Terra Nova 10th Anniversary Debate, Paris, 3 October 2018
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Ladies and gentlemen
It’s a huge pleasure to be with you today, to join the celebrations of Terra Nova’s tenth anniversary.
In those ten years, this think tank has mapped new horizons. It’s gone out in search of a new world of ideas – and brought those ideas back, to renew practical politics. And the fruits of that decade of exploration have been enormously influential here in France, and beyond.
So it’s been a busy decade. A voyage of discovery, not just for Terra Nova, but for all of us.
A decade of turbulence and hope
Not long ago, I was in Greece, and I saw for myself just how far that country has come in the last decade. Just a few weeks ago, it left the programme which has kept its economy stable for the last eight years. And the country’s social situation is improving – though there’s still work left to do.
In Greece, when they talk about voyages of discovery, they’re thinking of stories as old as civilisation itself. And like Homer’s Odysseus, whose short voyage home turned into an adventure, we’ve seen things in the last decade that none of us expected at the start.
Ten years ago, sites like Facebook and Twitter were still novelties. About a hundred and forty million smartphones were sold that year, compared to more than one and a half billion last year. In that time, a revolution in the way we communicate has given us new possibilities – and also new fears, like the fear of what’s being done with our data.
Exactly ten years ago, the world’s governments saw that drastic action was needed to save the financial system. Ten years ago today, the US bank rescue programme – known as TARP – was finally signed into law. A few days later, the European Council helped to make sure that rescues in Europe wouldn’t harm competition, or waste taxpayers’ money, when it insisted that those rescues had to comply with the state aid rules.
And in those ten years, our awareness of the threat of climate change has become more vivid and urgent. Which is no surprise, when you think that of the ten warmest years since 1880, eight of them came within the last decade.
But alongside the challenges we’ve faced in that time, we’ve also seen the human spirit at its best. We’ve learned that it’s true – as David Ben Gurion put it – that to be a realist, you have to believe in miracles.
In that decade, we’ve seen governments coming together, to set binding commitments on carbon emissions in the Paris Agreement. We’ve seen the European and national levels of our democracy work together to overcome Europe’s crisis. Last year, for the first time since 2007, every national economy in the EU grew. And unemployment is back down to the levels it was at before the crisis.
Defending Europe’s values
So like Odysseus, we can be proud of all we’ve achieved, in a decade of unexpected challenges and dangers.
But when Odysseus returned from his voyage, he discovered his wife besieged by suitors, spending each night unpicking the tapestry she’d vowed to finish before she would marry any of them. And instead of the welcome he hoped for, Odysseus discovered that he had one more challenge to meet.
In the past decade, Europe’s values – cooperation and solidarity, fairness and democracy – have helped our societies to tackle huge challenges – and in that time, those values have been reaffirmed, as each EU country has democratically ratified the Lisbon Treaty. And yet, at the same time, forces that don’t respect those values have gained support in some parts of Europe. We’ve even found ourselves taking steps to deal with EU countries that have not been respecting basic values like the rule of law.
So the moment has come for us to make a decision.
In less than eight months, the people of Europe will elect the next European Parliament. Each strand of our politics – left and right, liberal and green, Christian Democrats and social democrats – will argue for their vision of Europe’s future.
But there’s a more fundamental choice in this election – a choice over whether to reaffirm Europe’s values, or to weaken them.
How our values protect Europeans
When our Union was founded, sixty years ago, its founders didn’t need to be told that those values were important. They’d seen how people’s lives could be crushed when power was freed from any restraint, from courts or parliaments or press – even when that power claimed to act in the people’s name. They’d seen how people without individual rights ended up living in constant fear. And so they carved those values into the foundations of Europe – making them not just a political choice, but a binding legal agreement, set out in our Treaties.
And those values are still our best guarantee of a life that’s safe and secure.
Because it isn’t the powerful, the rich, the well-connected, who depend on those values and rights to keep them safe. Those rights are there to protect the rest of us. To make sure we can defend ourselves, if we’re accused of a crime. To make sure our laws, and employers, and education systems give us a chance to develop our talents – and don’t shut us out because of our gender or sexuality or ethnicity.
