Bruxelles – On 14 May 2020, the Plenary held a debate with the Council and the Commission on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the Schuman Declaration. State Secretary BRNJAC speaking on behalf of the Council noted the work of the Croatian Presidency in dealing with the COVID-19 crisis, and believed the EU was in a position to overcome this crisis.
VP ŠEFČOVIČ enumerated the Commission’s activities, but also reflected on the EU’s legacy in overcoming crises. While MEPs’ interventions were dominated by COVID-19 references, many referred to the de facto solidarity and gradualist approach present in the Schuman Declaration, taking an opportunity to share their vision on the future path to be taken, urging decisive steps.
The EPP group, as well as the Greens/EFA warned about the rise of nationalism, while S&D, Greens/EFA and GUE/NGL urged for a reduction of inequalities. The ID and ECR groups expressed their doubts that today’s EU fit with the initial ideas of the Schuman declaration, with ID feeling national sovereignties were under attack, and ECR stressing Schuman had intended an economic, not a political community. Numerous speakers (esp. EPP, S&D, Renew) saw the Conference on the Future of Europe as the relevant framework and forum to determine the EU’s future direction and model, urging for wide involvement of the citizens.
State Secretary Nikolina BRNJAC noted that the anniversary was being celebrated in unprecedented circumstances, expressed sympathy for those lost to COVID-19, and a deep appreciation for essential workers. In her view, the crisis still had shown that by synergy and cooperation among the Member States, efficient solutions could be found. The EP and the Council had adopted the emergency packages, the European Council providing overall direction. The MFF negotiations would intensify, with a new approach. The response to the COVID-19 crisis was comprehensive, attempting to salvage the economy, to increase resilience, and to facilitate recovery and solidarity. She also drew attention to the EU-Western Balkans Summit’s achievements.
In this context, the Conference on the Future of Europe (hereinafter – “COFE”) could serve as a framework for open debate and reflection, formulating a common vision for the future, fully involving EU citizens as well as other stakeholders in the debate among MS and the institutions. The HR Presidency would work tirelessly towards reaching the Council consensus as soon as possible, and then would work with the other institutions to agree on a new start date and mandate. Ms BRNJAC noted that current dangers were no less real than those present at the time of Schuman declaration, but following the Croatian Presidency’s moto “A Strong Europe in a world of challenges”, if the EU would remain united in solidarity, it could emerge from the crisis together.
Commission Vice-President for Interinstitutional Relations and Foresight Maroš ŠEFČOVIČ recalled how soon after the complete devastation of WW II the Schuman declaration had come about and changed everything. According to Mr ŠEFČOVIČ, while COVID-19 crisis threatened lives and our way of life, it also showed the EU’s greatest strength – namely solidarity and a commitment to unity. Hence, it was time for bold, constructive acts, instead of just words. The Schuman declaration had achieved a balance between idealism and pragmatism, declaring that Europe would be gradually built by way of de facto solidarity. In this line, French patients in German clinics, Romanian doctors in Italy and the Recovery plan were all examples of such de facto solidarity. COFE, as a pan European exercise in democracy, could rebuild trust and solidarity, giving citizens a greater say. It should be a joint exercise with all three institutions on an equal footing, so the decision on the COFE launch should be a joint one, once the Council would have its mandate. The Commission was exploring digital solutions that would allow some remote engagement, but that could not replace “face to face” or “townhall” discussions.
On behalf of the political groups:
Esteban GONZÁLEZ PONS (EPP, ES) declared that Nationalism was the coronavirus infecting politics. It was not right to have individualist policies, rankings of countries, closing borders and grabbing hospital equipment. He complained there were no Europeanists left; politicians were only thinking about gaining votes in their own countries. If this was sown, conflicts would be reaped. He called for stepping away from nationalism and thinking about the collective good. Being European is to think as “us”, not as “I”. This was the generosity of European patriotism.
Iratxe GARCÍA PÉREZ (S&D Chair, ES) recalled that the EU had enjoyed 70 years of peace and solidarity, always stronger and united in diversity. The S&D was proud of its contribution, adding the social dimension to ensure the EU was a community and not just a market. S&D was calling for an audacious exit strategy from the COVID-19 crisis. In so far as COFE was concerned, she saw a need for a conference on Renewal and Rebuilding. The priorities would need to be set by listening to citizens. Europe was forever future-oriented, not pessimistic, and in this sense crisis represented an opportunity. Now it would need to be renewed on the basis of solidarity, making it more equitable.
