Mr President, Madam Chair of the Council, Honourable Members,
Mr President, the Parliament is about to discuss the future of Europe and the place of the United Kingdom within Europe and the European Union. I had a lot of meetings this morning, but I decided to come to the European Parliament because I believe that today, right now, my place is here, at the heart of democracy.
Our British friends have spoken, by universal suffrage. The expression of the will of the British majority has to be respected by all. Democracy is democracy and we must respect British democracy and the view that has been expressed.
The choice of the British people must be respected. Expression there was, and consequences there are. So I am asking for clarification, not immediately, because the British system is more complicated than one might think, but as soon as is possible. There was a vote, now there is hesitation. Lord Hill, my friend, my brother, has drawn his conclusions. He is a true democrat.
I would like others to draw the conclusions of the expression of the British popular will. I have read and heard that the President of the Parliament and the Presidents of the parliamentary groups, with a few exceptions, have responded with emotion to the result of the British referendum. Indeed, Europe is more than just a matter of the head. Yes, we must remain rational, but when we are sad, we should be allowed to say as much. I am saddened by this British vote and I make no secret of it. This isn’t sentimentality, it is my profound conviction. I would have liked the United Kingdom to stay forever by our side, with us. It has decided otherwise. We must accept the consequences.
The Prime Minister, whom I will be seeing later this morning, remains a friend, because the British remain our friends despite the vote. I will be asking the UK Government to clarify the situation as rapidly as is possible for them to do — not today, not tomorrow at 9 a.m., but soon. We cannot remain in a prolonged state of uncertainty.
Unlike others, I am not a slave to the financial markets, but I observe them. And they show an indication of a general sentiment that is global. As I just said, I would like the United Kingdom to clarify its position. And I would not like the idea to gain ground that there could be secret negotiations, in darkened rooms behind drawn curtains, between representatives from the United Kingdom, national governments, Commissioners, and Directors-General. I have forbidden Commissioners from holding discussions with representatives from the British Government — by Presidential order, which is not my style. I have told all the Directors-General that there cannot be any prior discussions with British representatives. No notification, no negotiation.
Through the expression of British universal suffrage, we have lost one of our many wings. There are the wings of the founding Member States, who do not enjoy any more rights than the others simply because they launched the project, for they do not carry it alone. The others, the ‘new Member States’, are fully-fledged Member States, and I applaud once again this unification, the reconciliation between European geography and history.
The British vote has clipped some of our many wings. But our flight goes on. We will not halt our journey into the future. New horizons await. And we are flying towards horizons that are those of Europe and of the entire planet.
Make no mistake, those who are watching us from afar are concerned. I have met and listened to several leaders. They are very worried because they are wondering about the course the European Union will take. So we must reassure Europeans and those who are watching us from further away.
We will carry on. Not into an unknown adventure, but towards an objective pre-determined by the Treaties and by the will of many Europeans. Our project goes on, and although the British vote may have slowed us down a little, we must continue our course towards the objectives we share with renewed ambition.
Just imagine if the Commission had not put its ten priorities to Parliament, and if Parliament had not endorsed them by a majority. What reply would we give our British friends? It would be the Commission’s programme. Does the British vote mean that we are going to cease our efforts — generally recognised but not always appreciated — to put an end to excessive regulation in Europe? No. We are going to continue to fight against what the British and others call ‘red tape’. We need less bureaucracy in Europe, we are in the process of bringing that about and will continue to do so.
As a Commission, we have said that social Europe will be restored to its rightful pre-eminent position in Europe. We have launched a wide-ranging consultation on the social rights pillar — do you really want us to abandon this project following the British vote? No. Europe must become more socially-minded, and it will.
As a Commission, we have put an end to blind unilateralism that demanded that austerity alone would be our response to economic, financial and social crisis. We have introduced a more flexible interpretation of the Stability Pact, more flexible in the best sense of the word. Do you really want the British vote to take us back to the world as it was before this Commission took office? No. the Stability Pact must be applied with wisdom and with compassion. We will do that.
We have launched a plan for the Energy Union. Do you really want — because everyone says ‘things must change’ without ever saying precisely what must change — do you really want us to put an end to this continental effort to sever our dependence on Russia and to safeguard energy supplies in Europe? No. We will carry on down this path.
Our aim was to modernise Europe. We have said so on numerous occasions. That is why we have launched an ambitious project on the EU’s digital future. Must we change everything? Must we change all that? No. Take it from me, on this, the Commission will continue on the course we set, with the agreement of Parliament, at the start of our mandate.
And yet — even if everything must change — the Commission feels strengthened in its resolve, largely thanks to the support of this Parliament, to continue the course on which we embarked in November 2014.
Things must change — yes, but we must not change the essentials. And the essentials are that Europe must continue to be project for peace, a project for the future. That is my promise to this Assembly. I am neither tired nor ill, as some German papers claim — apparently today’s doctors work in journalism. I am who I am, and until my last breath I shall fight for a united Europe for, a better Europe.
Ladies and gentlemen,
The situation is serious. I like to listen to those who say we need to react carefully and thoughtfully. I am — and this will surprise some people — a very careful and thoughtful man. But I do not like uncertainty. I would like our British friends to tell us now what is going on and to tell us as soon as possible.
On Friday morning I met President Schulz, President Tusk and Prime Minister Rutte and we agreed to ask our British friends to clarify the situation as quickly as possible.
I am somewhat surprised. I — the man regularly described in the United Kingdom as undemocratic, an anonymous bureaucrat, a technocrat, a machine that acts, a robot — am prepared to accept the vote of the British people, but people in Britain are having great difficulty doing the same. I find that a very surprising turn of events. I respect the view expressed by the British people. I would also like people in Great Britain to respect the view of the British people and to react accordingly, instead of now indulging in shadow boxing and playing cat and mouse, which is what is happening now. This is not interpreting the will of the electorate, the interpretation of the will of the electorate is perfectly clear: the British would like to leave the European Union, and people should act on that basis.
And I am totally opposed — let me make this quite clear – it cannot be right for the current British Government or the future British Government to seek to begin informal secret negotiations in darkened rooms. That is not going to happen. I have done something I rarely do and instructed all Commissioners and Directors-General that no secret negotiations must take place. That cannot be happen.
But of course we must realise, as a matter of common sense, that we have to establish and develop a new relationship with Great Britain. What this new relationship will look like will depend not only on the as yet unknown negotiating stance of the British negotiators; it also depends on us. It is we who set the agenda, not those who want to leave the European Union.
The European dream still exists. And we will have to work with determination and persistence, with renewed energy and with a revival of continental ambition. Now is not the time for navel-gazing — neither for us, nor for the United Kingdom. But what we need is a view of the whole continental picture — that is what the Commission always bears in mind. And we should think back, although this sounds old-fashioned — but after all I’m often called an old-fashioned veteran — what was behind the birth of the European dream? Peace. That is not dead and forgotten. Europe remains a project for peace. And I would like to say to the young people, in Britain too, where the majority of them voted to remain in the European Union: now is not the time for the continent to fragment again. At the start of the 20th century, 20% of the world’s population were European; by the end of the century Europeans will make up only 4% of a total population of 10 billion. We are not the dominant world power. Europe’s share of global value creation will decline dramatically and we are the smallest continent — we need to remember these three things.
Europe cannot be explained just by looking backwards. That was true for my father’s generation but it is no longer true for young people growing up who tomorrow will animate our societies and rule our countries. Europe’s future belongs to its youth.