Address by Prime Minister Mark Rutte of the Netherlands to the European Parliament in Strasbourg
President Schulz, members of the European Parliament,
On 24 June, the morning after the night before, many Europeans woke up feeling pretty dreadful. I was one of them. Clearly, Brexit has created a shockwave, and we don't yet know exactly what the consequences will be. We are in uncharted territory. And we must be honest: even if we find the perfect way to handle this 'divorce', our problems won't simply melt away. It's not only British voters who have doubts about European cooperation. In other member states, too - including the Netherlands - there is widespread criticism and euroscepticism. And we need to address it.
As a representative of the outgoing Presidency of the Council of the European Union, I feel conflicted standing here today. I'm proud of the concrete results we've achieved in the past six months. But of course I'm disappointed by our British friends' decision to leave the EU. It's a decision that creates a big problem both for the citizens of the UK and also for the other member states. It's a decision that shapes a new reality, and we should proceed with all due caution, to minimise the damage to the member states and the British people themselves. It's in everyone's interests to know as soon as possible - as soon as is responsible - how we will move forward. This will demand our full attention in the coming period.
The decision poses a whole range of broader concerns, too. Because this is not simply about a split that many people didn't want. It's also about how Brexit affects the partnership between the other 27 member states. The purpose of the European Union is to tackle issues and seize opportunities that transcend national borders. Issues and opportunities that are too big to tackle alone. The member states all have their own interests, but to a large extent these overlap. These shared interests form the EU's field of activity, and they provide a basis for public support and legitimacy. The EU can make a big difference. That's not a new insight, but it's been reaffirmed for me in the past six months. Because I've seen for myself how cooperation produces results that individual member states could never achieve by themselves.
The most obvious example is of course the EU's agreement with Turkey on managing the flow of refugees from Syria. A lot has been said and written about it in the past few months. And in all honesty, is the agreement ideal in every respect? No. But was it sorely needed? Absolutely.
And it was a deal we could only reach jointly. Because only by acting in concert could we break the criminal business model of the people smugglers. And greatly reduce the number of migrants drowning in the Aegean Sea. (Last January alone the death toll was close to 90. Since the twentieth of March, fewer than ten people have drowned - though that is still ten too many.) Only by acting in concert could we bolster the EU's border-control capability. And only by acting in concert can we put into practice the measures we've agreed on setting up hotspots, improving registration, redistributing refugees among member states and improving the situation in the region. You know as well as I do that implementing all this will be a big challenge. Progress is certainly being made, though. Between March and June almost a hundred thousand classroom places were created for refugee children in Turkey.
Another example of course is the fight against terrorism - a threat that by definition transcends borders and demands an international response. We will never forget the attacks of 22 March, which hit Brussels, and with it the heart of Europe. And last week we were shocked once again by another dreadful attack, this time on Istanbul's airport. And a few days ago Baghdad. In recent months the EU has taken some important decisions. On improving the exchange of information between intelligence services, for example. And on sharing passenger information without compromising privacy. It shows that both our vigilance and our willingness to join forces in this area are increasing. Which is great, because they're absolutely crucial.
So the EU is more than simply the sum of its parts. And of course the best illustration of that is the single market. During the Dutch EU Presidency we worked on the principle that our most urgent problems - like the refugee crisis - should not overshadow our most important ambitions. So we made sure that enhancing the single market remained a priority. Last week, the European Council agreed that all the measures the Commission has planned for the single market must be adopted by the end of 2018 at the latest. And every year in June we will take stock of progress, in all openness. I'm pleased with this new form of self-imposed commitment, which compels us to take action.
You have an important role in this, as members of the European Parliament. Not least as legislators, of course, but also as a champion of the single market. After all, your report on 'the cost of non-Europe' has played a big part in the discussion in recent months. Completing the single market could add an extra 1.25 trillion euros to the EU economy, which would mean millions of new jobs. This argument has proved a convincing one. Besides a deeper internal market we also need a fairer internal market where the principle of equal pay for equal work in the same place applies.
Migration, terrorism, the single market and Brexit: these issues have grabbed the European headlines in recent months. But a lot of work has gone on in other areas, too, both behind the scenes and out in the spotlight. Take the agreement on a common approach to combating tax avoidance by multinationals. Take the progress we've seen on the Fourth Railway Package, national emission ceilings and the EU Action Plan for the Circular Economy. I should add that there are also areas where progress has not been as impressive. Take the trade defence instruments and the Posting of Workers Directive. More could have been done there.
This short summary is perhaps a good example of the way European decision-making works: moving forward in small steps, Schritt für Schritt, with now and then a step back or sideways. The EU is a work in progress, and in principle that's fine. But as I've said: Brexit is a signal - and certainly not the only signal - that change is needed. Indeed, it can't be avoided. And I'm certainly not the first person to say so.
I firmly believe that the worst possible response to Brexit would be for 'Brussels' and the European capitals to continue with business as usual. This would show complete disregard for the reality in the member states.
I also believe it would be wrong to rush blindly forward towards more political integration and a more 'federal' Europe. Because that too would be a denial of the sentiment felt by many European people, to whom the EU is - or has become - something remote and aloof.
When it comes to the issue of 'more' or 'less' Europe, I believe that the only sensible debate is the one about less bureaucracy, red tape and regulation, and more concrete, visible results in terms of prosperity, decent work and security. And having held the Presidency for the past six months, I am well aware that we can't just silence the critics with a magic wand. Building public support takes time and effort.
You may remember me saying in January that the Netherlands wanted a pragmatic Presidency. We wanted to serve the interests of the member states, whose positions should be reflected in all joint decisions. We wanted to move the agenda forward. And we wanted to address the urgent challenges of migration and terrorism.
I hope that this approach has been a visible one, and I hope it has contributed to the results we've achieved together. We don't have much time now to pause and reflect - and not only because of the Brexit situation. We need to implement the Turkey deal. The instability surrounding Europe and the related migration from North Africa demand urgent action. And of course there's still a lot to do on the single market.
And for that reason I hope that the EU - its institutions, member states and particularly citizens - will continue our pragmatic approach. My experiences over the past six months have underlined that we need an EU that delivers. An EU that focuses on the essentials and on issues that transcend borders. An EU that makes and then sticks to agreements. This will be a stronger EU. And one that can grow stronger still.
Ladies and gentlemen,
In closing, I would like to express my thanks to the Commission, to our colleagues in the Council and, not least, to the European Parliament for an outstanding and constructive partnership. It was an honour and a pleasure for us to hold the Presidency, and we wish Slovakia every success for the coming six months.