Pascal DURAND (Renew, FR) said people praised Schuman and Monnet for their visionary genius but instead they should be praised for their intelligence and pragmatism. But now, while the EU had managed to build a powerful economy and to integrate more countries, that was no longer sufficient. There was a need to become a major political power. For this reason COFE needed to succeed, listening to citizens and taking up their ideas. Unanimity needed to be abolished, the EU should speak with one voice. A model surpassing each MS individually was necessary to represent the European general interest. Faced with the 21st century challenges the EU had to become a community based on free and fair trade, social and environmental considerations, democracy and the rule of law. He warned that democracy, If not nurtured, couldn’t be taken for granted.
Jörg MEUTHEN (ID, DE) said the Schuman plan was a good one, insofar as its focus on economy and Franco-German relations had built stability and affluence. The Single Market was an achievement. However, the Schuman plan had not intended to scrap national sovereignties, building an artificial union. In his view, this was contrary to the Schuman declaration and to diversity.
Ska KELLER (Greens/EFA, DE) believed the COVID-19 crisis had proven how many benefits of the EU were taken for granted, such as free movement. But this was not the time to self-congratulate. A very different world existed, with growing nationalism, environmental issues, digitalisation, and globalisation. COVID-19 threatened people’s jobs. Therefore the EU needed a new Schuman plan, which would be people- and planet-centred. It would need to remove social inequalities, respect democracy and the rule of law, and provide shelter to those in need. It was high time to use all instruments to create a new socio-economic environment, leaving no one behind.
Derk-Jan EPPINK (ECR, NL) believed the EU was at the crossroads again with two directions available. The first would be a European State with a European government, taxes, army and debt (as envisaged by Mr VERHOFSTADT). The other would entail a community of sovereign states, cooperating for trade, but not for centralisation and bureaucracy, instead allowing each country to decide for itself. It should be for citizens to decide which model they would want.
For Manon AUBRY (GUE/NGL, FR), the EU was keen to refer to history, but not to learn from it. This was the right moment to tax the rich, as in 1916. In this case, the multi-national companies that had benefitted greatly from the COVID-19 crisis, such as Netflix, Amazon, Carrefour, etc. Corona debt should be written off, as Germany’s War debt had been. A real meaning to “solidarity” should be given.
Individual interventions continued drawing parallels between the circumstances of the Schuman Declaration and the current situation. Several speakers focused on solidarity, reminding of Schuman’s intention to build Europe on de facto solidarity (RUIZ DEVESA, S&D, ES – who called for a great leap forward to a health, financial and political union – and BISCHOFF, S&D, DE), but also querying what such solidarity would mean (CHAIBI (GUE/NGL, FR)) and noting the absence of solidarity with Italy in the context of COVID-19 (BIZZOTTO (ID, IT)). Nicola BEER (Renew, DE) recalled that Schuman was a lawyer and that he had intended to focus on concrete achievements, and the achieved community of law was currently very relevant.
Some MEPs urged for the COFE to begin as soon as possible, but to avoid empty talks (BENIFEI, S&D, IT and BISCHOFF, S&D, DE) with QMV and EU own resources seen as suitable topics. MEPs from ID and ECR continued to regret that the Schuman declaration was used in order to create a centralized state, with the COFE as another step in that direction (ANNEMANS, ID, DE, BARDELLA, ID, FR, and LUNDGREN, ECR, SE), also criticizing the EU’s inability to deal with the COVID-19 crisis.
In their concluding remarks:
VP ŠEFČOVIČ thanked MEPs for their perspectives, both acknowledging the EU’s achievements and calling for more solidarity, more action and more result-oriented policies. In his view, COFE would allow to include more people in the decision making, allowing for a debate on a wide variety of topics, including fairer taxation.
State Secretary BRNJAC believed this was a good moment to reflect on achievements and challenges. In these circumstances, the Croatian Presidency would work to ensure the crucial and active cooperation among the institutions. She reiterated the readiness to focus on achieving a consensus in the Council, so that a new date for launching COFE could be agreed.