Eurosceptic mythology symbolised by curvature of bananas from the real problems related to functioning of our Union and the weaknesses or failures of our Union policies and institutions. From this perspective, 27 EU Member States can view the course of campaign conducted in the UK before the referendum as a kind of laboratory experiment. There we can find the myths, blatant lies and half-truths used by opponents of the EU, but also arguments underlining the EU’s advantages, which we can translate into our specific national realities. We can also use the UK’s campaign, however, to clarify real concerns and the insecurity felt by British citizens who didn’t want to stay in the EU. We should agree that before the informal summit of the leaders of 27 Member States to be held in Bratislava we will make honest, truthful analyses which will tell us which arguments and tools are used by those politicians who have bet on inciting anti-European moods, primitive nationalism and the illusion that EU institutions and rules can be simply abolished, while we retain a free market, four freedoms, solidarity and cooperation between our Member States, and in particular a guaranteed peace that we have enjoyed for 71 years.        

Ladies and Gentlemen,

As a colleague of yours, MEP Phillipe Juvin, wrote in his essay recently, the ‘cement’ of Europe lies within its history. This history determines our sense of belonging to a family, our sense of European identity. It was the driving force behind Slovakia’s integration efforts over a number of years. We wanted our common values, including human dignity, security, prosperity, freedom, peace and democracy, to become a reality for us. The Union made that all happen. But we must not live in the past. We’re changing, and so is the world around us.

Take, for example, the single market. The four freedoms of movement – the freedom of goods, people, services, and capital – rank among the greatest accomplishments of the European Union. For the single market to realise its full potential, however, it needs to be a reflection of the reality in which we live. With that in mind, if we are to keep pace with the accelerating digitalisation of life, we need a digital single market. The trend towards the use of digital platforms and e-commerce services produces new opportunities and risks. It is incumbent on us to ensure freedom of movement for EU citizens in the digital environment and the free use of its benefits without users having to worry about their data.

If we are to keep up with the times, we need to aim at ensuring affordable supplies of sustainable, clean energy. This is where an Energy Union is called for. At its core is a diversification of sources, suppliers and transit routes.

The Energy Union is not all that is needed, however. We need to bring new energy to the European Union as such. The European Union of the 21st century is in need of a wind of change. It needs openness, honesty and simplicity. And responsibility in actions and thoughts.

Therefore, our Presidency aims to launch a profound reflection on what the EU wants to – and must – offer the European public in future. We must be creative. Both in identifying problems and in suggesting solutions. We must also be realistic and pragmatic.

First and foremost, therefore, we want to deal with a positive and beneficial agenda. And address both traditional and new, attractive topics. We need to focus on what unites us; in other words, we need to focus on topics on which we are able to reach agreement and send a positive impetus to the public. Over the six months of our Presidency, we will do our utmost to prevent fragmentation of the Union. We will, therefore, come up with proposals for solutions that are acceptable both for the Member States and for the European Union as a whole.

EU citizens will be at the heart of our Presidency’s agenda. We aim to ensure tangible results with actual effects on people’s daily lives. Only then can we regain the trust of citizens and fight against the growing populism, separatism and nationalism. But we must also simplify our communication with them. The European Union is unique. The value and benefits of EU membership are indisputable. I am all the more saddened by the fact that we’re often unable to articulate to our citizens where the EU’s uniqueness lies … that we’re unable to explain that a stronger Europe isn’t in the interest of Brussels, but in the interest of all of us.

And perhaps asking the following simple question on a daily basis would not go amiss – what is the place of EU citizens in our activities and reflections and, especially, what tangible and positive outcomes would the activities and reflections bring for them?! I believe it is now time to put an end to initiatives that have ordinary citizens shake their heads, be it because they don’t understand the language of the initiatives or fail to see any sense or benefit in such initiatives for themselves or their families. After all, how can they be expected to understand the language when, let’s be honest here, we ourselves have a hard time finding our way in the European agenda and in EU jargon?

Let’s replace the impenetrable terms and the difficult bureaucratic language with sincerity and spontaneity. And let’s drop the mindless and often needless ideas and replace them with something tangible and of practical benefit.

We will begin to act this way during our Presidency. Please support and join us so that we rebuild our Union together on new foundations. An even better Union for the nations of Europe.

 

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