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Speech of the President of the European Parliament, Martin Schulz, at the European Council of 20 October 2016

by October 20, 2016 General

Ladies and gentlemen,

I come with a clear message to you from the European Parliament: acting to stop the bloodshed in Syria should be the number one priority on your list.

We have witnessed with utter dismay the relentless bombing of Aleppo by the Syrian regime with the air support of Russia. Once more, it has shattered the Syrians’ hope of ending the war. Once again, all principles of international law have been breached. Allow me to thank President Hollande for his strong stance against any impunity for those involved in war crimes. The European Parliament calls for consequences and accountability for those guilty of committing war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Russia and the Assad regime must stop all attacks targeting civilians, civilian infrastructure and medical facilities, and must take credible and immediate steps for cessation of hostilities and allow unhindered access for humanitarian agencies to reach all people in need. The EU emergency humanitarian initiative for Aleppo is of course welcome but it will amount to little if access for humanitarian aid deliveries and medical evacuations is denied.

Although the Russian leadership continues to control the military ground in Syria it is increasingly becoming isolated both diplomatically and morally. Russian leaders therefore have a responsibility to take steps to restore credibility and confidence in line with their international role as a Member of the United Nations Security Council. The EU must always keep the door open to bring them back to the negotiating table.  And for this we must use all available leverage. 

In Syria as well as in Ukraine, Russia is the one maintaining the painful status quo. It is Russia which is challenging the global security architecture and the established principles of international law.

And it is only through a strong European policy, by keeping EU sanctions concerning actions against Ukraine’s territorial integrity that we can hope to achieve respect by Russia of its commitments under the 2015 Minsk agreement.

The credibility of EU foreign policy is at stake.

We expect full respect of the ceasefire in force since 31 August, a disarmament of all illegal groups and a restoration of control of the state border to the Ukrainian government.

Russia should focus on these points rather than contesting the damning report from the Dutch investigation into the crash of flight MH17 in 2014.

Ukraine also has its part to play, in particular in reforming the constitution and the electoral law, and on decentralisation. I add that an effective fight against corruption and a comprehensive reform of the judiciary are more than ever needed. Ukrainian citizens want peace, but they also expect the rule of law. And with these reforms, the EU should agree as soon as possible on visa liberalisation with Ukraine. This will be a strong message of support sent to Ukraine, a concrete message to its citizens.

Ladies and gentlemen,

There is another key reason to maintain sanctions which is the lack of progress in Crimea. Since its annexation by Russia, human rights are being increasingly violated over there, in particular those of the Tatars. On 18 September, Russian legislative elections produced seven “Members” of the Duma from Crimea. The EU should continue its policy of non-recognition and keep the situation in Crimea high on its agenda in every international setting in which Russia participates.

Implementation of the sanctions policy is a matter for all EU institutions and a test of their credibility.

Our official interparliamentary relations with, and missions to, Russia are frozen and the EP stands ready to define further this policy together with the other institutions.

Lastly, I believe that we can’t discuss EU-Russia relations without taking into account the propagandists and cheerleaders of President Putin, populists who are operating on both sides of the Atlantic, including within the Institution which I preside. They cooperate across borders, practically and financially, yet they insist that our citizens and societies must retreat and cower in fear behind closed borders and walls.

Let me tell you this: an overwhelming majority in the European Parliament will never accept that our values and way of life, as you put it recently President Tusk, our liberal democracies, are sacrificed in this way!

Rather than undermining the international legal order and humanitarian instruments, we should be more determined than ever in promoting multilateralism. On behalf of the European Parliament, I congratulate Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon on his achievements in this fight and know that his successor will continue with the same determination.

Ladies and gentlemen,

A comprehensive debate on trade issues is timely.

Who would have thought ten years ago that trade issues would be such a lightning rod of public concern as they are today?

Globalisation is increasingly being seen, not as opening up a world of opportunities, but as causing a race to the bottom and eroding our core values. It is now perceived by many as a threat to jobs, food standards, public services and social systems.

These fears fuel a negative attitude towards trade agreements, and in particular the two big transatlantic trade deals on the table.

The privately organised system of investment dispute settlement was a core concern of civil society, trade unions and local communities. Several governments and the Commission understood this and came with a balanced solution, called the Investment Court System.

In an unprecedented step, Canada agreed, after the closure of the negotiations, to include this Investment Court System in CETA. Canada was also willing to address other EU concerns in an additional declaration to the agreement. Therefore, we now have a CETA agreement that can be the standard for ongoing and upcoming talks with our partners around the world.

