This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government
A speech delivered by the Minister for Europe in Budapest on 12 July 2010
Thank you to the MFA for agreeing to allow us to use this venue and Mr Odor for chairing our meeting today.
It is a privilege to be here in Budapest, in this hall on the banks of the Danube - or should I say the Duna - and to have the chance to speak with such an informed audience about the Europe policy of the new UK government.
I understand that you have a saying here, and if you will forgive my pronunciation, “Sok viz lefolyt azota a Dunan” which I understand means a lot of time has passed and a lot of things have happened . This is certainly true of my country. And of Hungary.
I’m very pleased to have this opportunity to come here well in advance of Hungary’s Presidency of the EU in 2011- to discuss your aims and your objectives for the near future and how our two countries might work together to achieve them.
And being so close to the river Danube, it’s hard not to reflect on history. As somebody who both studied History at university and remains an enthusiastic reader of history in the time my schedule allow, I don’t need much prompting to do so.
The Danube is something special. It has always been an important waterway for Europe, and the peoples of Europe, before nation states existed. Today it still links the countries of Europe in a tangible, physical way. It flows past four European capitals - including of course Budapest- and through ten countries before reaching the Black Sea.
And it is a telling illustration of the transformation that we have seen in Europe over the last 10 years to recall that less than a decade ago, only two of the 10 countries on the Danube’s course were EU member states. And today five are members, and we hope that figure will grow again as both candidate countries and aspirant members meet the criteria for entry.
The European Union has recognised the importance of the Danube with its development of the European Danube Strategy. And I hope that we will be able to see the strategy - with all the advantages that that will bring for this region - approved during Hungary’s time in the chair of the Presidency.
It seems to me that initiatives of this sort build on the best instincts of the EU, because they are not some centralised top down plan imposed on people. Rather they stem from the initiative of like-minded people.
UK’s European Policy
Like Hungary the new UK Coalition Government is focussed on delivering value for our people from our membership of the EU. That focus is part of a different and distinctive new British approach to foreign policy. An approach, that recognises just how networked the world has become - and recognises too that any country looking to champion its interests successfully has got to engage on a global scale.
Our membership of the European Union is an essential part of that global engagement. The Foreign Secretary William Hague was making clear even before the general election that a new government would take an active and energetic approach to the EU.
And I think we’ve done just that. From Prime Minister David Cameron down, we have been busy meeting our counterparts in Europe and holding substantive discussions on some of the serious challenges which we jointly face.
The Foreign Secretary William Hague had a useful meeting with Foreign Minister Martonyi when he was in Sarajevo in June for the Western Balkans meeting. Today I’ve already had full and comprehensive discussions with Minister Martonyi and with State Secretary designate Eniko Gyori. I’ll be meeting State Secretary for Defence Simicsko and the Chairmen of the Foreign Affairs and Hungarians Living Abroad Committee and the European Affairs Committee of the Hungarian Parliament.
But we’ve not in London just been focussing on the larger countries of Europe. The new government, of which I am a member, of does not recognise the distinction between so- called old and new Member States. Quite the contrary, we see such artificial distinctions as alien to the sort of union we want to take shape. We want to build alliances with all countries and engage with regional networks, such as the Visegrad 4, across a range of issues on which we share common goals and common objectives.
Now of course, one of the most distinctive features of the new British government is that it is a coalition between two parties: the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats. I know that many other European countries have a long tradition of coalition governments - but this is the first we’ve had in the UK since 1945 - and the first peace time coalition since the 1930s. So quite an exciting experiment. Certainly for thepoliticians involved. And also for the people.
Despite the two coalition parties having traditionally approached the EU from somewhat different perspectives - it was, in fact, not difficult to find agreement on the fundamentals of our approach.
The Coalition’s Programme for Government contains a specific section on European policy. It commits this government to playing a leading role in an enlarged Europe, and to taking measures to ensure that future decisions on Europe reflect the will of the British public.
As the Prime Minister said in Brussels after last month’s meeting of the EU Council: “There are things we can do at the European level that are important and in Britain’s interests”. For example: our trade with European partners; the access that we have to the EU’s open markets; and ensuring European competitiveness are all vital for British prosperity.
