Spinelli’s mirror: ‘Aiming for the possible to achieve what seems impossible’

Your Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen,

I want to thank our Italian hosts for organising this timely event. You’ve brought together a group of countries with a special responsibility. The responsibility to ensure that the European Union provides the right answers to the key questions on our citizens’ minds.

Speaking on behalf of the current Council presidency, I’m tempted to jump right into the here and now of the European policy agenda. There are many urgent problems to discuss! But in such a setting − in this beautiful city − it would be a pity to gloss over the rich history of European cooperation. Especially since dealing with today’s issues requires us to understand which of those issues are echoes from the past, and which ones sound new. We need the same spirit of cooperation that guided our predecessors. Even if we can’t always apply the same solutions.

Almost 60 years ago, the massive challenges facing the European continent required brave captains to weather the storms. Memories of two devastating wars were fresh. And totalitarianism was a clear and present danger. Boldly, the European Union’s founding fathers founding fathers decided that mutual cooperation was the only viable way forward. Here in Rome, they initiated the strongest form of international cooperation the world had ever seen, to confront the biggest challenges known to Europe.

The founding fathers’ instincts proved correct. The European Communities brought millions of people peace, prosperity and freedom.

But European cooperation didn’t take its final form in Rome. It continues to evolve to this day. Nor did Italy’s role in shaping Europe’s future end in 1957. I’m reminded of the great Altiero Spinelli, born in this city 50 years before the famous treaty was signed. Spinelli of course was a staunch European federalist. Perhaps the ultimate European federalist. He was fond of quoting Max Weber’s adagio: ‘aim for the impossible to achieve what is possible’.

And that’s exactly what Spinelli accomplished. He drafted a de facto constitution for a federal Europe. While this never actually materialised, his efforts did pave the way for the Single European Act, and later on the European Union. Indeed, his initiative − adopted in 1984 by the European Parliament − was named the Draft Treaty establishing the European Union.

The EU of 2016 may not be quite how Spinelli imagined it in the early 1980s – but without him, it wouldn’t have come about. (Incidentally, Altiero Spinelli taught at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Bologna, which would later become my alma mater.)

Now − almost 60 years after the Treaty of Rome − Europe’s vantage point is very different. War among countries in the European Union has become a distant memory and an unlikely scenario. Today’s storms are of a different nature. But make no mistake: they threaten to uproot much of the progress Europe has made over the past half century. Consider the challenges we face:

The number of people displaced by war and persecution is at its highest since the Second World War. There are now at least 60 million displaced persons in the world, many of whom have fled the instable regions on Europe’s flanks. The migration crisis has caused tension within our societies, as well as between member states, challenging our common goals and values.

Terrorism, most recently in Brussels, threatens open societies across Europe – and beyond. The attacks show how interwoven internal and external security are. The safety of our citizens, the first duty of the state, depends on stability abroad.

The Eurozone is recovering from the deepest economic recession since the 1930s. And while we’ve rediscovered the path to growth, unemployment is still unacceptably high.

As in the 1950s, no single country can hope to solve these problems on its own. To address them, we need the spirit and drive embodied in the Treaty of Rome. That is the echo I recognise.

But there are also newer sounds, which we must listen to and understand. Support for European cooperation is not a given anymore. The benefits it provides – like prosperity, peace and freedom − are taken for granted. And as European integration approaches the last vestiges of the member states’ national sovereignty, the issues on which we differ tend to be inflated. Distrust between member states has grown. And many citizens’ trust in European institutions is alarmingly low.

When Spinelli proposed the idea of a European federation, he could confidently suggest national referendums to endorse it.

But today we’re about to witness a referendum on whether or not to leave the European Union altogether. And last week, my country held its own referendum on the Association Agreement with Ukraine.

Results show a turnout just over the required 30% threshold, with a clear majority of voters rejecting the agreement. If these results are confirmed, we cannot simply proceed to ratification as if nothing happened. The government will deliberate on the public debate and on the outcome of the referendum, and we’ll enter into a discussion with parliament. We’ll also consult very deeply with our European partners and Ukraine, where many obviously are disappointed. The process will take some time, because we need to find a satisfactory solution. At the same time we should not forget the plight of Ukraine and the solidarity Europe has to show.

People don’t accept technocratic solutions. They don’t accept the European Union as a law-making machine. They want to be recognised, acknowledged and heard. They want to exert real influence on policies that affect them. And they want those policies to deliver. If the European Union is to remain legitimate and effective in the long run, it first and foremost needs to offer real solutions to problems in the short run.

