Keynote speech at the webinar on “What is the European Dream” organized by the Foundation for European Progressive Studies (FEPS) on Europe Day; Brussels.
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FEPS Dream Report Launch – 9 May 2020

Good morning to you all.

First of all, my thanks to Maria and everyone at the Foundation for European Progressive Studies for inviting me to talk to you today. It is a shame that we cannot be together in person, but at the same time, I am glad that digital technology is enabling us to do this event at all.

It is perhaps apt that we should be talking about the future of Europe on the 9th of May, Europe Day, an occasion, which usually celebrates the past – namely, the Schuman Declaration, which took place on this date 70 years ago.

In 2020, however, this is a day for looking forward. Because slowly, carefully, tentatively, Europe is starting to emerge from its enforced hibernation. But even as we take our first steps back towards normality, caution must remain the watchword. The Covid-19 pandemic has caused unprecedented disruption for the European Union and its citizens. Tens of thousands have died, and many more have suffered from this terrible disease, while the economic and social impact has been felt in every corner of the continent, and indeed the world.

Our time in confinement has naturally led many of us to turn our thoughts to the future – to a time when we can once again see our friends, family, colleagues, but also to what we want Europe to look like in the decades to come.

Covid-19 will undoubtedly have a long-term impact on Europe and its citizens; on their lives, on society, on the economy. It will magnify the challenges and trends already facing us today. The twin digital and green transition, Europe’s strategic autonomy in key areas, a shifting global order and the pressure being put on our democracies by, for example, disinformation are all issues we must meet head-on.

We are determined to do just that. Our citizens are looking to Europe for answers; we must be transparent in how we are providing those answers.

The Commission’s reaction to the crisis has been swift and comprehensive. We have worked closely with the Member States to tackle the COVID-19 outbreak on all fronts – to protect the health and safety of citizens; to support health systems and workers; to maintain the flow of goods; and to save jobs and businesses.

Drawing lessons from this crisis – and what it means for the future of Europe – will be key in the coming months. I believe that a more resilient, more sustainable and fairer Europe can emerge from the pandemic.

For this, citizens must remain at the centre of our efforts. We must engage with them and ensure their voices are heard.

An integral part of this will be to ensure that we do not let up when it comes to social issues. All the social priorities of our original 2020 Commission Work Programme are under preparation as initially planned in the new version, which has been adapted and reassessed in a realistic manner in the wake of the Covid-19 crisis.

I believe this is of critical importance – our recovery must build on solidarity, be socially just, and leave no one behind. We need to avoid increasing the gap between regions and people. This is especially true as the green and digital transition speeds up due to the Covid-19 crisis.

So there is a need to protect and improve social and living standards in Europe, something which is clearly reflected in the report being launched today, ‘What is the European Dream?’ Allow me at this point to thank the FEPS for producing this fascinating and insightful – and coincidentally extremely timely – study.

It underlines the value of a strong and socially responsible Europe – the fact that Europeans still consider this the best place in the world to live is proof that we are on the right track.

It also illustrates how important the fundamental rights, which form the building blocks of the Union – democracy, equality and solidarity – are to Europeans. And Europeans want – and deserve – a greater say in political decision-making.

At the same time, the report highlights the concern for the future felt by many respondents, with only one in four believing that future generations will have a better life than their own.

This brings home the need to engage more closely with citizens when it comes to planning for a better future – all the more so with millions of us confined and with an unprecedented recession looming.

Our main focus in this area is of course the upcoming Conference on the Future of Europe, which this report will play into. The core idea of this pan-European exercise in democracy remains intact: strengthening the link between European citizens and the institutions beyond the European elections, and giving people a greater say on what Europe does for them. It can help to bolster trust and solidarity in the post-Covid-19 world.

Your valuable experience in undertaking the European Dream Project will, I am sure, prove very useful, and we want to learn from your best practises and get to know your ideas on how to make the Conference the ideal forum for our citizens, as we embark on our post-pandemic path to recovery.

Our commitment to the Conference remains unshakeable. With regards to its timing, it should start as soon as circumstances allow. But remember that any decision on an exact launch date must be a joint decision by the European Parliament, Council and Commission. The three institutions will have to agree on a Joint Declaration setting out the timing, scope and objectives of the Conference. The European Parliament and the Commission have adopted mandates to negotiate the Joint Declaration, although the Council has not yet done so due to the Covid-19 outbreak.

Certainly, the Commission believes that we need to put in place a lean and workable governance structure for the Conference, with national parliaments playing a key role, and with gender and institutional balance. On a practical level, we are exploring ways to set up a multilingual digital platform that would allow citizens’ debates to take place online across the EU and would provide easy access to the Conference, its documents and materials. To help make the Conference recognisable to all citizens, we should also create a common Conference identity, including visually.

This will help us ensure that European citizens from all walks of life play a significant role in the Conference. The future of our planet, the future of our work, the future of ageing, including the intergenerational fallout of the Covid-19 crisis are among the issues I think we can explore. But it is equally important that we then make best use of their feedback in the policy-making process, either through political initiatives or by legislative action if appropriate. Demonstrating to citizens the direct effect they have had on European policy-making should also be a priority to boost their trust in public institutions.

In this way, we can start to shape the European Union of tomorrow, by harnessing the vision of Europeans today. Europe has always been a continent of dreamers; each time we are faced with hardship, our hopes for the future are what drives us to rebuild, bigger and better than before. As we slowly overcome the challenges thrown up by Covid-19, we should embrace the challenges that lie ahead.

Thank you.