24 OCTOBER 2001

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The future of Europe

Foreign Minister Joe Borg opened the debate on the future of Europe at the University of Malta. Following are extracts from his reflections on the topic

In Malta, and I am sure, in other candidate countries, the debate on the Future of Europe is intimately linked with the prospect of the enlargement of the European Union - the next momentous step in the process of European Integration. Enlargement will allow Malta and the other candidate countries to sit at the table where so many important decisions are taken - including, of course, the shape that the Union will take in the years and decades to come.

Clearly, the debate on the Future of Europe goes beyond enlargement. And candidate countries too have a contribution to make in this sense. Candidate countries too must ask themselves "What kind of European Union do we want to be a part of?". For the first time, candidate countries too can now participate actively and directly in this debate. But I will come back to this point on the participation of candidate countries in a moment.

Let me first dwell on the intrinsic notion of the debate on the Future of Europe.

The ongoing debate on the Future of Europe has been characterized by a discussion of what should be the so-called ‘finalité politique’ of the European Union; that is to say, what final structure should the EU evolve into.

A balance between visionary leadership and pragmatism has been instrumental in allowing the European Union to make the largely significant progress it has made thus far. As the then French Foreign Minister, Robert Schuman put it so well in his much acclaimed speech of 9 May 1950 - now celebrated as Europe Day - "Europe will not be made all at once, or according to a single plan. It will be built through concrete achievements which first create a de facto solidarity." And true to these words, what we now know as the European Union has indeed developed on concrete achievements that were built on a step-by-step approach, using trust among European nations as their foundation.

That same balance between vision and pragmatism should continue to characterize our present efforts towards the development of the Union.

The European Union has developed over the years through a series of successive changes to the founding treaties – a constitutional evolution proper. Having its roots in a community built to foster economic co-operation, it is today an advanced, complex example of integration among states that is a first of its kind in Europe or indeed in the world. The European Union has taken on more and more responsibility to ensure that barriers between states are gradually dismantled allowing for the creation of a space in which like-minded states co-operate and in which citizens move freely, enjoy a high standard of living and benefit from a set of well-defined rights which have as their cornerstone the principle of non-discrimination.

Having taken on the challenge of deepening, the Union has also left its doors open to the prospects of widening as more and more European states have willingly joined the venture of European integration as sovereign, equal members.

Now this process of widening is taking on a dimension that has never been experienced before. Thus far, the largest enlargement that ever took place consisted of the adhesion of no more than three states. Currently the EU is negotiating membership with a staggering twelve countries, most of which, including Malta, have the clear objective of joining the Union as part of the next enlargement.

The debate on the Future of Europe is now proceeding within this context and is engaging us in a discussion of what a Europe of twenty five, thirty countries should look like and how it should operate.

This debate is certainly not new. The future of Europe, the finalité of Europe has always been there even if it has at times been left on the back-burner. It is now an official policy of the European Union, and in particular of the European Council, to bring this matter out into the foreground and to engage interested parties in a meaningful discussion on the matter with a view to taking the necessary action.

The Nice Summit was an important step in this process. For it was in Nice that EU countries settled one of the most sensitive and urgent issues relating to the debate on the future of Europe - the institutional arrangements that should prevail in an enlarged Europe. The Nice decisions therefore set the scene for a new debate as to how the EU should evolve soon after it enlarges to include new members. For indeed, the impact of the contemplated enlargement is such as to justify a more in-depth discussion of what shape the Union of the future should assume - not only from a purely institutional angle but also in terms of the ability of the Union to reflect the concerns and aspirations of its citizens.

So out of Nice was born a decision to also tackle this latter aspect with some vigour. It was felt that the Union had to embark on an exercise which would bring it closer to its citizen – to enable the citizen to comprehend that the Union is not a detached body which negotiates legal treaties and constantly engages in technical details, but that it is a Union which actively seeks the well-being of the citizens.

Apart from setting the scene for this debate, the Nice Summit also set the parameters; the underlying objective being that of bringing Europe closer to its citizens. The intention is to do so through a clearer division of competence between the powers of the EU and those of national governments; through a decision on the status of the Charter of Fundamental Rights that was also proclaimed in Nice; through a simplification of treaties with a view to making them better understood and through a greater involvement of national parliaments in the project of European Integration.

These are the parameters within which the debate on the Future of Europe will be moving. The debate is now on, and will culminate in an inter-governmental conference to be convened in 2004 when the necessary decisions will be taken.

In all Member States and Candidate Countries, national debates have now started, involving the public and all sectors of society. This will allow both the national Governments and the EU Institutions alike to listen to the concerns and aspirations of citizens across Europe about the future of Europe.

The involvement of the candidate states is a crucial and unprecedented feature of the debate.

In Nice, the European Council had decided that the Intergovernmental Conference to be held in 2004 "shall not constitute any form of obstacle or pre-condition to the enlargement process." But more than that, it was declared that "Moreover, those candidate States which have concluded accession negotiations with the Union shall be invited to participate in the Conference."

Since it is Malta’s firm objective to conclude accession negotiations by the end of next year at the latest, in line with the timetable set by the European Council meeting in Gothenburg in June this year, it is clear that Malta hopes to be a full and active participant in the Intergovernmental Conference of 2004.

This puts our country in a position where for the first time we shall be directly involved in the process of shaping the process of EU decision-making and at that, the process of European Integration. In a way, therefore, the debate on the Future of Europe will provide us with a first opportunity to taste what it will be like to experience the rights and obligations that arise out of EU membership. Malta is keen to take on this opportunity and to shoulder the responsibility that comes with it.

Yet, even before the launching of the 2004 Intergovernmental Conference, the debate has already begun. And rightly so. The Laeken Summit of the European Council to be held in December this year is set to agree on the launching of a pre-IGC debate through what shall be known as a "convention". This convention will involve representatives of national governments as well as representatives of EU institutions. And, again, for the first time, this convention too will involve the participation of candidate countries.

Malta is keen to give its contribution, and remains committed to participating effectively in the Convention and to ensuring that, at a local level, the national debate is one which is based on as broad an involvement of the citizen as is possible. Indeed it remains the objective of the Malta Government to participate in the Intergovernmental Conference to be held in 2004 as a country that is a member of the European Union and therefore with full decision-making powers in the decisions that will be taken.

I hope that the Maltese public will take this opportunity to join in the debate. Our citizens are already well versed in the debate on Malta’s membership of the European Union. To say the very least it is a lively and thorough debate. But alongside this debate, we are now being offered an opportunity to participate and to contribute in the much wider debate on the future of Europe itself. It is an opportunity for the Maltese public to voice its views and aspirations about the shape our continent is to take.

This is a unique opportunity and one that I am confident the Maltese public will seize in a fruitful and constructive way.

The Business Times, Network House, Vjal ir-Rihan San Gwann SGN 07
Tel: (356) 382741-3, 382745-6 | Fax: (356) 385075 | e-mail: editorial@networkpublications.com.mt