The Progressive Post

Looking for a different Europe – reflections and perspectives


The following text is transcribed and translated from a speech by Nicolas Schmit during the conference in Rome during the Treaty of Rome 60th anniversary celebrations

President of the Foundation, ladies and gentlemen,

I would like to begin by congratulating the Foundation for European Progressive Studies and in particular their President Massimo D’Alema and Secretary General Ernst Stetter for having convened this conference here in Rome during the celebration of the 60th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome.

In many ways such an occasion is often an opportunity to review our position and to take stock: With 60 years of peace behind us, we can reflect upon a unification that lasted well beyond the original plan and the policies themselves that have enabled Europe to move forward in many areas through successive enlargements that have contributed to the stability of our continent. The European Union also represents something unique in the world – a transnational democracy – although admittedly the process has yet to be perfected. Can such a list of achievements provide us with any satisfaction as representatives of the progressive forces? Certainly this could be considered premature when one considers the state of the European Union, where for almost a decade, unemployment has risen sharply, inequality has truly exploded and where increasing distrust has translated electorally into a surprising rise of nationalism and Europhobic populism.

Europe is in danger and it is for this reason that we must come together to urgently construct another progressive European plan; one that includes provisions for increased social inclusion, increased cohesion and greater engagement with democracy. From the outset of the European integration process, the left have maintained an important role in handling this plan and orienting the same in accordance with their values. They have done so because the concept of a united Europe where there are no longer devastating conflicts allowed them to campaign for a fairer European civilisation, one which better reflects their ideals.

Today we celebrate this Europe, we celebrate our Europe. Whilst I am here in Rome, in the very city that gave the founding treaty its name, the very symbol of European civilisation, I would like to remember a great man, Altiero Spinelli. He was an eminent Italian personality within the progressive movement, an anti-fascist militant with great commitment to the cause who constantly inspired others towards a progressive Europe. In 1984, two years before his death, Spinelli presented a draft treaty to relaunch and democratise the development of Europe based on his famous Ventotene Manifesto, which he originally drafted in prison.

This was a period characterised by significant doubt and stagnation whilst internationally the world descended into prolonged instability as a result of the cold war. The revival of Europe at this time was pursued by the left, led by François Mitterand and Jacques Delors, the new President of the Commission who together put an end to the euroclerosis that gripped Europe at the time.

Today however, we must work together to forge a different Europe, a Europe that is capable of rebuilding confidence amongst the citizens and above all one that can confront the tendencies of individual nations to disengage, to withdraw due to a nationalist knee-jerk responses, or to listen to discourse which encourages exclusion and xenophobia mainly propagated by populists.

But let me be clear about this. The populist rise which encouraged a wide scale rejection of the European Union did not come from nowhere. This began in the aftermath of a profound economic crisis, which itself arose when too many people started to have blind faith in the absolute power of the stock market. The financial crisis has now become a social crisis. On the one hand, the unbridled globalisation allowed an unprecedented accumulation of wealth by the few and on the other hand, an ever-increasing number of ‘losers’ became disillusioned and ended up sliding down the social scale to the middle classes. It is for this reason that today many citizens doubt the benefits of Europe which has disappointed and fallen below their expectations. In strict terms the European ideal has not been firmly rejected by citizens around Europe, moreover their fears have taken hold, a fear of deprivation and an overwhelming feeling that Europe no longer pays attention to the vulnerable classes; the unemployed youth and families plunged into insecurity and exclusion. Europe is in the grip of a neo-liberal ideology. In short, around Europe, society is fracturing and the prospects for millions of citizens are worsening.

We must take action now and present concrete alternative solutions and policies that reconnect our citizens to the values of Europe. We must also acknowledge that the left, or at least a part of the left, should bear some responsibility for this shift. The allure of infallible markets and a senseless promise that austerity would generate growth and prosperity for all. A serious mistake. In many countries, this heavy-handed approach is resulting in political upheaval, most recently in the Netherlands. Implementing an ultra-conservative and austere policy is not profitable for the left!

Therefore, we must return to our fundamental values and prepare a European plan which is distinct from other plans drawn up by conservative politicians but still succeeds in addressing our social and democratic aspirations. The plan must also incorporate provisions which allow us to handle new economic, technological, environmental and political challenges in the future. I admit the world has become a more dangerous and uncertain place in recent times. Brexit shook our certainties. Terrible conflicts persist across Europe. Terrorism strikes indiscriminately at our people. Threats appear to be gathering on all sides and even countries we consider are our allies appear to question the transatlantic alliance and seek to divide us. A revival of Europe is necessary now more than ever for this exact reason.