That’s why, for instance, competition rules have been part of our Treaty since the day it was signed. Because they make our economy work fairly for everyone. They mean that consumers have the power to demand a fair deal. And they mean that businesses of all sizes and all nationalities have a fair chance to compete in our economy, without facing rivals that are propped up with illegal state aid.
A democratic debate based on values
So all of us – whatever our political family – need to stand together in support of our European values. And all of us have reason to hope that in the elections in May, European voters will come out to show their support for those values.
But that doesn’t mean shutting down political debate. Quite the opposite. It’s only when we agree on our values that we have a solid framework for our debates.
You can’t expect anyone to engage in debate with an opponent who doesn’t respect their basic rights. Real, open discussion depends on committing to respect individual freedoms and lives. And as long as we do that, no subject should be off the table.
We can’t compromise, for example, when it comes to the right to equality before the law. But that still leaves room for us to debate exactly how we should deal with the growing inequality of wealth in our societies.
And as long as we all commit to the same basic values, there’s no reason to shut any voices out of the debate.
It can be uncomfortable to deal with populist parties – parties that don’t trust the established leaders of society, that call for new and radical solutions. But as long as populist leaders play by the rules of the game – as long as they’re committed to values like democracy and human rights – the views that they have are every bit as valid as any others. And we need to engage with those views, not deny them a hearing.
We need to listen to the worries that Europeans have. And we need to take responsibility for offering solutions. Not just solutions to the things we think people should worry about. But answers to the problems that really keep people awake at night.
The need for security
Because I think many leaders of populist parties have understood something we just can’t ignore. They’ve understood that people need to feel safe.
The thing is, whatever opportunities you have, you can’t make the most of them if you don’t feel secure. It’s as though you were going to sea in a leaky boat – you can’t see the exciting new worlds on the horizon, if you spend all your time trying not to sink.
And we all have many things that worry us in our lives. We worry whether machines will take our jobs, about the price of the food we buy, or what happens to our data. And we worry about things on the scale of our whole planet, like climate change and migration.
So one big part of the job of our democracy is to answer those worries, so people can live safe, secure lives.
Democracy and security
And it does. As soon as you look at our history, you see how much democratic, progressive politics has done to make people’s lives more secure.
Europeans today can rely on employment rights that make their workplaces safer and fairer. They’re protected from being fired from their jobs without reason, or having their rights undermined by companies that use workers based in other European countries where those rights are weaker.
Europe’s rules on food safety keep harmful chemicals out of the food we give our children. Water quality rules mean that people all over Europe can be sure they won’t get sick when they drink a glass of water from the tap – or go swimming anywhere from the Black Sea to the Baltic.
Europe’s economic policies have helped to provide more and better jobs. Our single market has given Europe’s best, most innovative companies room to grow and create jobs. Our support for opening markets around the world to free and fair trade means that today, exports support more than 30 million European jobs.
And our competition rules mean that a growing economy benefits not just business, but individuals. Because competition drives businesses to serve consumers better – to cut prices, to come up with new and innovative products. And by enforcing the competition rules, we can make sure that markets in Europe serve people – not the other way round.
Our rules make sure companies don’t get together to form cartels that aim to keep prices high – like the series of cartels that we’ve dealt with in the last few years, affecting dozens of different parts that go into our cars.
And our rules can help to make sure businesses don’t use their power to make it hard for innovative rivals to succeed – the way Google’s contracts with phonemakers and operators that used its Android operating system discouraged rivals from producing innovative search apps and operating systems.
Making the argument for democracy and European values
And all of those improvements in people’s lives have happened, not despite our democracy or our European values, but because of them.
But the trouble is, democracy often isn’t dramatic. Its debates and discussions and consultations and working papers aren’t the sort of thing that makes a good movie.
But we human beings are built to notice big, dramatic changes – and we tend to overlook the small, steady improvements that make the world a better place. And that can make it look as though the world is getting worse; as though all the efforts of our democracies have come to nothing.
That’s not true, of course. Their successes are all there to see. But we can’t just assume that people will spot them. As democratic politicians, we have to make sure people know how our liberal democracies have made their lives safer – so everyone knows what we’ll lose if we throw that away.
The institutions of international cooperation
And we also have to show how important it is that we use all the resources our societies have – at every level of our democracy.