Nobody would understand if it were not possible now, after so many efforts, to reach an agreement. The European Parliament expects solutions to be found urgently so that the EU and Canada can sign CETA and the European Parliament can swiftly launch its procedures for granting consent.

Of course I cannot pre-empt the outcome of our vote, but I think CETA in its current form has the potential to muster a clear majority within the European Parliament.

It also seems appropriate that those parts of CETA which the EU legislator considers to be under exclusive EU competence be applied provisionally following the European Parliament’s consent. And once the Court of Justice issues its Opinion on the Singapore Free Trade Agreement, we will have more clarity from the legal perspective on the dividing line between EU and national competence.

On the other hand, talks with the United States have developed differently. Our partner has not yet shown much willingness to include the new investment chapter in TTIP and other European concerns also seemed to meet with a lukewarm reaction. Core European interests such as the protection of agricultural geographic indications, the liberalisation of public procurement or transport services are not properly taken into account.

At this point in time, it is therefore clear that the TTIP negotiations will not be concluded soon.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Trade policy should not only be about lowering tariffs and reducing barriers, but also about ensuring a level playing-field and preventing unfair competition. This problem is particularly pressing for some third countries. For example, we all know that a level playing-field with China does not exist in several sectors, for instance the steel industry.

As President Juncker rightly put it in his speech on the State of the Union, with broad support in the European Parliament, we should not be “naïve free traders”. Common solutions are always best, but we need to keep up a sufficient level of trade defence to forcefully protect our markets from dumping and other unfair practices. The reform of Trade Defence Instruments has been pending in Council for too long. I remind you that the proposal was presented in 2013 and that the European Parliament issued its position in 2014. We urgently need a modernised set of rules on a par with other world powers – more transparent, more predictable, more accessible to SMEs and, above all, faster and more dissuasive.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Allow me to make a few comments on trade policy in general.

You decided as Member States when you signed the Lisbon Treaty to upgrade the Common Commercial Policy into a genuine Community policy. This was intended to reinforce the Union’s position as a strong trading partner speaking with a single voice.

Now, in the light of public debates in some Member States, there are accusations that the Union is interfering in their affairs.

Such an incoherence is perhaps understandable from a domestic political point of view, but as President of the European Parliament I must say that it is extremely risky for the future of EU trade policy.

In addition, international agreements between the EU and other parts of the world receive for those parts under exclusive competence their necessary democratic legitimacy through the in-depth scrutiny from day one until the final vote of consent in the European Parliament.

It is only natural that national Parliaments take a close interest in the EU’s trade policy. The European Parliament supports these national Parliaments in their efforts to ensure their governments are fully scrutinised at the moment when they decide on the negotiating mandate for these trade agreements.

Member States which have voted unanimously in favour of a given mandate for trade negotiations should not then hide behind the Union or the Commission. They should on the contrary agree to systematically publish these mandates. They should come out and defend before their citizens what they voted for and be open about their convictions and goals.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Trade has become one of the most debated and controversial issues of today’s politics, and not just in Europe.

Yet, I feel there is much confusion on this subject.

From my conversations with EU citizens, I am convinced that Europeans do not fear free trade: they fear unfair trade.

If only we can compete on a level playing-field, we have in Europe a skilled, dynamic and creative workforce that can compete with anyone in the world!

What European citizens fear is a world where international labour standards are trampled, where trade unions are outlawed, where taxes are evaded, where inequality is always on the rise, where currencies are manipulated and exports dumped.

It is therefore our duty to allay those fears and to show European citizens that we can shape globalisation and not be overwhelmed by it. If we don’t act now, international rules will be set by others.

Ladies and gentlemen,

The European Parliament welcomes the launch two weeks ago of the European Border and Coastguard. That it has taken only nine months to get from a proposal to a published legislative text and to implementation is no small achievement. We welcome the strong commitment of the Slovak Presidency to focus on making it operational over the next weeks.

To properly manage the refugee and migration crisis, solidarity is needed at many levels:

Solidarity with the refugees in keeping with our fundamental values – for example the Italian navy saving lives at sea every day;

Solidarity with third countries hosting many more refugees than we do – for example through the Fund for Refugees in Turkey;

Solidarity at the external border – such as the recent assistance provided to Bulgaria, or the equipment and staff to be provided to the rapid reaction pool of the European Border and Coastguard;

Solidarity with the countries at the frontline – in particular Italy, Greece and Bulgaria – and this means financing, equipment and personnel at the hotspots. The ongoing shortage of EU experts deployed in Greece to EASO be it for relocation or for the implementation of the EU-Turkey statement needs your urgent attention,

Solidarity by applying legally-binding decisions on relocation and the implementing all parts of the EU-Turkey statement;

Solidarity in respecting the common rules, for example on fingerprinting, on jurisdiction, on returns, or on asylum procedures and reception conditions. The reform of the asylum package, including Dublin, must be upgraded to a priority also in the Council;

And of course solidarity with the countries having to integrate refugees.