The Coalition also agreed that the EU and its institutions already have all the competences that they need to deliver for member states on the big issues where the EU collectively can add value. So on things like global competitiveness, global warming, global poverty, - what the EU needs more than anything else is the political will to turn policy into action.
So our Programme for Government says that there should be no further transfer of sovereignty or powers from Westminster to Brussels over the course of the next Parliament. It also commits us to introducing legislation to ensure that any proposed future Treaty or Treaty change which did include transfers of power or competences from the UK to the EU would be made subject to a referendum of the British people.
We believe that giving the people of Britain a greater say in what happens in Europe and over the decisions taken by Ministers on their behalf is necessary to deal with the democratic disconnect that has developed between the people of my country and EU institutions in recent years. And if we are honest with ourselves its not just an issue in UK. Results of referendums in France, Netherlands and Ireland show this is something experienced in different Member States. In the latest Euro-barometer results, collected in 2009, only 23% of the Btirish public were prepared to say they trusted the EU and only 36%, just over one-third, thought UK membership was a good thing.
The legitimacy of the EU derives ultimately from the people who live in its member states. And giving those people a direct say on any future transfer of power from the UK to European institutions is therefore, in my view, essential to ensure long term legitimacy of the EU, and of British membership.
Similarly, we think it important that the EU focuses only on those areas where it is cooperation at European level which genuinely adds value, and that on the contrary the EU should dispense with those activities best left to member states. Doing that effectively and consistently would do a considerable amount to reassure people that the EU can be responsive to their concerns and that it isn’t always seeking to interfere in every corner of national life.
I believe that it’s pretty hard, to argue persuasively that there needs to be regulation at European level over the hours that doctors work in every member state. That type of regulation discredits everyone when it has an adverse affect on public services -and in this case, patient care.
**But as important as these issues are, the most immediate and the most pressing issue for the EU to focus on at the moment is - of course - the economy.
If the economies of Europe are to thrive and prosper in the future, we must ensure they remain competitive and open for business.
If we look back at the past 10 years, China’s growth has averaged 9.9% a year - with India’s not far behind at 7%. During that same ten years, growth in the EU came out at just 1.7%. We can’t simply just shrug our shoulders and accept that level of disparity. Not unless we’re prepared to condemn future generations to a lifetime of poorer standards and lower aspirations that we have ourselves.
Europe has huge advantages: some of the world’s most highly skilled workers, operating for the most technologically advanced companies, and within the world’s largest single market. We need to build on these advantages to promote growth and to remain competitive.
So I think the first thing European governments need to do is take steps to reduce national deficits. One of the first actions of the new British Government was to embark on a sustained programme of deficit reduction as part of a wider programme of national economic reform.
The emergency budget which our Finance Minister, George Osborne, announced in June outlined the measures we will take to achieve this. It requires us to take some very difficult decisions over both taxation and spending. But have to do this if we are to deliver the growth and jobs that are vital for our economic well being.
And I know that the Hungarian government too has recently announced its own economic action programme, and that includes tough measures that enable Hungary to meet its budget deficit targets. Throughout Europe other Governments are of course taking their own measures to ensure their national economies are fit for the future. But I believe there are also steps which the EU as a whole needs to take.
If we look at the world beyond the immediate financial crisis, grave though it is, we see the competitiveness of the EU having been eroded compared to the Far East, Gulf States, or Latin America. If we simply accept that then we condemn future generations to lower living standards. So what is it that the EU should do in response to that challenge?
First the countries of Europe must act to promote growth and jobs. We believe strengthening the Single Market is the best way to achieve this and we will push hard for its extension.
We are going to argue for better regulation to lighten the burdens on business and breakdown the barriers for commerce in Europe - and also for the EU to seize every opportunity to create fairer and freer trade between the EU and third countries. Free trade has been one of the greatest successes of the European Union - and there are further benefits still to be won.
Within the Single Market we can see real opportunities to boost growth by opening up further the energy and services sectors, developing a single market on the digital economy and by moving forward on European patent law that makes a positive difference to EU businesses. Mario Monti’s recent report on re-launching the Single Market contained many good proposals: and we should look to build on these.
