Speech by Prime Minister Mark Rutte at the BUSINESSEUROPE Council of Presidents meeting, Peace Palace in The Hague
Ladies and gentlemen,
Welcome to The Hague, the city where I was born and still live today. And welcome to the Peace Palace, a very special and symbolic building. I first came here with my father as a young boy and it made a big impression on me. The Peace Palace is much more than bricks and mortar. It embodies the dream of world peace and justice. A naïve dream, sceptics will say. Because its opening in 1913 was followed by a century of bloody conflicts. But the fact that the International Court of Justice and the Permanent Court of Arbitration are housed here shows that it was not a naïve dream. It shows how much we've achieved over the past hundred years. The Peace Palace has become an icon of The Hague, the international city of peace and justice.
Similar ideals led to the formation of the European Union. One Europe, in which countries work together instead of waging war. Its founders were right: economic cooperation and common interests unite people. So much so that, many Europeans now take peace and freedom for granted. Paradoxically, this may be a key reason why there's so much criticism of the EU in many countries. The goal of preventing another war is not enough for the younger generation. The EU needs to prove its worth by showing results. Because many of today's problems can only be solved at European level.
Take the influx of refugees, which in recent months has been a severe test for Europe. We've worked hard at every level to bring the problem under control. By tackling the root causes in Syria itself. By establishing hotspots in Greece and elsewhere. By controlling the external borders through Frontex. And of course through the agreement with Turkey. This agreement wasn't easy to reach, and we will need to keep working hard to implement it. But the initial results are promising: the flow of refugees from Turkey has slowed significantly. This means that 'Schengen' can remain intact, borders can stay open and free enterprise can continue.
With the terror attacks in Brussels still fresh in our minds, fighting terrorism is another key priority. Here too, progress has recently been made. For example, member states have agreed to improve information-sharing and set up a system for exchanging passenger information at European level. These are vital steps in the fight against terrorism.
During BUSINESSEUROPE Day in March, I spoke about the vital importance of the single market. And the obstacles and opportunities. I also spoke about the Dutch Presidency's plans to give the single market a major boost. The refugee crisis and the attacks in Brussels have not made European economic cooperation any less important. But we do now have a lot more balls in the air at once. Today, I'd like to explain where we stand in our plans to take the single market to the next level. We've made major progress on the Single Market Agenda, which sets out the current plans in detail. And we'll continue our efforts in the run-up to the European Council in June.
Let's not forget, ladies and gentlemen, that this continent is still emerging from one of the worst economic crises in its history. Economic growth is still sluggish, far too many Europeans are still jobless, and all too often businesses wanting to expand look to the innovation climate in the US and Asia rather than Europe.
To put it simply: the single market has brought huge gains. But it has much more to offer if we remove the obstacles and harvest its full potential. I've said it before and I'll say it again, because it's worth repeating: the European economy could expand by one-and-a-quarter trillion euros if we complete the single market. That's twice the Dutch national income. And this growth could be repeated year after year. That's the key to more prosperity, growth and jobs for Europeans.
There's no shortage of good ideas in Europe. This was shown by the special TEDx meeting on 'Ideas from Europe' which was held in March in The Hague. Twelve inspiring people from different EU member states, with twelve wonderful ideas, addressed the audience. And demonstrated Europe's capacity for innovation. I'd like to single out Gerhard Dust from Germany. He's in his sixties - so it's clearly wrong to associate start-ups only with young, up-and-coming talent. I myself am nearly 50, so his success is reassuring to me when I think about my own future after politics.
Mr Dust and his team developed a new type of concrete consisting of 87 per cent sand, a cheap raw material available everywhere. It's used to make large, Lego-like blocks. The idea came to him after seeing the devastation caused by the earthquake in Haiti. After a disaster, anyone can use his technique to build a house within two days. Simple but brilliant. In an interview Mr Dust said: 'To be a start-up in Europe is not as complicated as people think.' Europe is often seen as old and slow, and the US as young and innovative. But Gerhard Dust disagrees. And I think he's right. It's the image of our continent that needs changing. A unique selling point and major pull factor for talent is the quality of life in Europe. For example, six of the ten countries with the highest human development index are European. And in the latest 'quality of living' rankings, seven European cities are among the top ten most liveable cities. People love to live and work here. Now we need to make enterprise even easier. By eliminating more unnecessary obstacles.
For one thing, we need to make it far easier to do business across borders. In practice, there are still too many barriers. For instance, construction companies have to deal with no less than 115 EU directives and regulations. And a Dutch entrepreneur who wanted to sell a screw online in Germany recently told me that he was immediately confronted by a bunch of lawyers because of the laws there. Of course we can't get rid of all these rules overnight. But we can certainly make things clearer. The Single Digital Gateway provides companies with quick and easy access to all relevant information about rules and procedures in different member states and the EU.
Providing services across borders is also far too complicated. We want to solve this by introducing a services passport. This will enable entrepreneurs to cross borders with their products without going through endless red tape or having to adjust their business models.
There are major opportunities, not least in the electricity market. The ambitious climate goals, the 2030 targets and the Paris climate agreement all demand fundamental changes in this field. For example, homes and businesses should increasingly be producing electricity as well as consuming it. Changes in the energy market are making it possible for consumers and companies to keep their energy bills affordable, establish new business models and maintain our competitiveness with the rest of the world.
And what about the digital market? If we remove the obstacles to e-commerce, we could generate 204 billion euros a year. That's why Europe has put together a policy package, including a proposal for a simpler VAT declaration system. We're also improving the infrastructure required for a well-functioning, fast-paced digital economy by overhauling EU telecom rules.
So there are plenty of plans. We now need to implement them. It's time to switch to top gear. Hence the Single Market Agenda. An agenda that sets out how to realise the overarching ambitions and proposals that the European Commission and the European Council have formulated in recent years. It includes plans that will quickly enhance the single market for goods and services across Europe. The deadlines will be met only if all the EU institutions and member states make a concerted effort.
In other words, our aim is to make the single market a top priority and to set specific, realistic goals for the agenda. We aim to launch it at the European Council meeting in June.
In the meantime, I'd like to ask you to share your ideas. What obstacles do you run up against when doing business across borders? How can we further modernise our market? And where do you see the biggest opportunities?
Together we can unlock a true single market, which will create jobs and enrich the lives of EU citizens. Together we can show them the European Union's positive impact on our everyday lives. Let's build on the dreams and ideals that led to the construction of the Peace Palace.
Thank you and enjoy your meal.