The Commission’s White Paper

Before I present to you some of my personal feelings on the issue of a “progressive revival”, I would like to briefly mention the Commission’s White Paper. The White Paper appears to be nothing more than an intellectual exercise intended to inspire the re-election of candidates in certain countries rather than a genuine attempt to respond to the challenges which face Europe. Does this document answer the questions and fears of our citizens? I do not think so. The White Paper, as one commentator has noted, is devoid of political soul and refuses to present a vision that encourages mobilisation. Of course, we will have to make a political decision on how to advance Europe, whether to maintain the status quo or make changes. It is therefore disingenuous, and indeed dangerous, to engage in a debate on the future of the European Union with those who require Europe to incorporate multi-track, variable geometry or differentiated integration provisions as this represents the current position of the union. It is important to establish the best way to move forward and accept that it is unlikely that all members will progress together at the same pace than agree multi-track provisions. This is what one could refer to as a “second best solution”, which certainly is not without risk and institutional challenges. Principally it is not a plan for Europe that would see confidence increase amongst citizens. However, this does not mean that this option should not be considered in certain circumstances.

The progressive amongst us may also consider that it is important to politicise the debate on Europe. If we avoid the real question then we risk reducing Europe to a concept; a mere institutional mechanism: Europe, but for what purpose?

Any decision regarding ‘more’ Europe or ‘less’ Europe; in response to the question of whether we should allow a greater degree of autonomy (‘skill transfer’) or rely upon greater subsidiarity, is in fact a falsehood as it fails to address the real questions being asked by the people. We should listen to the people, not debate moot points. Who would opt for ‘more’ Europe when in practical terms this means more country-specific de-regulation, fewer public services and labour market flexibility leading to increased precariousness and fiscal policies that limit investment opportunities and increase inequality?

For the progressive amongst us, the fundamental question is not so heavily driven by such scenarios: the dividing line is not a single question of ‘more’ Europe or ‘less’ Europe, but a question of two distinct realities; on the one hand there is an ultra-liberal Europe which is outwardly confident and blind to market forces and on the other hand, a Europe that protects itself and ensures greater economic, social and political security for all. The latter Europe is likely to re-connect Europe with the people. It promises prosperity for all. Notwithstanding this, have the populists not abused our need for security and exploited the disillusioned people? They advocate nationalist withdrawal and isolation and remain intolerant to alternative perspectives. This illusion appears attractive because there is a distinct lack of clear and reasoned alternatives. We cannot solve the problems of today if we return to an isolationist state and ignore the lessons from the past.

Creation of new internal and external security

The history of the progressive movement tells us that our strength lies within our capacity to construct security measures without which the vast majority of citizens would have been exposed to the vagaries and hazards of a world where violence and injustice are omnipresent. Europe provides the necessary framework to allow us to construct such security systems.

Firstly, our external security: how can we effectively promote peace, stability and multi-lateralism when conflicts continue to multiply and new hegemonic ambitions emerge which question the suitability and effectiveness of existing multilateral frameworks, from NATO to the United Nations. Europeans desire peace, stability and cooperation above all else. Europe is, for many, a means to protect national borders, provided Europe has the means to do so. We are currently in the middle of a period of great instability within Europe. As a result the existing policy does not adequately reflect the significant risks posed today.

However, I am not proposing we launch Europe into a crazed race to arms, as seems to be the case in the United States. But we would be prudent to move faster and more resolutely towards a European defence solution on the mutual understanding that security comes at a price; increased expenditure on military as well as resources. Security is also related to sustainability and encourages the broadening of economic and social perspectives. This can be demonstrated by reference to the Balkans or our partners in North Africa where endemic youth unemployment is a continual issue as they are susceptible to other security risks. Our policies, which are inherently European, do not need to address such risks, principally only migration, terrorism, upsurges in violence and conflict.

Our progressive group needs a clear and coherent discussion on how best to protect our external borders, control migration and better integrate migrants into society whilst maintaining the necessary internal security measures. It is not Schengen that poses a problem to us, it is the weak trading positions and amount of cooperation at a European level in the face of terrorism and serious criminal acts that pose the greatest challenge. This being said, Europe must not become an isolationist fortress and it is shameful to consider rebuilding walls and barbed wire where the winds of freedom had demolished them less than thirty years ago.