Of course, much of the EU’s future growth is likely to be found in trade with the emerging economies all around the world - so the British Government is going to work to encourage greater economic and political engagement between the EU and the world’s rising economic and political powers.
Many of these ideas are contained in the new Europe 2020 strategy for economic growth that EU heads of state agreed at this month’s European Council. It’s a strategy that rightly focuses on jobs; on smart and sustainable inclusive growth through boosting competitiveness; on productivity; and on growth potential.
It focuses on many of the right priorities. But if we are brutally honest with ourselves we have to admit that we have seen European strategies come and go in the past with far too few concrete results. It is vital that this one actually does deliver. We have to show our peoples that the EU can make progress on what really matters to them - jobs and growth.
And we simply can’t afford to see Europe 2020 simply languish as a fine declaration on the Commission’s websites as some aspirational document that never actually leads anywhere.
As we all know, the most pressing and immediate issue facing the European Union is the crisis in the Eurozone.
And I should spell out clearly where the British Government is coming from. We are not going to join the Euro - but we do want the Euro zone to do well. Its members are some of our closest friends and allies and 40% of our exports go to countries that use the Euro. So it is clearly in our national interest to support efforts to see the Eurozone more stable and more capable of dealing with the difficulties which it faces.
More broadly, we know that the EU is at its best when it delivers tangible economic benefits to its citizens. The EU should capitalise on its position as the world’s largest multi-lateral trading bloc. As a trading area, the EU is larger than the US and Japan combined. And we need to take full advantage of the opportunities that this brings for both European businesses and for European consumers.
So we’re clear that the countries of the EU should act to ensure the Union is economically stable and prosperous. That’s right in itself, but is also necessary as it is through our economic strength we will build our global political influence.
Outward Facing EU
For the EU, when it comes together in the right way, can tackle global problems like climate change, the scourge of poverty or nuclear proliferation.
And it is crucial for our collective interests that the EU’s member states have some say on issues as important as these. This British Government simply does not accept that the rise of emerging powers like China and India mean that European nations must accept a corresponding drop in their own global influence.
Our common interests are served when the nations of the EU use their collective weight in the world to promote our shared interests and shared values. But to achieve this is going to take a greater determination and also a greater consistency of effort over the delivery of our key foreign policy goals than we have previously shown.
Now, as the famous Hungarian inventor of the Rubik’s Cube once said “our whole life is solving puzzles”. Here in a hall surrounded by foreign affairs practitioners, I’m sure that’s a statement that rings true.
But I hope that -another feature of the Rubik’s cube isn’t quite so universal - because I seem to remember - in Britain at least - that one of the marketing lines that came with the cube in the 80’s said that there was only 1 correct answer - but there were 43 quintillion wrong ones!
It sometimes feels like that when we try to tackle these global problems. But we can and must work together to find ways forward.
We want EU member states to show leadership in tackling international climate change. Britain therefore supports an increase in the EU’s emissions reduction targets from 20 to 30 % without waiting for comparable offers from other countries. The EU can show leadership globally by making progress on delivering climate finance to developing countries; by co-ordinating our outreach to the emerging economies, and by accelerating the transition to a low carbon economy.
Taking that action now is in our interests because it will put us in the position to enable our economies to take full advantage of the new green jobs and growth that are being created, while at the same time are promoting both energy security for Europe and a sustained economic recovery. Green Energy is going to be a part of our futures - and our actions now will dictate the extent to which we benefit in Europe from the switch away from fossil fuels.
But EU member states must also work to find common ground on other important issues - as we did on Iran at the European Council meeting. In London we were pleased with the strong, unequivocal declaration on Iran that was issued. The Iranian nuclear programme is a challenge to every member of the EU and an issue on which the countries of Europe have a strong shared interest.
It is important that we are able to show that our actions can deliver results. We want a diplomatic solution to Iran’s nuclear programme - but part of that means that we must not equivocate if the time comes for the EU to introduce further sanctions.
On development and poverty - we will press to see the EU as a whole meet its commitment to delivering 0.7% of GDP in international development assistance by 2015. Even in difficult times for us, we should be resolute about supporting countries in which being poor is actually life threatening, rather than just about the quality of life.