The current Trio Presidency believes it is vital to create a European Union that reconnects policies with citizens, and connects member states with each other and with the European institutions.

We also firmly believe that European cooperation rather than conflict is our best bet. The biggest challenges require the strongest cooperation. We need a European Union that delivers. A European Union that fulfils promises and expectations by doing what it says it will do. The worst possible situation is when citizens see our summits and declarations, and have the impression that nothing happens afterwards.

The European Union should be ‘big on the big things’. Let’s focus on urgent political choices instead of on the intricacies of Brussels lawmaking. That’s why migration, terrorism, the single market, energy and climate change form the priorities of the Strategic Agenda and the Trio’s programme. We need more Europe in these areas. And I believe that our citizens not only understand that, but also demand it.

More specifically, let me come back to some of the challenges I’ve already mentioned:

The European Union must start to export stability again, otherwise it will import instability. Migration and terrorism are only symptoms of much broader turmoil. Take Libya, where a power vacuum has given rise to hundreds of militias. Libya’s instability has caused unregulated migration flows and the rise of ISIS and other extremist groups. We need to work in concert to stabilise the situation, which is why our support for the UN-led political dialogue has been crucial. More generally, Europe must get serious about its foreign policy. We fully support High Representative Mogherini’s efforts to draft a Global Strategy. It should be adopted at the highest political level. And it should be followed by a very specific action plan where Italian expertise will be needed.

On migration, the European Union has reached several important deals – think of Valletta, or our agreements with Turkey. By making these deals, we’ve raised confidence in the European Union as the beginning of a problem-solving institution. And in its ability to restore the proper functioning of Schengen. Regaining trust will require unceasing implementation, which has become political. We must all do our share. As regards the agreement with Turkey, all member states should take part in resettlement and relocation by accepting refugees into their societies. We must all fulfil our obligations and pledges. And we must do it swiftly. We all have an interest here. So let’s commit to providing the support that’s needed. Let’s mobilise our joint efforts and our values.

When it comes to terrorism, we will continue to press for the full – and rapid – implementation of the anti-terrorism measures on which the Council has reached a broad consensus. These include better information-sharing between our intelligence services; using the full potential of common databases; tracing and cutting off the financing that enables terrorist acts. But if we want to stop the terrorism of tomorrow, we also need effective preventive measures – both inside and outside the EU.

The single market can help restore trust among member states in each other’s growth. By improving its functioning, and widening its scope, we can help create more and better jobs. The social dimension of the single market requires much more attention. We need to guarantee a level playing field for our workers, and prevent them from being exploited and abused when carrying out their work. By doing so we can serve the interests of all our respective workforces and build a fairer single market. This should be the aim of the Commission’s mobility package.

Ladies and gentlemen,

In these difficult times I believe we should switch around Max Weber’s famous saying. And I hope that Spinelli, who was a true democrat, would agree. We should aim for the possible to achieve what seems impossible. We should aim for a European Union that helps member states uphold the shared values and interests of their citizens in a globalised world. A European Union that shows strength in solidarity and responsibility.

To some, that would seem impossible. In previous crises, critics have predicted the imminent demise of the European Union – but they’ve always been proven wrong. Europe will move forward through pragmatism and perseverance, rather than impatience and ideology. But it cannot move forward unless it meets the needs of its people.

I’m not a federalist. I’m not a nationalist. I’m a Dutch European. I believe strong member states make a strong European Union. I believe stronger member states will make a stronger European Union tomorrow.

It’s true that in 23 out of 28 member states, trust in national institutions is lower than trust in European institutions. But just as you can’t fix a building’s foundations by adding another floor on top, we can’t fix a problem of national governance by calling only for new governance from Brussels. The quality of national institutions determines citizens’ trust in European cooperation. And that’s why national governance should also be high on the EU agenda – whether it’s about the rule of law or about the quality of our institutions.

So now is not the time to enter into another internal reflection process and think about a great leap forward. Let’s instead make sure the European Union does more of the big things, and fewer of the smaller things. Let’s make sure it can anticipate, rather than merely react. Let’s improve our institutions at home so that we also can restore trust in European cooperation. Now is the time to achieve results. By doing what we’ve promised. I hope that today we can all reach a consensus – so that Rome once again becomes the setting of a new chapter in European cooperation.

Thank you.