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"A strong Europe with the right priorities." By Frank-Walter Steinmeier and Frans Timmermans

18.03.2014 - Interview

The article has been published (shortened) by The German newspaper Handelsblatt and the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad on 18 March 2014.

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At the eve of the centennial of the beginning of World War I we are reminded how fragile peace and stability remain even in the closest vicinity of the European Union. The events in Ukraine have led Europe and the world into the most serious crisis since the fall of the Iron Curtain. The sudden crisis reminds us with urgency that the task to make Europe ever better and stronger remains high on the agenda. Only united and strong will we be able to master the challenges ahead of us.

With a view to reforming the European Union and the Monetary Union, much has been achieved, much remains to be done. We must act in order to make sure that our young generation does not lose confidence in the European project over the continuing economic crisis. We need to make a convincing case for Europe and demonstrate that the European Union continues to be the best way to assert our interest internationally and provide solutions for the big issues of the future: an ever accelerating globalization of our economies, climate change, demographic change, the digitalization of ever more areas of our daily lives, just to name a few.

The election of a new European parliament and the start of a new European Commission will give us the opportunity to set the course for our work in the EU in the period to come. Three keywords come to mind on how to go forward:

First, we need to focus. Europe has to tackle the big issues that we can only get to grips with when we stand together: Shaping our policy towards our neighbors in the East and South and improving our ability to react to foreign policy challenges is a key example. Strengthening our economies through deepening our common market, working for sound budgets, and providing additional incentives for the creation of jobs and growth while maintaining and improving social cohesion is another key aspect. We will also need to continue to strengthen the Economic and Monetary Union – the worst of the crisis in the Eurozone may be over, but work remains to be done on the construction flaws.

Subsidiarity is a two way street. While Europe needs to big on big things, it cannot and should not try to do everything. It should be big on big issues and small on small issues. Priority setting must go hand in hand with identifying posteriorities. At the European level, we should focus on the big questions of our time instead of trying to regulate problems which can be addressed more convincingly on other levels. We should also work hard for “better regulation” and less red tape in Europe. However, we should not put into question what we have built together in Europe. We do not call for “less Europe”, we want a “better Europe”. In other words: The idea of subsidiarity has to be truly lived in Europe.

We trust that the future Commission will share the view that an intelligent mix of priority-setting and self-restraint with a view to future legislation will not weaken but strengthen the European project. We therefore encourage the Council, the Commission and the European Parliament to enter into a constructive debate on the EU’s political priorities for the coming years at the start of the next legislative term.

Second, Europe needs to be strong on implementation. We need strong and efficient European institutions to ensure that we successfully implement what we decide politically. Sure, implementation will not only depend solely on the Commission. However, the Commission does play a key role. Before the next Commission takes office, we should revisit three key questions: Is the Commission with 28 members, each tackling separate dossiers, the right set-up to produce the focus we need? Wouldn’t it make more sense if a number of Commissioners works together as a team on specific issues? Shouldn’t the High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy play a stronger role as a coordinator within the Commission?

Third, we need to uphold the legitimacy of European decision making. We need a functioning European Parliament, and a strong European focus of our national parliaments in scrutinizing their respective governments’ actions in Brussels. But legitimacy of the EU goes beyond this. Legitimacy also derives from our internal cohesion, our “team spirit”. The European Union is more than a geographic community of interests. We share a common history that stretches back more than 2000 years. We share the same values, we believe in liberty, personal freedom and social rights. We must uphold our sense of belonging together and defend it where necessary. Only if all EU Member States feel like part of the team, can we produce the necessary results.

The Netherlands and Germany look at a history with very difficult moments. Today, 100 years after WWI and 75 years after the beginning of WW II we are close friends in the heart of Europe. Together, we are committed to making Europe stronger. Therefore we will put the key question of how to improve Europe’s focus, balance, legitimacy and internal cohesion on the agenda of the upcoming General Affairs Council in Brussels. We favour a joint message by the 28 Member States on the political priorities for a focused Union, to be issued after the European Parliament elections. Only a European Union with smart priorities and with a sense of belonging together will be ready to tackle the enormous challenges that we are living through.

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