We must base our asylum and migration policy on the values which are important to us; principally solidarity and protection of those in need. But this policy will require allocation of appropriate resources. We must learn the lessons of the migratory crisis: Europe has mismanaged it and continues to fall short in our attempts to address the catastrophic situations in which migrants find themselves in certain countries. Should we really have to accept that the Mediterranean shall become this great cemetery for thousands of men and women and children in search of a better future? We have ignored the European countries in the Mediterranean area for too long and now we must face this enormous human problem.

Economic security in the face of globalisation

Economic security is surely one of the key areas upon which the effectiveness of the European Union is measured: how much economic growth? What is the level of unemployment?

Globalisation is irreversible but has been beneficial to hundreds of millions of men and women who have emerged from destitution. But it is not just a success story, as some would have us believe, because it also produces millions of losers, devastates regions and deprives whole areas of their economic substance. Markets do not compensate for such losses and ignore the human tragedies. For this reason I believe as there is a new protectionist threat, that we must undertake to comply at all times with the social and environmental regulations as well as any relevant policies which may benefit those who have lost at the hands of free trade and limitless deregulation. The debate which surrounds free trade is distorted by ideological positioning that cannot be confirmed by the facts. The mobilisation of large segments of our civil society against such free trade agreements must be taken seriously by progressive politicians. European policy must also be readjusted in a more democratic sense. It is up to the progressives to establish their political contribution in this regard, and I must say that Paul Magnette’s struggle in relation to CETA is a signal that should not be underestimated or ignored.

Economic security concerns above all else remain the main concern with the Euro area (Eurozone). Reform, which is more necessary than ever, is not progressing much on this issue. Yet time is running short in this regard due to international concerns that are yet to be resolved. To date internal risks such as the situation in Greece have only been partially controlled.

Greece is undoubtedly in a worrying position but continues to produce dogmatic conservative policy that ignores the economic and social realities of their position. Such a situation should not arise and it is not our intention to force any country into a similar kind of stalemate for decades.

In order to reform the Euro area it is necessary to shift Europe towards policies that encourage greater justice, growth and solidarity for all. The proposals that have been submitted as part of the Report of the Five Chairpersons are insufficient and too broad in scope to be of any use unless they wish to plunge the Euro zone into a recession, followed by a slow growth period.

In order to be effective, any reform carried out by progressives must include the following elements:

The first step is to correct the initial weaknesses within the EMU that were the root of the crisis and which represent a permanent risk to their integrity. Joseph Stiglitz characterises it in the following terms: “the combination of a misguided economic ideology … and a lack of deep political solidarity”.

A majority of Europeans remain attached to the single currency but seemingly reject any policies that are carried out on on their behalf. Instead of producing economic convergence, the Euro as it was conceived has produced economic and social divergence, which in the long-term risks triggering the dissolution of the Euro zone.

The key words of the reform should be: a revival of investments well above what is envisaged under the “Juncker” program. In this context, an industrial policy promoted by the Union and expressed at national and regional levels is essential if Europe is to catch up with the delays suffered in terms of innovation, technology and research. The need to reorient our economies towards decarbonisation also offers us considerable potential in terms of employment and redevelopment of certain territories/regions; smart consolidation from a fiscal perspective within the Euro area should no longer require the juxtaposition of national economies and budgets. Consequently, it is necessary to pool together at least part of the debt, as proposed by German economists before creation of an instrument such as Eurobonds; the creation of a genuine budgetary capability for the Euro area as proposed in the report by MEP Pervenche Bérès; coordination of taxation that excludes all practices of fiscal dumping, and finally, democratic control through the establishment of a Eurozone Assembly which consists of national and European parliamentarians endowed with genuine powers in accordance with a framework designed to strengthen socio-economic governance which should include the setting up of a Minister of Finance.

This is the debate that must be held in order to counter the austerity policies that the conservatives are trying to perpetuate through regulations that have led to failure and that will ultimately fail to save the euro zone.

Securing the European Social Model

My final point concerns social security or the European social security model. The model has been heavily shaken in recent years. The model was wrongly identified as being the cause of the difficulties when, in reality, the model actually helped to mitigate the shocks.

The Commission has launched the idea of a core of social rights. We can do nothing but approve of such a step, my only regret is that it is not mentioned in the White Paper. Should we silence a project presented as a flagship project so easily if we fear we may offend someone else?