It cannot be a matter of cherry-picking which of these forms of solidarity is most desirable: à la carte solidarity will lead us into a wall. Whatever we want to call it, what we need is “effective” solidarity, simultaneously and at all levels of EU action on asylum and migration.

There is certainly no reason to congratulate ourselves on the results achieved by the EU in this area. The relatively calm situation on the Aegean Sea is not proof that all is under control. Much work lies ahead and the Union should tackle it with a stronger focus on measured results, freed from unnecessary ideological or terminological debates.

You will also discuss the different migration “compacts” currently being crafted with certain third countries. The European Parliament has many times encouraged this external dimension. It is clear for everyone that Turkey’s situation back in March was urgent and exceptional and cannot be considered a precedent. There is no single blueprint which will fit all countries. What we need is for all institutional actors on the EU side to be working closely together, going beyond national stances, pooling diplomatic efforts and ensuring the democratic scrutiny of such arrangements.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

The European Parliament welcomes the fact that there is now some clarity on the date when the United Kingdom will make its withdrawal notification under Article 50. It would have been a very difficult thing to explain that UK citizens would still elect Members to a new European Parliament in 2019. I take this opportunity to call on you to reach agreement as soon as possible on the Parliament’s proposal from last year to reform the Union’s electoral law so that it can be in place in time for those 2019 elections.

The kick-off date for the withdrawal process is therefore now indicated. However, such an indication is not the same as actually invoking Article 50. The principle of no negotiation without notification still holds until that date. There will be no pre-negotiations before Article 50 is invoked.

Once the UK government has decided what sort relationship it is looking for, the EU will be ready to act.

From day one, the European Parliament must be fully involved in setting the new relationship between the EU and the UK – not least because it must give its consent to any withdrawal treaty and subsequent treaty setting out the full relationship. Treating the EP as an obstacle rather than a partner in this process would therefore be a serious mistake.

I would like to underline to you a few points on which an overwhelming majority in the European Parliament expects you to stand firm when designing the EU’s future relationship with the UK.

Firstly, a very simple principle which must be the basis for all our subsequent work: the best possible deal with the EU is membership of the EU. Any other arrangement necessarily entails trade-offs.

Secondly, the fundamental freedoms are inseparable, i.e. no freedom of movement for goods, capital and services, without free movement of persons. What alienates so many people from today’s Union is precisely the feeling that capital, goods and services have more value than people! I refuse to imagine a Europe where lorries and hedge funds are free to cross borders but citizens are not.

Thirdly, we need the UK and the EU to continue to project their core values on human rights, democracy and the rule of law towards other continental blocs.

Fourthly, in the fields of security and defence policy, although the EU loses a key Member State, such a separation should give the necessary impulse for closer integration.

Finally, over the coming months and years, good faith and perseverance should be the watchwords. The United Kingdom remains fully part of the EU until it withdraws. Its views and right to vote are respected as before. But the context of that country having a foot out of the door cannot be ignored. If Britain wants out then it should not prevent the Union from tackling the existential challenges it faces and it should show understanding that others may want to deepen their cooperation in certain areas.

Ladies and gentlemen,

The process of withdrawal from the EU is already taking up much of the UK’s and the EU’s time and energy.  The EU needs to find a model whereby Brexit, rather than being a permanent distraction, is instead used as the catalyst for a reform process designed to ensure that, where the Union has a power to act, it also has the corresponding tools to deliver effective policy.

Ladies and gentlemen,

When the Commission President delivered his State of the Union speech in the European Parliament in Strasbourg, looking back at one of the most dramatic years in our recent history, he delivered a speech of hope and proposed a positive agenda of actions for the next months, for example on the digital economy.

The European Parliament is delighted that the Heads of State and Government gathered last month in Bratislava took the unprecedented step of expressly welcoming that speech.

We are ready for this challenge and will work intensively to shape these proposals. The Community method is the tried and tested way to produce results which draw the full potential from the current treaties.

In the EU today there are too many naysayers and too few committed to working on concrete proposals. Let’s set this right!

Thank you for your attention.