Right now, there are more people displaced from their homes than at any time since the Second World War. Last year, sea ice in the Arctic reached the lowest level that’s ever been recorded – and by the middle of this century, the Arctic could be ice-free in summer. Companies that avoid tax by shifting profits around the world cost national budgets as much as 240 billion dollars a year.
These are challenges which no one country can solve on its own. The only solution is to work together, within Europe and all across the world.
For seventy years, generations of people have worked to build institutions that help us work together. Institutions like the WTO and the UN; like the G20 and, of course, the European Union, help to make cooperation a real, practical possibility. If we didn’t have them, we’d certainly have to invent them.
So I think we should cherish those institutions a bit more. That doesn’t mean we have to agree with all their decisions. It doesn’t mean we should be afraid to reform them, so they can do their jobs better – as the Commission put forward, in Geneva a few weeks ago, a set of proposals to modernise the WTO.
But we can criticise these institutions, without feeling that we need to get rid of them.
When the government in our city takes too long to fix the streetlights, we understand that the answer is to vote in new local councillors – not to get rid of the city government, so there’s no one to mend the lights at all. And the same goes for the European level of our democracy.
A pragmatic view of Europe
Because the truth is that different things are best done at different scales. We wouldn’t expect a city government to tackle irregular migration, any more than we’d expect the EU to fix the streetlights.
And the choices we make, when we decide whether to do things through the European or national or local part of our democracy, are really practical questions. We shouldn’t make them too dramatic; they don’t define our identity. Doing things through Europe doesn’t mean we’ve left our nation states behind. It just means that cooperating is the best tool for the job.Take competition enforcement. There’s no way the European Commission could enforce the EU antitrust rules throughout Europe on its own. Instead, we share responsibility with national competition authorities - including the Autorité de la Concurrence here in France.
Of course, we need to decide which cases are dealt with by national authorities, and which come to the Commission. And we have rules that tell us how to deal with those issues.
But most of the time, we have no trouble at all in working out between us who should handle a case. Because we know that this isn’t an issue of sovereignty - it’s just about picking the best tool for the job.
The trouble comes when our societies get infected with a poisonous sort of nationalism – a nationalism that defines itself by excluding and belittling others. That sort of nationalism can never make its people better off – because its fears of losing its identity stop it working with others to build a happier, more prosperous world.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. We can be patriotic, we can love our homes, without feeling we have to hate others.
I remember very well, when I came to Brussels as commissioner, how I’d never before felt more European – and also never felt so Danish. Because that’s what an open, positive patriotism can do for us. It reminds us that however far we travel, we always have a home – a home made of the stories and songs and landscapes of our childhood, our family and language and culture. And that can give us the confidence to work with others, without being afraid to lose our identity.
A Europe that protects
That’s why, in the the State of the Union speech which President Juncker gave a few weeks ago, he emphasised what Europe can do to help protect its people.
At a time when the terrorist attacks that we’ve lived through in the last few years – in Copenhagen and Brussels, Paris and Nice – make us all too aware that terrorism is a very real threat, protecting Europeans means making it harder for terrorist recruiters to use the Internet to spread their message.
It also means making sure businesses pay their fair share of tax, so Europe’s governments can afford to provide the services people need. That’s why we’ve put forward a proposal to make sure digital businesses pay their share of tax - a proposal which I hope the Council will soon adopt.
And protecting Europeans means holding firm to our duty to protect refugees who arrive in Europe, fleeing from horrors we can hardly imagine. It also means we need arrangements to stop Europe becoming an open destination for irregular migration.
The voyages that Odysseus took in the stories were difficult and long. His battles didn’t end even when he reached home. But finally, at the end of the Odyssey, peace returns to Ithaca.
We don’t have that luxury. The last ten years have made huge demands of our societies. We’ve been through the fire – and we’ve emerged from it stronger.
But this is no time to relax. The challenges aren’t over. And the decade to come will ask just as much from us all.
We have what it takes to meet those challenges. We’ve faced bigger problems in the past, and overcome them, and made Europe the best place to live in history. But that’s only happened because of our values – our democracy and solidarity, our individual rights and our openness to cooperation.
So our first job is to fight for those values. Not just by telling people that a Europe of values is the best protection they and their children can have. It means showing them. It means listening to the worries that keep Europeans awake at night. And it means going into those elections offering real solutions, that can make those people’s lives better.