And on an issue that I know is very important to Hungarians - the British Government is adamant that the EU must not loose sight of the enormous benefits that our enlargement policy has already brought and can bring in the future.
Enlargement has been a remarkable and historic achievement for the EU.
Europe has never been as free or as stable as it is today. The policy of enlargement has spread democracy and good governance across Europe. It has shown the EU at its best.
As you will know far better than I - throughout Eastern Europe during the latter part of the 20th century, the EU was the embodiment of the freedoms that were lacking for those enduring life under communism. If I had to single out just one historic achievement of the EU, it would be the way it has entrenched democracy and freedom - in the Iberian Peninsula, in Greece, and here in Central and Eastern Europe.
Now this achievement may sometimes be overlooked by people who thought that joining the EU would bring instant riches. But the democracy, freedom and stability it brings to countries is what will equip us to ensure our countries are able to weather the economic storms that come our way - and to emerge ready to build the growth and jobs of the future.
The British Government believes there are still further benefits to be gained from enlargement -to Turkey and critically to the countries of the Western Balkans - as those countries strive for and eventually meet the criteria for membership.
The prospect of EU membership remains a uniquely powerful force for good in the Western Balkans - a region which - as we saw this weekend - is still scarred by the conflicts of the 1990s. There is a delicate political stability now in place, but it is far from being firmly embedded. As I saw for myself in Macedonia and Kosovo just a short time ago, the prospect of EU (and indeed NATO) membership is seen as an unparalleled opportunity to ensure stability and to enhance prosperity.
Now, to meet the difficult steps set by the EU is going to be tough and will require real political leadership from all countries of the region. The international community needs to sharpen its focus on the Western Balkans by taking an active, determined and results-focused approach.
How the EU responds to the complicated challenges in the Balkans is going to be a defining measure of the EU’s ability and of it’s willingness to be a force for good in the world. If we want people to regard the EU`s common foreign and security policy as something which is meaningful -which is more than an empty decoration - then we have to translate this into progress in the Western Balkans.
Similarly, the British Government is very clear about the benefits of Turkey’s continued progress towards EU membership. These are not just benefits for Turkey, as it strives to meet the membership criteria - but benefits all existing members of the EU.
Turkey is an emerging economy - and with a fast rate of economic growth there are clear gains to be had from having Turkish economic dynamism and it’s geo-political outreach within the European Union.
The UK also believes that the European Union should be proud of its values, its adherence to tolerance, to diversity and to human rights. I know that the Hungarian government has the same view. It’s easy to take these things for granted but this common understanding of our values is something that strengthens the European Union.
Chairman, I’ve covered a wide range of issues this afternoon. I wish I had time to go into greater detail but I wanted to just sketch for you the active and activist approach that the Cameron Government has when it comes to European Policy.
I would like to see the UK and Hungary work together to reap further benefits from EU enlargement. We jointly made a commitment in Europe to the countries of the Balkans and Turkey - that they can join the Union when they have met the criteria. We need to honour that commitment.
We support Hungary’s wish to see Croatia join the Union during your Presidency next year. Now of course much will depend on Croatia’s other actions of course - but that I believe that that goal is attainable and would provide a significant incentive for other Balkans countries to continue making their own progress towards membership. I’d also like to see our two countries work together to assist the eastern neighbourhood through the Eastern Partnership. And in our view the partnership, while valuable in itself, should be seen as a first step to accession.
Hungary and the UK can work more closely together to ensure that our membership brings tangible benefits for our citizens. To see successful collective EU action to promote growth, job creation and the vitality of our economies.
In the new British Government Hungary will find an active partner. There is much that we can do at the European level if member states have the determination to succeed.
And if I can leave, that you with one final thought, I’d like to end with the words of another Hungarian, Peter Munk, who in the 1940s emigrated with his family to live in Canada and ended up starting what became the world’s largest gold mining corporation.
When asked about his success a few years ago, he answered: “Well, I’m not exactly an Einstein - so I compensate by being more focussed”. It’s that sort of focus, that sort of determination, we need at the moment if we are to make progress on our shared objectives.
Thank you for listening and I welcome any questions you wish to ask.