“If we are to secure a budget commensurate with the challenges facing us, we need to be bold and ambitious,” asserts President of the European Parliament, Antonio Tajani, who came to office in January 2017. “A forward-looking political Europe needs a clear vision and the means to put that vision into practice. We therefore need a political budget endowed with sufficient resources and geared to citizens’ priorities.”
President Tajani’s call comes amid tumultuous changes in geopolitics, socioeconomic inequalities and the humanitarian tragedy of migration which have all put pressure on a European Union struggling to adapt to rapidly evolving developments, with many doubting its ability to pass the test. But, President Tajani stresses that these trials can be met – and overcome – with further investment and an increase in the bloc’s budget.
“It must be stated loud and clear that the figure of 1.1 per cent of the EU’s GDP, which is being proposed, is nowhere near enough. Parliament will therefore exercise its co-decision powers to the full by calling for a figure of 1.3 per cent.” He stresses that this increase “must not come out of the pockets of EU citizens, who already pay too much,” but should be sourced from alternative avenues. “The web giants, banks which engage in speculative financial transactions, companies which pollute our environment with non-biodegradable plastic – they must all pay their fair share,” he emphasises.
President Tajani sees this as key to a stronger Europe, one which places its citizens at the front and centre of all decision-making. “I was elected with a very clear perspective – that of bringing Europe closer to the people,” he asserts. “And, there is only one way to do this, and that is to deliver concrete results on citizens’ expectations. They are concerned with migration flows and security, and consider both to be a priority. They also want Europe to deliver on its promise of prosperity. We must do more.”
He refers to the European Commission’s resolutions, introduced in March, concerning the EU’s long-term budget and its own resources, which included the prioritisation of increased funding for innovation, research, defence and SMEs, as well as the doubling of resources for Erasmus and migration management. “This funding, together with investment in training, is the basis for a competitive industrial policy which will enable us to seize the opportunities offered by the digital revolution. It is also fundamental to increase energy sustainability and security. Defence, security, border control, migration management, the development of Africa, the Western Balkans – all these are crucial challenges which can only be met with the right resources,” President Tajani says. He emphasises the cumulative power of a united EU, in terms of spending power, stating that “one euro spent at EU level has a much greater multiplier effect than one euro spent at national level. If each member state had needed to develop its own GPS or earth observation satellite system, it would have cost 20 times more than Galileo and Copernicus.”
According to President Tajani, this potential can be harnessed to create a Europe which delivers on citizens’ concerns, while adhering to the core values of the bloc. “Only by changing Europe for the better can we respond to the calls of those advocating for the return to borders and fruitless nationalisms. Anyone who advocates a retreat behind national borders is spinning a lie. Anyone who blames European integration for our problems is aiming at the wrong target.” Indeed, the response to these threats, according to President Tajani is “to demonstrate with concrete facts that the citizens are better off with more freedoms, with more choices, with more protection from a Europe which listens to them. In fact, the European Union is part of the solution.”
Brussels needs “to communicate much better the achievements that Europe has already brought towards the citizens, from the freedom to work, study and live in 28 member states, to the wide opportunities for businesses and small enterprises to explore beyond their border, to the safety of products in our markets and a healthier environment. If we manage to do that, then I am sure that citizens will put everything in the balance and choose Europe again, as they did recently in the Netherlands, France and Germany,” he states.
President Tajani sees in Malta proof of the faith invested in these core values of the EU, stating that since accession has been a more recent event “the people of Malta can attest to the beauty of the European project more clearly. Malta can show the way, also thanks to its very high turnout in European elections, demonstrating a direct engagement with the European project.”
This direct engagement includes moving away from unilateralism, in favour of a shared response to the challenges arising from increasing divisions and inflammatory rhetoric. “Walls, borders and nationalism ostensibly offer an illusion of an antidote to a globalisation process in which ordinary people seem to have no say whatsoever. Trump, Brexit and the emergence of authoritarian movements which harp on the importance of sovereignty and populism in Europe are symptoms of this malaise. The only counter to this is policy-makers who are capable of listening and providing effective responses through the work of a strong and cohesive Union.”