We, the progressives, must show the political courage necessary and put social Europe at the top of our agenda. The Union cannot afford to make any mistakes on this issue. As a large proportion of working men and women continue to defect – the social context of which Martin Schulz comments as follows – they have a feeling that Europe is no longer talking to them except to say that more structural reform is needed, that is to say less job security and less social security. We note that reforms are necessary because the left is continually seen as the party who carries out such reforms! But our reforms are aimed at laying the foundations for more sustainable growth particularly in areas such as education and training so that we may prepare for technological change. Unemployment remains too high in Europe, especially in terms of youth unemployment in some countries. But the figures do not express the whole story, they are merely an abstract figure that remains unseen in countries where unemployment is low. Equally the figure is not discussed if there has been an explosion in the low-wage sector, and no one discusses the increased insecurity in the form of zero-hour contracts, or the the low-paid workers who have several jobs…this development mainly affects young people. What can one say when a young British teenager chooses to be self-employed in a country where unemployment is at the lowest because: “There are plenty of jobs, but they do not pay enough for you to live on.” Our goal must be not only job creation but creation of quality jobs.

We must turn our attention to this issue and to the wider world of work. This world requires a complete overhaul not because it would lead to the end of work as we know it – I do not believe it would – but because technology transforms work, increases demand for new skills, removes jobs and above all polarises the labour market. The digital revolution is well under-way and, if it presents great opportunities then we must also acknowledge that there are also risks which we must manage accordingly; social protection, career path security and working conditions. The PES have already embarked on this subject and considered all factors involved in living in the digital age. I would also like to mention a report by Maria Joa Rodrigues to the European Parliament on the Core Social Rights, which contains proposals to integrate these future issues into the existing human rights framework.

These core rights can not be limited in implementation to mere “benchmarks” as they can help to achieve social convergence, combat inequality and social dumping which often develop under the guise of poor mobility and a lack of freedom of movement. They also guarantee the right to collective bargaining and genuine labour relations.

This is a social pact that the European Union needs: a pact that is able to restore the hierarchy of norms and ensure that we no longer have to submit our social rights along with our economic freedoms, a social pact that promotes social investment and can restore cohesion to our societies and promote convergence. Within this context, it becomes important to ensure the development of the social economy.

A few days ago, under the presidency of the French Prime Minister, twelve labour and social affairs ministers from the progressive studies department adopted a declaration which reaffirmed these principles and outlined an ambitious social plan for Europe that reconnects with the hopes and dreams of the vast majority of our fellow citizens who are asking questions about not only their future but the future of their children.

Europe must also focus their attention on the aforementioned youth. Erasmus is a fantastic project that must be extended to as many young people as the Delors Foundation recommends. The youth guarantee that has been launched by us must benefit from the necessary resources in order to be progressive, particularly in countries where youth unemployment remains desperately high. The guarantee must be supplemented further by a guarantee for training and qualification.

Mobility is not the sole contributing factor that ensures that young people without prospects can become good Europeans, it is much more a question of how measures are implemented that open up real prospects of employment and independent living. Delors was right when he said that nobody falls in love with business – this is particularly the case when these business-oriented markets pervade all sectors of our society.

Mr President, dear friends,

In the following weeks and months we will have crucial elections taking place in two countries which have often spearheaded plans along with others relating to the development of Europe. As a result, it is of paramount importance that this Franco-German partnership becomes a progressive axis and forms a foundation which is capable of supporting the momentum to relaunch Europe. In two years, citizens around Europe shall be called upon to elect a new European Parliament. This is not the result of recent events in Austria and the Netherlands where the populists have suffered set-backs although one does not consider the risks posed completely removed. No, Europe remains in danger and these dangers are both internal as well as external. Time is of the essence.

We have two years to develop a new plan for Europe through broad consultation; by listening to those who work, innovate, create and require a different Europe. It is not enough to repeatedly refer to a multi-track Europe that is in many ways already possible. The revival of Europe must be based solely on clear choices. The revival must ensure mobilisation within our civil societies, trade unions, workers such as intellectuals and artists. The European plan does not belong to any elite group as many populists will have us believe.

Europe remains a civilization based on values and cultural ideals characterised by its diversity. Europe is also a social model that respects the individual and offers everyone protection through a unified approach. Europe also wants to be at the forefront of the fight against climate change which remains to this day a great threat to the natural balance of our planet. Europe must respond appropriately to the American tendency to deny climate change and take steps to ensure the implementation of the Paris agreement.

Today we must defend many of the advantages and benefits we have secured during the last 60 years. Similarly, you also have to change course and open yourself to new perspectives from time to time. This becomes second nature amongst those already within our group. It falls upon us to ensure that this is carried out.

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