According to President Tajani, this also means unity in the face of a humanitarian crisis which has become one of the defining tragedies of our times. “A Europe which is incapable of showing solidarity towards refugees risks losing its soul,” he emphatically states. And, while last month’s EU summit on how to handle irregular immigration may have left many dissatisfied, President Tajani sees collaboration between all member states as imperative to solving the issue and addressing the seeds of dissent fostered by populist politicians.
“We cannot leave states that for geographical reasons are bearing the brunt of international humanitarian crises alone on the front line. All the EU member states, without exception, have a duty to uphold the values which underpin our Union, one of which is that we take in those fleeing war, violence or persecution,” President Tajani stresses. He refers to the Dublin Regulation, which determines which member state is responsible for examining asylum applications, and mentions its overhaul last November, “designed to ensure that European asylum arrangements are based on fairness, solidarity and consistency”.
Addressing disparities between European member states is also a priority for the President of the European Parliament – he refers to the bloc’s Cohesion Policy, which aims to strengthen economic and social cohesion by reducing inequalities between regions. “Cohesion Policy is a tool to bring economic and social progress everywhere in Europe, from capitals to the last village, without leaving anyone behind, in the almost 300 regions of the European Union,” he explains.
President Tajani asserts that “Cohesion Policy is fundamental not to leave anyone behind and counts among the Union’s most important success stories. We must defend this achievement and see that it remains effective.” He points out that this commitment towards greater cohesion between regions has accompanied the Union since its foundation. “Already at the Messina conference, back in 1955, the theme was on the table of the founding fathers. They knew that without the growing cohesion between its territories and its regions, the Union would not have succeeded. Today, the economic and social disparities between our regions are still too big. The differences in competitiveness between territories are still relevant. Today we need more cohesion, not less.”
He refers to the benefits the policy has had on Malta, “having deployed massive investments in infrastructure but also on the social front with investments in schools, higher learning projects like MCAST, and in health as with the oncology centre.”
He also believes that “the provision of certain types of funding should be made conditional on compliance with key principles and on the honouring of undertakings given,” thus linking adherence to the values of the European project with the benefits of membership. “It is unacceptable that some states should ask for solidarity with their most disadvantaged regions and at the same time refuse to show solidarity with the countries which are bearing the brunt of the migration crisis.”
He recognises, however, that the policy may need adapting to current scenarios. “This does not mean that you do not need changes. We need to make Cohesion Policy more effective, easier to use, flexible and less bureaucratic; targeted to the needs of the territories and more directed to strategic investments that look to the future of the new generations,” President Tajani explains.
Attention turns to some of the domestic issues which have been making the headlines in Malta for the past few months. Europe’s smallest member state has been under the spotlight on issues relating to corruption, the rule of law, and freedom of expression, with an MEP delegation travelling to the island to report on their findings.
“The rule of law is the basis of our democracy,” President Tajani asserts. “The European Parliament monitors situations in member states in this regard to see that member states implement the values to which we all subscribed to in the Treaty. It is for this reason that we hold regular debates in plenary with a focus on one or other member state. For this reason, we have also mandated an ad hoc delegation to study the situation and present a report on the rule of law in Malta. Recently, we also set up a working group to examine the respect of the rule of law, with particular attention to Malta. We will keep on monitoring the situation. All member states must respond to the values in the Treaty.”
“The European Union was built to make a difference to ordinary citizens’ lives, and to provide unity in the face of the horror and widespread destruction following the Second World War. And, these values need to be upheld even today, in order to guarantee a conflict-free and prosperous future, according to the President of the European Parliament. “The state of the Union, and the welfare of all the EU citizens in 10 years’ time depends on the decisions we take today. It is only by working together, by speaking with one voice, that the countries of Europe can protect their own citizens. Only a different Europe – one that is more political, more democratic and more firmly based on solidarity – can close the gap between citizens and its institutions,” President Tajani concludes.
The full version of the article appeared in Business Agenda